Communication is key to business success, but this can prove problematic when firms operate across borders. For Global Mobility schemes to become more successful HR professionals have to set about tackling the language skills gap.
As organisations increasingly operate in an international marketplace, the need to have a flexible and mobile workforce is more pressing than ever. More often than not the lack of language and communication skills across the workforce is the major barrier to achieving this. Employees need to be able to communicate easily and fluently with each other, with suppliers and with customers. While these skills are lacking, global HR professionals will struggle with planning for succession and global mobility.
Global HR professionals are keenly aware of this issue. In fact, 98 percent of organisations who responded to the Speexx corporate learning 2015 survey1 agreed that good communications are ‘very important’ or ‘important’ for their overall business success. Yet one in five (21 percent) thought that lack of foreign language skills among employees was a major issue.
One of the reasons that many organisations do not have employees with the language and communication skills necessary for global deployment is that HR managers often assume that employee language skills are better then they are. Employees who may be able to get by in a second language on holiday or in a social setting may struggle to function in the business environment. Workers who have learned a language mainly from books in their home country may need support with pronunciation and diction. In addition, effective communications is not just about being able to speak the language. It is also requires a deep understanding of cultural differences.
Here are seven steps to supporting communications across the global workforce:
1. Start by getting management onside.
Lack of support by management was the single greatest barrier to rolling out global language and communications development cited by respondents to the Speexx survey (27 percent). Management may respond well to an approach to supporting communications that addresses succession planning at management level as this is an issue for many organisations in an ageing society. Technology can help you carry out a wide–scale audit that provides a clear business case for where action needs to be taken.
2. Look to the cloud.
In 2015 only one in five organisations used a cloud-based solution to deliver learning across the globe, while a third (33 percent) of organisations were still using local learning management systems to manage corporate learning. A single unified learning platform that employees can access wherever they are in the world is key to rolling out consistent language and communications learning. Learner data from a centralised learning solution can inform personalised learning delivery for individuals. Data security and privacy issues will not go away but in a mature marketplace there is the technology and the expertise to address them.
3. Set up centralised testing of employee language skills.
If level of skill is accurately assessed, that provides a solid foundation on which to develop capabilities.
4. Go mobile.
Mobile learning platforms are all but essential for a global, mobile workforce. Just over a third of organisations offer mobile learning, according to the Speexx survey, and this figure is steadily increasing. More than a third of organisations (35 percent) provide or at least allow mobile devices at work and these are used for learning. When it comes to mobile learning provision, technical problems and lack of integration are the main barriers, even ahead of management buy-in. With 39 percent of learning development professionals indicating that technical infrastructure may be a problem, this suggests additional investment is required in for siloed, legacy systems that only offer a fragmented view of workforce capabilities. Using an out-of-date infrastructure may be holding back some organisations.
5. Implement blended learning.
Language and communication
training delivery should not be limited to self-paced e-learning only. Supplement self directed e-learning with peer learning, perhaps partnering employees with others with the target language skills, and enabling employees to travel to overseas offices, experiencing first hand different cultures and making connections with employees with other language skills.
6. Involve partners and family.
Bear in mind that if you ask an employee to relocate, this has an impact on partners and family, as they tend to relocate as well. Consider offering language and communications training to those people too. As well as being good practice, helping employees and their families settle in a different country, language acquisition works best in a social setting.
7. Make sure your language and communications development strategy is working.
This is not a one size fits all or a tick box exercise. What works in Malaysia or China may not work in Western Europe. If employees are to gain real, usable language and communication skills, it is vital to embrace cultural differences, assess learner progress continuously and to adapt learning delivery to individuals to ensure that the workforce has the skills that the organisation needs to move forward.
Success on the global stage demands a long-term talent management strategy that focuses on developing the language and communication skills of each individual employee. As well as getting the learning delivery right, HR professionals can play a part in fostering a culture of person-to-person communications across the organisation to help develop language and communication skills. Many organisations operate virtual workspaces so employees do not travel or relocate globally but do work with colleagues globally. The temptation can be to hide behind email but spoken communications are key if employees are to develop solid language skills.
The benefits of getting this right include improved collaboration across borders, faster time to decision in global operations and increased quality of customer service. Younger employees, who now make up almost half the workforce, respond well to opportunities in the workplace for international working and self-development. Language and communication skills can keep Millennials engaged and onside, while also underpinning a real competitive advantage: keeping your organisation ahead of the pack.