Global & Local, People & Culture

6 language strategy realities

…… Part of The Basics series. First published in April 2008 ……


Language strategies are moving targets, evolving along with your enterprise strategy and business and operational changes. You need to start by asking the right questions. Once you know what you’d like to achieve, see how technology can help you, how much it will cost and what organizational changes are needed. This article proposes some “reality checkpoints” to help you analyze your needs.

Reality 1: International enterprises have three types of languages: corporate, working and local.

Corporate languages are the official ones, the ones used for press releases for example. Some companies have up to 4 or 5 corporate languages. The working language is the one used horizontally across the enterprise, for example the one used by senior and middle managers for reporting, and by R&D engineers, experts and other managers for collaboration. Local languages are those used by employees in their “home environment” among colleagues in the same physical location.

Reality 2: One country does not equal one local language.

Some countries have more than one language, and many “share” the same language, even if there are significant differences. It’s useful to draw a language map of your enterprise, basing it on “comfortable” or “generic” languages. For example Dutch people are usually very comfortable in English, as are many Scandinavians and eastern Europeans. People in France, Canada, Morocco and other countries mutually use and understand what is in reality a hybrid, generic French.

Reality 3: Different languages are used for different purposes.

Look at the different types of content you have in your intranet: news, strategic messages, HR policies, product and sales information to name a few. Then look at the different users of this information: client-facing employees, internal communities across the company, employees in manufacturing facilities and so on. Build a matrix comparing type of content and usage with type of language (corporate, working or local), then add the dimension of “as is today” and “target” for what you would like to achieve.

Reality 4: Not all content merits the same quality of translation.

Criteria to take into account are: How critical is the content? Is it time-sensitive? Who needs it? Will it change soon? The more critical it is and/or the longer it is valid and/or the more people who need it, the more you can justify doing a high quality translation. If it is of interest to a small group, and/or may change soon and/or is not business critical, it is acceptable to use approximate translations, or let employers use automated translation tools on the intranet to get the general meaning.

You now have a starting point for determining what should be translated into which languages and with what degree of quality.

Reality 5: Localization and translation are different.

Distinguish between adapting content and changing the language. A message from the CEO will not be localized. It will flow from Corporate Communications to employees through carefully controlled translations. However, a new travel policy may be defined and published by HQ, then sent to the business groups who may contextualize it to make it relevant to their organizations, job titles, and so on. It may then be sent to country HR teams who will adapt it based on local travel contexts (distances, air and rail infrastructures) and translate it into the local language. The key here is to make sure your process specifies who is responsible for contextualization and/or translation at each point.

Reality 6: Hot news defies the most well thought-out strategies!

Is it better to get it out in English first, then, publish the corporate language translations as they are done? Or is it better to wait until the item is translated into the relevant languages, then publish worldwide simultaneously? The jury is still out on this one, and companies make different decisions usually depending on the nature and urgency of the announcement.

My overall advice is to set up a cross-company working group to look at these issues within your own enterprise, and to come up with several working hypotheses that you can then analyze from both technology, financial and organizational viewpoints. Be aware that you will probably need to adjust your strategy as your business and operational contexts evolve.