In Global Business, English Is Not Just for Americans

Last week, we discovered that corporate leaders often suffer from a fear of public speaking. Now, it looks like the English language itself is a problem. Specifically, the world of business has spread so far and so fast that communication has become an is

Last week, we discovered that corporate leaders often suffer from a fear of public speaking. Now, it looks like the English language itself is a problem. Specifically, the world of business has spread so far and so fast that communication has become an issue. Global companies are having problems communicating efficiently and effectively, and learning better English may be the answer.

“We’ve put together an education technology service for GlobalEnglish around the premise that for large and regional corporations, globalization has finally taken a turn with telecommunications and the Internet to change the entire fabric of communications that’s required in this global world of ours,” said Ron Hoge, president and CEO, GlobalEnglish Corp. “As you think about and study globalization, you see all these trends taking place around outsourcing and offshoring. It’s speaking to knowledge workers scattered around the world with common access to information and material, chances of doing things on a 24x7x365 basis in very cost-effective ways, and the global world will keep evolving and developing that way.”

Hoge said the final barrier that exists in terms of efficiency in a globalized world is the English language. English is generally accepted as the language of the business world, and language mastery means more effective job performance for the employee and for the company. “Our research supports a dramatic acceleration of need,” he said. “The majority of the global world and even corporations still don’t quite get it. They know the problem, but they live in a world where they believe there’s no solution, and the only thing they can do is take a chunk of money and throw teachers and bricks-and-mortar classrooms on a fragmented basis at people, and hope for the best. They haven’t grasped that technology has provided a lot of solutions in the world, and technology has a solution to this one. The Internet is a delivery vehicle for our English-language capabilities, our technology, instruction and performance support, but it’s also one of those tools that’s put the pressure on more and more non-native speakers to be able to communicate in English. It’s not even a question anymore of speaking or listening; it’s much more a question of reading and writing. There is an expectation that you communicate via e-mails at all levels of organizations.”

A greater need for effective English language skills and higher expectations for the same mean that learning in global enterprises must take on a new form. Hoge said that in order to build language proficiency and continue to improve upon that skill throughout a company and over the course of an employee’s career, learning cannot be episodic, nor can it be a one-time event. Instead language learning and support must be a long-term activity. “It’s not that you’re intensely studying all the time, but parts of it are intense instruction, and at various times, you’re looking for very specialized needs or maintaining your level of support and instruction. Or you just need some performance support—some tools on your desktop that help you with particular reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. That’s something that will atrophy if you don’t stay with it, unlike many other courses that can be learned and memorized,” Hoge said. “You must think about this over a longer period of time, and more as a productivity and proficiency tool, a performance support tool, than a particular piece of courseware.”

English-language learning and support can be a major strategic, competitive advantage for the companies that do something to improve overall proficiency throughout their organizations. “(Leaders) set up a global company that now has to think and act in a 24×7, instant-communication world, but they don’t have the last-mile problem solved,” Hoge said. “They know their strategy, they understand their products and services, they have execution plans, but if the people in their own organizations in 20 or 30 or 40 different countries can’t communicate the language well, then they will not understand what’s being asked of them. They will not communicate that well with vendors or customers, and all of the great strategy will get diluted. It’s the challenge of a learning officer to say how we go about systematically improving the proficiency of our English speakers over an extended period of time, based upon what their needs are. It’s not a matter of throwing a lot of generic courses at people. It’s not a matter of doing it intensely for six months and then forgetting it. It’s something that you keep using, refining, improving, and it has to be a very, very strategic and programmatic rollout. Now with technology, the PC and the Internet, we can deliver these services consistently. They can be targeted to a customized plan for each individual user. They can be assessed and measured and tracked because of that technology capability. You can have a strategic approach to English language communication.

“In my mind, it almost goes beyond the training department into a long-term learning strategy that’s based upon developing models of proficiency almost baked into individual personnel development plans,” Hoge added. “(We have to) assess what their level of English skills are right now, what their needs are on that particular job, what is the time frame in which we can deliver these needs, and how do we assess that progress both within the job, with people around and with productivity demonstrated in their work. Most of the companies that we’re talking about with chief learning officers have terrific training programs. They have some basic things that are inculcated into the fabric of the company that everybody has to get good at, and in many cases they have worldwide methods for deployment. English-language communication and proficiency has to become one of those. This is something that companies at a very senior level say is as fundamental as breathing or being able to provide basic product knowledge. This is so basic that I must consider that if I’m going to be an effective global company, I have to put this learning management system in place or I will never fulfill our companies senior strategic objectives because I will never have a productive enough workforce to do that.”