In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the various tribes of the world combine to build a tower that will reach heaven. In a single stroke, their efforts come to naught when they are beset with a profusion of languages that prevents them from communicating plans and actions to one another.
For companies large and small, today’s Tower of Babel is globalization. The promise of new markets, new manufacturing, untapped natural resources, new pools of labor and synergies all around are making senior management salivate. The strategies and plans for exploiting all these new opportunities seem doable, and the potential rewards are nearly irresistible. However, these new clients, customers, consumers, suppliers and employees might not speak English. That sound you hear is the foundation of the tower cracking.
The chief learning officer is responsible for ensuring that the company’s fundamental values are solidly incorporated into the culture of all its business units, divisions and departments no matter how widely dispersed they may be. Leadership development, for instance, should mean the same thing in Mexico City that it does in New Delhi and New York. Indeed, most standards and values for which human resources and employee development disciplines are responsible should be applied in the same way, regardless of locale.
However, the same CLO must be sensitive to the many customs and systems that shape local beliefs, preferences and working habits, and which require a sometimes slight, sometimes significantly different approach. An employee manual of a global restaurant chain probably includes ways of handling jalapeños in their U.S. kitchens. That is not as critical a concern in Nueva Rosita. But the standards of safety, which are the underpinning for such specific policies and programs, are universal. This balance of maintaining uniformity while respecting diversity and localization is not a United Nations staff job—it is yours. You are responsible for shaping it professionally and balancing the value systems with the contextual foreign cultures surrounding your organizational goals.
The solution to the babble of misunderstanding—and thus of non-compliance, reduced morale and reduced productivity—is effective translation of all policies, procedures, training and development materials, instructor training and all the other tools that support developmental functions. This seems straightforward enough, until you consider that both spoken and written Spanish in Mexico City is not the same Spanish used in Medellin or Madrid. The curse of the Tower of Babel is not just different languages, but also dialects within those languages that can be as distinct as separate languages. Add to the mix the informal and idiosyncratic language of the young with its distinct localizations, the rapidly changing technical jargon of software developers and programmers, or any of the symbiotic combinations of language like Spanglish, and you have plenty of room for both creativity and significant error.
Every culture is a product of its history, and that history is changed daily by the members of each specific culture in their interactions with one another and with other cultures. Even the language we use to talk about such issues has changed: We used to speak of international companies—now the term is multinational or multicultural, recognition that conditions and relationships are more complex than they seemed at the outset of globalization.
This is a situation that calls for institutional initiative. Hiring translation services should not be an arms-length transaction—it should be an intimate, ongoing working relationship. Dealing with the core values and employee development activities of a company is to be involved with its most important and proprietary issues. Those responsible for ensuring clear understanding across language and cultural differences should be an integral part of the CLO staff, whether they are employees or consultants. The relationship should be that of trusted associates whose credentials go beyond language skills and cultural nuance to an understanding of the principles of corporate employee development, organizational communications and organizational development. Only when this kind of inclusive approach is implemented can the chief learning officer truly be the global learning officer.
Jim Boring is a consultant in the areas of organizational communications and training. Martha Galindo is CEO and president of Galindo Publicidad Inc., which specializes in translating business-related materials. They can be reached at email@example.com.