Managing internal communication across a global organization is an exciting and challenging task. How this task is approached will vary widely depending on the culture and structure of the particular organization, as well as the location of its headquarters.
My own experience was in pioneering a global communication role for a business headquartered in London, with 14,000 employees scattered across 75 countries. Over the span of just 15 years, the company had grown, through numerous acquisitions, from a US$90 million, medium-sized U.K. market research agency to a US$2 billion, global organization. It now wanted to establish itself as a truly global company. I discovered there were five major issues that needed to be addressed to ensure that the organization’s internal communication was effective across the world.
Global institutions are a relatively new phenomenon. While a multicultural global executive team may appear to agree on a single worldwide strategy, individual members will inevitably have their own perspectives. Gaining insight into these differences and understanding each individual’s specific view on the priorities for internal communication can help enormously during the implementation stage.
During this stage, I traveled to meet with individual members of the global executive team in order to get their views on what they believed should be the main priorities for the organization’s internal communications. I asked each executive to focus on three key questions:
1. What do you anticipate will be the three main challenges for your business area?
2. In order to meet these challenges, what behavioral and attitude changes do your own employees and senior leaders need to make?
3. From a list of nine internal communication activities, (see below) prioritize the three activities you feel would have the most impact on the overall performance of the group.
Nine internal communication activities:
- Improving collaboration.
- Ensuring leader’s and manager’s behaviour is consistent with what they are saying.
- Building stronger recognition of the strategic value of communication to the global business.
- Implementing a new global intranet.
- Strengthening the network of internal communication specialists.
- Engaging employees in living the brand.
- Ensuring that employees understand and take action to implement the group strategy.
- Focusing on a few group messages and constantly reinforcing them across the world.
- Strengthening the levels of trust and openness across the group.
The top priority for global managers was ensuring that employees understood and took action to implement the group strategy. The other two they considered important were ensuring leader’s and manager’s behavior was consistent with what they were saying, and significantly improving collaboration and sharing across the group.
Levels of involvement
The much-quoted phrase of Lao Tze, the fourth century B.C. Chinese philosopher, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand,” is particularly pertinent when trying to communicate in a multicultural environment. Many simple misunderstandings can be avoided if you can find ways to involve employees. No matter their location or culture, employees’ sense of commitment to a project or initiative can be greatly strengthened if they are invited to actively contribute.
A powerful example of this was the development of our new group intranet. Trying to introduce a new intranet to newly acquired companies with existing intranets attracted a great deal of resistance. We decided to use a process of dialogue to agree on a common strategy among the five leading global business communities: France, Germany, Spain, the U.K. and North America. Genuine dialogue, in the words of William Isaacs, is a conversation in which “people think together in relationship.” It involves listening without judging, trying to step in to the other person’s shoes and openly and honestly sharing your views.
This process took an entire year, but by the end of it, trust between the participants had been established and a solution that would address the formidable challenges had been agreed on.
Language and culture
Translating languages involves both the literal translation and the translation for meaning. The problems of literal translation can best be demonstrated by entering a few chosen words into any one of the free online translation services. These services may literally translate your chosen phrase into any number of languages, but try using that translated phrase with a native speaker. You’ll probably be greeted with confusion and possibly even howls of laughter.
Ensuring that a translation properly conveys an appropriate meaning for its intended audience can be very difficult, but it is essential if you want to be properly understood.
Our team employed the help of contacts in local country offices to check all of the organization’s translations. This was the only way that we could be confident that the correct meaning was going to be properly communicated to the audience.
All our communication activities also had to be assessed in light of cultural differences. For instance, a branding video featured what appeared to be an innocent characterization of a street magician. But in Germany, this same character was perceived as criminal and sleazy, making the program unusable.
I used a global internal network to ensure that all communications were congruent with the cultures in each country. This global network, for the most part, was made up of human resources and marketing professionals. A great deal of time and energy was spent strengthening the relationships within this network, and it became one of my most rewarding experiences in this role.
Local employee legislation
The impact of different employment legislation can often hijack a change communication or human resource initiative. This is particularly true in countries that have powerful works councils, such as France and Germany, where there are restrictions on what can be communicated to employees. Wherever this became an issue, I found that it was essential to work closely with the HR function in that country.
An inspirational global program
Another way of engaging a global workforce is to find an initiative that inspires people—one that enables employees to cut through the formalities associated with position, role or function, and instead builds relationships based on our common humanity.
Following the Asian tsunami in December of 2004, my company committed to a fundraising partnership with UNICEF to support pre-education projects in Cambodia. The internal communication program that supported this effort was undoubtedly one of our company’s most successful. It unified employees and created a sense that all of us belonged to one global organization.
The communication program was launched with a message from actor and UNICEF Ambassador Ewan McGregor. Employees around the world responded by raising US$400,000 through fundraising activities that often epitomized the best of their respective cultures; from off-Broadway concerts in New York City and food fairs in Malaysia to soccer competitions in England.
The greatest global internal communication successes I achieved came about through establishing strong relationships and partnerships across the world and building trust and respect through dialogue. This requires patience and perseverance, but is ultimately the surest way to get results for any global internal communication program.