Horizontal communication between subsidiaries of the same multinational corporation (MNC) is a problem faced by staff as the demands for communicating across borders are pushed downwards in the organizational hierarchy. Although the choice of English as the common corporate language alleviates some of the horizontal communication problems, it does not solve them all--particularly not when many subsidiaries are located in non-English speaking countries. In that situation, horizontal communication between subsidiaries can be a significant casualty.
In a study of communication within a Finland-based MNC, Kone Elevators, interviews with staff globally revealed problems not only for non-native speakers, but also for native speakers of English. Illustrative interview data suggests that corporate training schemes should focus on the broad spectrum of international communication rather than on increasing a systematic knowledge of any one language.
Keywords: Corporate training, language, language training
MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS, by definition, operate through foreign subsidiaries across continents and across a great variety of languages. Rather than managing the individual units as autonomous entities, modem multinational corporations (MNCs) tend to foster flows of information, products, people, and money with and between the various subsidiaries that form the corporation. This connectedness between units emphasizes the need for staff at different organizational levels to communicate horizontally with the help of a shared language (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1990; Marschan, Welch, & Welch, 1997).
In spite of the significant role of foreign languages and international communication, few studies focus specifically on foreign language skills and their role in enhancing communication in the MNC environment. Crick (1999) is a notable exception; yet even his study examines the early stages of internationalisation, not the internal communication of mature MNCs. Likewise, although the data for Hofstede's 1984 classic study of the cultural dimensions of human behaviour were obtained from an MNC, the focus of his study was not on communication. Within linguistics, several studies have contributed significantly to our understanding of international business communication. However, most focus on communication between buyers and sellers (Charles, 1998; Yli-Jokipii, 1998). Moreover, although data for research have been obtained from MNCs (Charles, 1994, 1995, 1996; Lampi, 1986; Louhiala-Salminen, 1999), those data have not been analysed from the point of view of in-house MNC communication.
Against this backdrop, Nickerson (1998, 1999, 2000) and Poncini (2002) stand out. Nickerson examines the significant role that written English communication plays in the creation of corporate culture within British subsidiaries in the Netherlands, and Poncini looks at strategies used by managers from different foreign subsidiaries for creating and enhancing in-group togetherness in a group sales meeting. Both investigate communication from the point of view of its corporate function. Communication is seen as a tool in the strategic management of international operations, and language skills as essential for performing daily activities within the MNC. While these two studies are highly relevant to our current research, a clear research gap remains. Nickerson studied communication between headquarters and subsidiaries, i.e. vertical communication, but the main focus in this paper is on communication between subsidiaries, i.e. horizontal communication. Poncini's study, on the other hand, focuses on middle-manage ment meeting behaviour, while our study looks at communication across organizational levels, from shop floor to management. As MNCs are reorganizing their operations into networks rather than traditional, hierarchical pyramids, horizontal communication is becoming increasingly important for the creation of corporate culture and the emergence of a feeling of togetherness. Moreover, even in our modern age of sophisticated technology, efficiency still requires human input through language.
The purpose of this paper is to identify and examine the problems that staff in MNCs experience in horizontal communication with other units and to discuss the implications of these problems for in-company language training. The remainder of the paper is organized into six main sections. First, we start with a brief outline of the nature and significance of inter-unit communication in MNCs in general, and horizontal communication in particular. Second, we report on the methodology of the study: a single case approach to a Finland-based MNC--Kone Elevators--where English is the official corporate language. Third, we identify the problems Kone staff experience in communicating with colleagues from other units, and we examine the implications that these problems are perceived to have for MNCs. Fourth, we discuss what companies can do to cope with challenges in international communication and then look specifically at the language training offered in Kone. In doing that, we want to find out whether--and the exten to which--the company is catering to the needs of horizontal communication. Fifth, we take a broader perspective and recommend ways in which modern language and communication training methodology can be utilized to address the problems experienced by the Kone interviewees. We finish by briefly summarizing our main findings and conclusions.
Inter-Unit Communication Flows in MNCs.
Following Stohl (1994), we define inter-unit communication as the collective and interactive process of exchanging and interpreting information between units (headquarters and subsidiaries) belonging to the same MNC. The concept refers to both formal and informal communication across organizational and national boundaries.
Inter-unit communication can be described in terms of (a) the direction of information flows, and (b) the purpose of communicating. Information flows between corporate, divisional, and subsidiary staff at different hierarchical levels are referred to as vertical communication, while communication between individuals at the same hierarchical levels but in different organizational units, such as foreign subsidiaries, is referred to as horizontal communication. From the corporate point of view, the main purposes of inter-unit communication, …