Language Training for Enhanced Horizontal Communication: A Challenge for MNCs.(multinational corporations)(Statistical Data Included)

Article excerpt

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. …