There are three most common barriers that hinder communication to staff across geographies. Here’s how to bust them.
Language comes first. Organisations with international operations neglect at their peril a vital piece of employee demographics – language preferences of staff. What languages are used in which offices is important to know if you want to target the right message to the right audience in the right format. Canadian French is no-no in France. Brazilian Portuguese is somewhat different from Portuguese. Switzerland is a tri-lingual country. And of course Slovenian is spoken in Slovenia, not Slovakia.
Important corporate messages need not just translating but also verification by in-country contacts. Even the best translation agency will deliver translations that may not necessarily contain the right professional terminology in use in your local operations. Typically, in-country marketing people are in the best position to verify whether a translated term makes sense in the local language.
Emergency translation circuits (consisting of trusted managers in the countries) need to be in place for urgent message translations. This will come in handy when internal communication is entrusted with the distribution of highly-sensitive and time-critical messages that can not be translated using the existing external translation services.
True, translations are costly, so internal communicators need to budget for them well in advance of the start of major projects. Forward-thinking organisations also build translation databases of most commonly used technological terms for re-use, which saves time and cost.
Organisations should work to encourage employees to become proficient in the major language of business by offering language classes. Hiring internal communicators with diverse foreign-language skills will also ensure the communication function is sensitive to the challenges of language.
Technology is the second most common pitfall. Very often organisations grow internationally by acquisition. In practice this may lead to the existence of a whole galaxy of internal news channels that may take years to integrate, if at all.
For this reason internal communicators need to be well acquainted with the existing corporate media landscape and work with IT to make it consistent. In any case, staff messages need to travel light – a fancy graph or an embedded video may not display correctly on employees’ desktops in an office on the other side of the world.
Culture is the hardest barrier to bust. At corporate HQ, a message may sound innocent enough but in some countries that same message may be misunderstood as rude. Humour never travels well across cultures. Religious or politically-sensitive topics – even less so.
Naturally, organisations are subject to the cultures in the countries where they operate and this has a major impact on internal communication. For example, sending a corporate message directly to staff in some countries may not work well especially in highly hierarchical societies, where messages should go via the country managing director only.
On the other hand, strong organisational cultures can create cultural bubbles in the countries they operate in and can imbue their employees with cultural traits different to the prevailing national culture. This is especially the case in IT businesses and in civil aviation.
Internal communicators need to be mindful of the different national cultures at play within an organisation. The best way to achieve this is to build a network of local contacts and to actually visit different locations. Organisations may consider culture-awareness training for corporate communicators. Role-rotation in communication positions in different offices is also a sensible idea.
Internal communicators in international roles will be better equipped to bust these and other barriers to communication across geographies by joining established professional associations like CIPR, which has a dedicated international sectoral group – CIPR International – and which provide a wealth of advice on communicating across geographies and cultures.
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