Organisation culture – what do the ‘buzz words’ actually mean?

Organisations like to embroider their internal and external communications with statements about their corporate culture and direction. “Unparalleled expertise across our wide range of solutions” comes from Gartner, just as an example to hand. So just what does ‘unparalled expertise’ mean, and how might it translate into other languages? In French ‘une expertise inégalée’ is close but not a strict translation. Last year I was working with a company with its headquarters in London but major offices around Europe and Asia. A substantial acquisition had taken place a couple of years prior to my engagement, and now that the dust had settled the communications team had decided that it was time for a new corporate message to be promoted. The team decided that the core term was the ‘bold’ steps that the company was taking. I had occasion to speak to several senior directors in Germany who were very upset by this decision, as the English concept of bold does not have a single direct German equivalent. The German words fett, mutig, kühn, fettgedruckt, dreist, and verwegen are all close but meant slightly different concepts.

Things get more complicated in companies headquartered in countries which do not have English as the local language. Multinational companies often use English as a lingua franca (ELF) but when it comes to abstract concepts like ‘bold’, ‘leading edge’ and ‘visionary’ should the words emerge from a discussion in the HQ national language or through a discussion in ELF? I’ve just been reading a very interesting case study of how a Norwegian company set about defining its corporate values, taking into account that it had subsidiaries in 10 countries. One of these countries was China and the case study has some very interesting quotes from both Norwegian and Chinese managers about the issue of communicating corporate values.

Intranet managers in multi-national companies would do well to read this case study, as it has implications for the extent to which ELF corporate values guidelines need to be carefully translated into other languages. In the case of the Norwegian company translations were made into German and Chinese for local purposes, but not into Norwegian because the company wanted to make a statement about its adoption of ELF even in Norway. For example Norwegian managers were not allowed to exchange emails in Norwegian with Norwegian colleagues working in overseas subsidiaries.

A conclusion from the case study is that multi-national companies should not develop culture statements in English and then rely on a translation into other languages. There should be a discussion with people speaking all the national languages present in the company (many of which HQ may well not be aware of!) so that the words selected can be rendered in these languages in a way that supports, rather than possibly negates, the corporate direction. Even if there is a close translation the very fact that the decision on the values was made by people speaking English as their mother language may send the wrong signals to a linguistically diverse workforce.

Martin White