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Why and How Sodexo, Honda and Siemens Made English Their Corporate Language

ABDUL BASIT KAYANI

In business, good communication ties in with a strong company culture. But what happens when that culture spreads globally? In this blog, we take a look at three companies at varying stages of tackling this issue. Though vastly different, all three are linked in their broad success and their choice to implement English as a tool for growth.

Sodexo

Originating in France, Sodexo is now multinational. The food services company has thousands of employees in eighty countries and, in 2017, Sodexo began adopting English as its official language.

Why English?

Kim Beddard-Fontaine, Senior Vice President of Digital and Employee Communications at Sodexo, says, “We want to become more efficient by collaborating across geographies. English is an enabler of that.”

Gaining business abroad can also mean having more languages to translate company materials into. Sodexo now caters to several languages, so a universal company language seems like a sensible response, bearing in mind their overall target is efficiency.

How will they do it?

The change has to trickle from the top of the ranks and filter down. In early 2017, those in senior roles had a new responsibility: to study English. By early 2018, these leaders were expected to speak English within the company, hopefully encouraging their employees to adopt the same strategy. As this process is relatively new for Sodexo, it’s perhaps not wise to analyze its success just yet. Sodexo do, however, have strategic similarities with companies who have been transitioning into corporate English for quite some time…

Honda

In 2010, Takanobu Ito, the CEO of Honda, famously berated Nissan for making a ‘stupid’ move by enforcing English as its official language. At the time, this comment was widely supported by the Japanese public. Five years later, however, Honda followed in Nissan’s path. The company wants its official corporate language for international communications to be English by 2020.

Why English?

The company recognized the value of English when becoming more international in culture and size. A large and growing portion of Honda’s sales is in the US. Japanese employees made up just 32% of Honda’s total global workforce in 2015. With increasing numbers of international employees and customers, it’s understandable that Honda’s opinions have shifted.

How are they doing it?

In the year 2020, senior executives will have to prove they have a certain level of English fluency. Like Sodexo, Honda wants its leaders to be an example for employees. This even goes to the extent that internal documents will be expected to be written in English.

Siemens

The German electronics company used English as its second official language in the late 90s. By 2001, in the process of growing roots in the US, it seemed that Siemens’ official language had become English.

Why English?

Michael Sigmund, Senior Vice President at Siemens, has said, “Multilingualism is indispensable in our globalized business world”, before adding, “But you can’t just flick a switch.” Sigmund spent eight years as a successful Chief Financial Officer at a Siemens unit in America. With the US being one of the company’s major targets in its global expansion, Sigmund was well placed with such beliefs.

How did they do it?

In a Handelsblatt article, Sigmund recalls the early days of his 37-year career at Siemens: “I remember annual executive meetings that offered simultaneous translation for the few foreigners among the 500 attendees.” This changed in the early 2000s when “a small number of executives were left who had the English speeches translated into German. Today, English is part of everyday life for everyone.” The trickle-down effect is seemingly working at Siemens.

There is a difference with how Siemens implemented the change, however. A 2006 study found that, though Siemens had attempted to establish English as a common corporate language, there were opposing perceptions amongst employees as to which language (German or English) was the official language. The study concluded that Siemens intentionally left the answer ambiguous so that the dominant language would naturally emerge and any charged emotions about language diversity would be managed.

The golden threads linking Siemens, Honda and Sodexo are quite clear: testing the change to English from up high, before attempting it at the base level and seeing English as a means to grow. The intricacies of the strategies may vary, but these two veins are identifiable in any company transitioning to using English as an official language.

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