Communicating in a Global Environment

By Charlene Solomon

Nov. 1, 1999

Effective communication is the central lifeline of any organization. It’sthe vehicle for driving change, shaping expectations and rallying workers arounda core purpose and common message. When managing a geographically diverseworkforce, one that spans the world and crosses cultures, a strategiccommunication program can strengthen the organization and support its success,the lack of one can be the linchpin of organizational demise.

“Communication is the life blood of any organization today,” saysLee Hornick, president of New York City-based Business Communications Worldwideand program director of corporate communications conference planning for TheConference Board, also in New York City. “Today, you have to develop aproactive relationship. The ‘de-layering’ of the organization means thatfewer employees are responsible for more things. They need to know more, whetherthey’re out in the field or in a pharmaceutical plant, employees need to knowmore to do their jobs.”

In addition, many people can be working on the same project from differentlocations — you can have a team in London, one in New York and another inTokyo. You also have employees working at home. “Today’s organization isone without walls,” says Hornick. “Communication is even moreimportant when you’re at different locations. Everyone must have the sameorganizational and project goals.”

HR and communications experts must be aware of the role that culture plays incommunications. In other words, given all these interwoven elements, you mustensure that the messages employees receive are interpreted as intended. Mythsand misunderstood tales threaten to take your organization off course — a paththat’s especially dangerous for global organizations because culturaldifferences and technology can distort the process. Careful planning andeffective cross-cultural awareness are crucial to the bottom line. And at a timewhen rampant change happens quickly — and can affect different parts of aglobal business in different ways — you have to begin with a strategy.

Bad things happen if communications go awry
Carol Kinsey Goman, president of Berkeley, California-based KinseyConsulting Services, says no matter what your strategic message is or howskillfully your plan is constructed, stories through the grapevine createpowerful symbols that should underscore — not undercut — the corporatemessage.

For example, one German company needed to cut costs. Managers believed thecommunications regarding the rationale were adequate. However, in theircost-cutting mode, they decided not to replace an old company bus that shuttledemployees from the lowest level of a huge parking lot up to headquarters. At thesame time, executives were receiving their new cars. In Europe, executive carsare very important status symbols, and each one received a Mercedes.

“Everything else that happened around the cost-cutting — articles,speeches about ‘being in it together’ — was useless,” says Goman.”All employees remembered was that the cost-cutting hit them (their bus wasdiscontinued) and the executives got their cars. Morale (and employee supportfor cost containment) sank.”

However, there are also positive examples of corporate storytelling. When thehead of British Airlines took over a few years ago, one of the first things hedid was to go to the airport and take a flight. The first-class area was full,and the reservations staff was going to bump someone from first class.

He said, “No, no. These are people that have paid for tickets. Give mewhatever’s available.” And the only available seat was in the last rowthat didn’t even recline. He took it. This was totally different from anythingthe former CEO would ever have done. He got on board and the flight attendantwith the magazines came rushing back and said, “Well, we’ve got a fewmagazines.” He said, “Give it to the paying customers first. If there’sanything left, I’ll take it at the end.” Of course, there was nothingleft.

Says Goman, “That story went through the company in seconds. It wasrecounted over and over as if it had happened last week. What kind of messagedoes that give? Obviously, that the customer comes first.” This accentuatedall of the communications the company was doing.

While this may sound folksy and not particularly strategic, messages likethese exist in every company. You always want them to harmonize with yourstrategic goals, and if they don’t emerge naturally, solicit them. People makelegends out of this stuff, and a savvy communications or HR pro can take thesestories and weave them to fit with the plan. Just be sure senior managementactually behaves in a way that’s consistent with the vision the companyasserts.

The lesson learned here is that good planning and effective communicationstart at the top. It’s not a hard sell. More and more managers areincreasingly aware that communication is a crucial business tool. Theyunderstand that there’s value in keeping the workforce informed, and moresupport for end results when decision making takes place at every level — andthese managers want to help make that happen.

Start with a strategy
Of course, simply recounting the same information to everyone isn’tadequate. Today’s global organization demands the ability to communicate withstakeholders who have multiple business and cultural perspectives. And not onlyis the message itself important, but the tools used to communicate the messagealso call for careful consideration — and the options increase almost weekly.

More and more communicators recognize this challenge. Earlier this year,Watson Wyatt Worldwide, the International Association of Business Communicators(IABC) and the IABC Research Foundation conducted a study of more than 900organizations that represent a variety of industries, and found that:

  • 51% of high-performing organizations say they have a well-defined communication strategy.
  • 52% of senior managers support the importance of corporate communications to achieve business success.
  • 71% of senior managers actively integrate communications into overall business strategy.
  • 68% create a communications strategy to explain new programs.

According to this study, senior managers now appreciate that communicatingcorporate parables has become more critical than ever before. As companiesbecome more competitive, it becomes obvious that effective communication is anadvantage in a wide variety of areas, ranging from loyalty to buildingcredibility with the changing workforce.

“Being strategic about your communication is actually guaranteeing thatyou’re going to have some results,” says Hornick. Indeed, it isn’t agood idea simply to blast communications through the organization without beingvery focused. You need a business reason to communicate to your audience, anduse your communications as an alignment tool with the overall business plan forthe organization. What messages are important to convey? What themes do you wantto recount time after time? What vehicle do you want to use? How often?

Most organizations meet quarterly or annually to assess their communicationplans and create new ones. Individuals at the table should include senior-levelindividuals who deal with communications: the head of HR, corporatecommunications, marketing, MIS, finance, senior operations people, and otherswith perspectives that reflect all regions of the company, so you can get inputabout the viability of the plan.

Once you have the group assembled, but before you begin a particularcampaign, conduct an audit. Look for the strengths and weaknesses of yourexisting communication program and the opportunities and threats facing them.Then align that strategy with business goals.

“Make a list with statistics from a facilitated discussion with thesenior people responsible for constructing the plan. You may also want toinclude senior plant managers or business unit managers, as well asclients,” says Angela Sinickas, senior communication consultant at theOrange County office of William M. Mercer Inc. An expert in research measurementand strategy, she looks at how well the messages are getting through, howeffective the channels are, how well the needs of various stakeholders are beingmet, and how effectively the infrastructure is used to reach the stakeholders.

Areas in which information is lacking are the places where you’ll want tostart doing more formal research. “It really does help to get across-section of input as to the current level of awareness of companycommunications before you develop the plan. You have to get it approved by thesepeople because you’ll need their support down the road.”

Next is the quantifiable research. For example, alignment with company goalsis the most important aspect of a communication plan. You can calculate yourplan’s effectiveness by creating another list that takes the mission statementor company goals, and count how much content in the key channels ofcommunication were linked to those organizational values. Measure the number ofpages or variety of methods used to give the issue or item visibility. See whichareas receive the most press, and you’ll discover which organizationalobjectives you’re supporting and which ones you’re ignoring. When you seesomething that’s been given limited attention, you can intentionally increasecoverage.

Using this process, one large insurance firm discovered that it had donenothing regarding its actuarial group for a year. Since this group was key tothe organization, the communications-planning team decided they needed a fewstories to highlight the important role actuarials played in the firm.”This gives you a chance to provide a balanced picture of what theorganization is about,” explains Sinickas. Knowing the stories you want toconvey is the first challenge. Identifying if the individuals in yourorganization’s offices around the world will understand and make use of thosemessages is the second.

Cultural implications can make or break effectiveness
In a global environment, where you must reach people across various languagesand cultures, there are infinite possibilities as to the channels you use tocommunicate corporate information. “A good strategic plan takes intoconsideration what medium you use to deliver the message,” says DouglasStuart, director of training and client services at Northbrook, Illinois-basedIOR, a global, cross-cultural management firm. “Is it written? Is itverbal? Is it going to be face-to-face?” Also, the typical methods tocommunicate (face to face, print, video, telephone, intranet, Internet ande-mail) take on added meaning when you’re deciding how to deliver a messageglobally. One issue is infrastructure, and another is culture.

Some cultures respond more positively to technology and written messages thanothers. For example, says Stuart, Asian and Latin cultures regard relationshipsvery highly. They respond much more favorably to personal forms ofcommunication. Therefore, personal ways of relating information — such asmeetings, gatherings and personal phone calls — are preferable when you’recommunicating to those cultures. When that’s not possible, it’s best to tryto use front-line managers to field questions and maintain a sense of personalconnectedness.

However, speed often is the determinant. “A huge issue that globalcompanies face is they don’t want one part of the firm to feel like theyreceive communication after-the-fact.” Says Goman of Kinsey Consulting.”There’s a great deal of thought, for example, about when to break thework about a merger or downsizing. Timing is key.” Technology has allowedus to get the word to 5,000 people around the world instantaneously — but howare you sure that the worker in Singapore receives the message the same way as aworker in Chicago?

For starters, it’s important to retain a local communication supervisor whocan help translate (literally and culturally) the meaning and nuance of thecontact. In addition, local HR people are crucial sources of information andsupport.

“For example, if you are communicating an initiative that stronglyimpacts a particular country, HR in that country has a big stake in whatever ishappening,” says Shirley Fishman, principal and director of internationalhuman resources at the Toronto office of Arthur Anderson LLP. “Therelationships that are in place prior to a massive communications program willhelp you identify stakeholders and their perceptions of the issues you’retrying to communicate.”

Using as many communication tools as possible will heighten the likelihood ofunderstanding. “If you’re not communicating adequately with youremployees in a consistent manner,” says Fishman, “they’ll make uptheir own stuff.” To prevent this, some companies have a rumor-mill site ontheir intranet to flush out what’s being said. They try to correct it withaccurate information.

Roll out the plan
Schneider Electric is a global firm based in France, with North Americanheadquarters in Palatine, Illinois. It takes a strong, proactive stance onstrategic communications. “It’s important, especially in a globalcorporate culture, to be able to align resources with corporate strategy,”says Peggy Gann, vice president, human resources and administration atSchneider. “The message has to be consistent from the CEO to HR tocorporate communications to front-line supervisors. If you don’t have thatkind of communication, you’ll have local strategies that will continue and maywell be juxtaposed to the overall plan. It can delay new products to market,delay execution and distribution. You’ll confuse the customer because localunits will retain their spin.”

Once Schneider has the plan in place, the company then focuses on worldwidedistribution through the typical variety of channels to reach its 61,000employees. The firm uses print media in the form of newsletters and magazines,face-to-face communication — sessions in which the CEO meets with large groupsof employees — video broadcasts, fax broadcasts, direct-mail pieces, e-mail andthe company intranet site.

Their struggle with infrastructure was no different from other global firms,where local units and different countries have different kinds of technology.”You really have to create an infrastructure link of technology that allowsall of you to talk with one another,” says Gann. They chose to purchase24,000 copies of Lotus Notes® as the standard technology software for thecompany. “It was a huge investment, but we knew we had to be sure we couldtalk to our people all over the world,” says Gann.

One of the first things Schneider Electric does when it rolls out its designis to work with senior management. They talk through the messages they want tosend to employees, decide which audiences match what type of delivery mechanism.”We decide which messages we want our employees and customers to be awareof, then we develop the format and put together an annual plan that reflects themessage — where it will be delivered, when, and how it will bereinforced.”

The company also puts together “talking points” for line managersand supervisors who’ll be asked many of the questions regarding both thestrategic and tactical issues. For example, these points may focus onemployee-retention issues. Managers could learn that the company had the lowestturnover it’s had in three years; that it had trained 8,000 people theprevious year or spent 2 percent of the sales dollars in training. These pointsallow managers to talk with groups of people in a more knowledgeable way.

The front-line worker is much more knowledgeable than ever before because ofthese communications tools. And front-line supervisors actually have morecredibility than other people within the organization because they work withtheir teams. The better informed they are about certain issues, the morecredibility they have when they communicate to their direct reports.

Assess the delivery’s success
Schneider Electric is also conscientious about assessing its success. Thecompany conducts an annual employee-satisfaction survey, in which it asksseveral questions about corporate communication. The poll drives the annualcommunications plan because they use the results to determine what tactics needto be applied to get the messages across.

The organization also holds forums, in which team executives meet withemployees to discuss and flesh out some of the issues identified in the poll.They conduct the surveys in January, which gives time to analyze them and usethe information in the budgeting process, which flows into the communicationplanning process.

Another way to appraise if stakeholders are receiving the right message is toconstruct teams as Goman suggests. Create a communication-advisory team whosesole purpose is to comment on communications. In a global organization, shecreates a group with a few representatives from each country. Find out who theinformal decision makers are, and put them on your team. Each time the companybegins a major communication, such as a speech or special initiative, she sendsout an e-mail to solicit their reactions.

The workforce has changed, and consequently, communications have changed,too. Stories that circulate must be consistent with your corporate culture andvision if communication efforts are to succeed. Global organizations have towork especially hard to develop a strategy that’ll deliver the right messageto other regions of the world. If you don’t understand how to communicate witha diverse group of employees, they won’t understand what you’re trying totell them.

Workforce, November 1999, Vol. 78, No. 11, pp.50-56Subscribenow!

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