After reading a recent post on the HBR Blog Network on how to unify your global company through a common language, which discussed Hiroshi Mikitani’s attempt to unify Rakuten, the third largest e-Marketplace company in the world (with a presence in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania) through a common language, this question surfaces.
In 2010, Mikitani, founder and CEO of Rakuten, decided that he was going to unify the global company through Englishnization — a commitment to make English the company’s official language. This commitment had three phases.
- All workers were required to take a 2-hour 200-question test (TOEIC) to assess their reading and listening comprehension of business English, and continue to take the test until they passed. (Failure to do so could result in demotion.)
- Outside help was brought in to coach employees on how to study and manage the process of learning English.
- English was made the language of meetings.
Why English? Practicality. Many of the most talented individuals in the industries important to Rakuten, such as technology and finance, already spoke English as a first or second language. Many of these individuals were educated in English-speaking institutions. Thirty percent of new hires in Rakuten are non-Japanese, with 50% of new engineer hires non-Japanese. The vast majority do not speak Japanese, but the vast majority do speak English. Their top engineers all over the world can communicate with their top engineers in Japan, who (now) speak English, with the average company TOEIC score having reached 737.3 out of a possible 990 (or 74.5%).
A common language will allow an organization to achieve a true unity of corporate purpose, because it will allow a unity of understanding. And then the organization will be able to manage and innovate as one with speed and precision and truly be global.
But should the language be English? For some multi-nationals, I am beginning to think it should be Mandarin. Despite the fact the cost of fuel keeps rising, that wages in China keep rising, and that supply chains have to adapt and respond faster and faster, outsourcing to China is still rapidly increasing. As per SourcingLine, China’s current outsourcing market is growing an estimated 30% annually, and many companies (like IBM) have relocated division or global headquarters to China to grow and strengthen their global business (and to try and get a dominant foothold in the market that consists of 1.3 Billion potential consumers).
In other words, these companies are sourcing from, managing in, and selling to China, where the dominant language is Mandarin – the language with the most native speakers in the world (that outnumber native English speakers almost 3 to 1). Plus, China is on the fast track to become the dominant economy in the world, an event that could happen in as little as three years (according to recent data from the International Monetary Fund, see the China Digital Times), and will most definitely happen in the next five to ten years if China’s economy keeps growing by leaps and bounds and America’s stays stagnant.
I will admit it will be much harder to Mandarin-ize your Supply Chain that it will be to English-ize, especially since Spanish, Portuguese, and French, which are other dominant global languages, use the same character set (A to Z) while Mandarin uses logograms known as hanzi (which are the counterparts to the Japanese kanji for those of you who speak Nihongo). Furthermore, there’s the special grammar rules for Germanic language speakers who are used to inflection, affixes that denote plurality and tense, and different rules for topic-prominence. However, if China is the heart of your Supply Chain, and thus the heart of your organization, it’s certainly worth considering!