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Paper for the Nordic Workshop on Interorganisational Research, No.12
Kolding 16. – 18. August 2002
Helle Andersen
(free lance interpreter and teacher at Southern Denmark University, Odense)
Killerupgade 4A
5220 Odense SØ
6615 9482
[email protected]
Erik S. Rasmussen
Southern Denmark University, Odense
Department of Marketing
Campusvej 55
5230 Odense M
6550 3370
[email protected]
I. The Research Setting
Several studies in the last 20 (or more) years have focused on how international firms manage their
subsidiaries abroad, see e.g. Forsgren & Pahlberg (1992); Roth & Morrison (1992); Holm et al.
(1995); Andersson (1997); Barkema & Vermeulen (1997); Barkema et al. (1997); Taggart (1997);
Birkinshaw & Hood (1998); Tsang (1999); Foss & Pedersen (2002); Paterson & Brock (2002). The
research has looked into almost all aspects of the problems between headquarters and foreign subsidiaries, but one topic has – in our opinion – not been thoroughly researched: The question of how
language problems are solved. This topic can be seen in a larger research setting as a part of the
corporate internal – and to some extent external – communication.
In this paper we will thus focus on the communication between the company and its subsidiaries
abroad – and especially the importance of language skills. The object of the paper is to discuss how
relations to foreign markets are handled in a communicative perspective through subsidiaries. The
discussion will be based on a study of the relations between manufacturers from Funen and their
French subsidiaries. The majority of the companies are producers of advanced machinery and processing lines. The y develop, produce and sell unique products often in a close and necessary cooperation with the client.
As mentioned, research on international firms pays very little attention to the impact of language on
their organisational structure. Though research on the concept of psychic distance in the early seventies focused on language as one of the barriers in internationally working companies' contact with
foreign markets, the topic was rapidly abandoned, presumably because it was linked so closely to
the much criticised concept of psychic distance. The literature on international firms over the last 25
years has focused increasingly on the topic of communication and cross-cultural communication.
Despite this the contribution of language skills to the communication processes taking place inside
the organisation and between the organisation and its environment has not seemed a topic at all to
organisational researchers.
Our search in a number of scientific databases clearly states this impression as the search for articles
combining the key words: language - international firms - communication - export as well of variations of this terms only came up with very few articles. A number of these articles are written by
consultants specialised in inter-unit teambuilding processes or by journalists focusing more on the
development of guidelines and problem detection for internationally companies The major ideas
and conclusions of this articles will be presented shortly in a diachronic perspective.
Very few articles are thus discussing the problems of language in the co-operation between a headquarter with one language and a subsidiary with another language. One of the few is Marschan et
al. (1997) with a title, which almost could have been used as the title of this paper: “Language, the
forgotten factor in multinational management ”. As the authors states language has tended to be
given in the research on multinational firms even though there is an increasing focus on communication processes and network development. The implicit solution in much research is, that language
standardisation has solved the problems of different languages in the subsidiaries of the multinational organisation. But, as the authors point out, language standardisation is not the same as assuring meaningful communication. Instead pour communication across languages is often one of the
major problems in the integration of subsidiaries in different countries.
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The development in the multinational firms towards flatter structures and horizontal co-operation
and communication to ensure the integration of all parts of the firm1 makes the dependency of a
common language even stronger. The horizontal communication depends almost always on a network of personal relationships, which are language dependent. This informal information flow is
the basis for an effective horizontal communication, but the issue of language skills – which are
extremely important – is ignored in almost all literature on informal communication, as Marschan et
al. (1997) points out.
The main question for Marschan et al. (1997) is thus: “how do staff who are only fluent in their
mother tongue, which is not the selected company language, operate across the organisation’s
functional and national boundaries?”(p.593). This question is especially important when we look
at firms from small language groups like Finland or Denmark.
Marschan et al. (1997) found different kinds of solutions to these problems. First of all there is the
passive behaviour where problems of language are ignored or disregarded. This typically means that
communication is not read or heard and effective communication is thus prevented by the lack of
language fluency. Another solution is the use of language intermediaries within the subsidiary or at
the mother company. Very often an expatriate – or another person with a good knowledge of the
‘official language’ – is approached to translate and becomes a ‘language node’ in the communication. The person who is ‘language node’ has often not an official position in the communication
network but is taken away from his or her official work to translate. Still another solution is to build
up informal networks of matching language skills outside the subsidiary – at other subsidiaries and
in the headquarters. Marschan et al. (1997) mentions an example with a Spanish subsidiary of the
Finnish firm Kone where the managers made a list of Spanish speaking persons from the Kone telephone directory. These persons made up a small but very efficient personal network at the headquarter and at other subsidiaries.
None of the mentioned solutions are especially efficient or useful in the long run. Instead a solution
could be that all employees learn the official company language (in most cases, this means English).
Only recruiting English speaking personnel can also do this. This solution looks quite simple, but
there is a tendency to forget that the major task of the subsidiary is to be locally responsive – to be
in contact with customers, stakeholders, and others in there local language. Therefore Marschan et
al. (1997) states: “Being locally responsive in the language context is also a requirement for effective communication with external stakeholders at the subsidiary level. The standardisation of language is fraught with similar difficulties to those associated with marketing and other global activities” (p.595).
Two years later Marschan et al. (1997) was followed by another paper by the same authors and with
the Finnish firm Kone as the empirical ground. This paper Marschan-Piekkari et al. (1999) is
though more focused on the impact of language on structure, power and communication in a multinational firm. One of the major conclusions seen from our point of view is, that staff with superior
language capabilities is able to build strong personal networks within the multinational firm. Language becomes in this way an informal source of expert power in the co-operation between a multinational firm and its subsidiary abroad.
See e.g. Hedlund (1986); Bartlett & Ghoshal (1989)
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The main purpose of Marschan-Piekkari et al. (1999) is to explore the impact of language on communication within large and geographical dispersed multinationals. The paper is based on an indepth exploratory case study of the Finnish multinational company Kone and its subsidiaries. The
research context is that of organisational changes in multinationals from hierarchical structures to
less hierarchical and more horizontal structures. Previous research on this topic suggests that this
shift in the multinationals is accompanied by an increased focus on flexible inter-unit communication and team-building processes as a means to assure informal control mechanisms and to create
networks of personal relationships. The personal networks are seen as vital to the transmission of
expertise from one unit to another within the organisation. However to Marschan-Piekkari, Welch
and Welch both multinationals and researchers have neglected the role played by language as a potential barrier to the inter-unit communication. On this background, they set out to explore the role
of language in the MNC inter-unit communication and its effect in terms of:
1) Control and co-ordination processes and procedures
2) Language as a source of power
3) Language and organisational structure
The communication structure is studied not only in a traditional subsidiary - headquarter perspective but also includes the inter-subsidiary relationships, as these seem to gain importance.
The case study was conducted as a series of 110 interviews with employees selected from three organisational levels: top management; middle management and operational level. The interviewees
represented 25 units based in non-English speaking countries, English being the company language.
The 25 units were each selected according to variations in geographical location, size, economic
importance, year of acquisition, and cultural background. 65% of the interviewees mentioned language as a factor in the communication with other units in Kone. The attitudes to the role of la nguage in the communication process taking place inside the Kone organisation are studied from
three perspectives:
1) Language as a barrier
2) Language as a facilitator
3) Language as a source of power
Language as a barrier is a well-known phenomenon to cross-cultural communication research and
the Kone case showed an evident problem in two fields. 1) Within the immediate field of communication - distorted communicatio n, communication that was delayed or not transmitted at all operation manuals written in English and impossible to read for the Spanish speaking personal.
2) Within the field of establishing networks - limited skills in English made it impossible to many
middle managers and employees at operational level to join training programmes organised by
Kone. It was thus impossible to create personal ties to employees in other units opening up for possibilities to seek advice, access critical information earlier, and to speed up the decision-making
process at subsidiary level. A group of largely Spanish speaking personal was isolated within the
company not being considered cand idates to training programmes.
The coping strategies developed by the subsidiaries to overcome the language barrier are those of
internal (unauthorised) translation of company documentation, the use of intermediaries with skills
in the company language or in Finnish, the top management being largely Finnish speaking.
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As well as lack of language skills can be seen to have very negative consequences to an employee's
possibilities to access the communication networks, the possession of the relevant language skills
can facilitate the inter-unit communication flows. The Kone data show that persons with good skills
in English (and Finnish) who are able to play the role of language intermediary / translator can obtain a higher status in the organisation than their functional position would normally justify.
At subsidiary level, a regional co-operation was established in several cases on the basis of a shared
language other than English. This was the case of a German - Austrian co-operation and that of a
Spanish - Italian co-operation which were established in order to offer joint training courses. In one
case, Spanish managers went to visit other subsidiaries in order to establish personal relations to
Spanish speaking employees, which could function as an alternative communication network. These
are ways in which language is used in a conscious way to facilitate the sharing of advice, information, and knowledge.
Language as a source of power: Kone has introduced English as the (only) company language and
company communication like the annual report is only published in English but the analysis of the
Kone data show that language imposes its own structure on communication networks. Inter-unit
communication appeared to a high degree to be person-bound and the communication in these ne tworks was channelled through employees who were particularly capable of speaking the relevant
foreign language. In this way employees in the Kone subsidiaries could gain more influence than
their position in the organisation would normally allow.
The analysis has shown that the use of language influences the communication networks within
Kone. The introduction of English as company language has not eliminated this problem and underlying the formal organisational structure the use of foreign languages created a shadow structure
based on shared languages other than English and language mediators / nodes. This shadow structure based on language seemed to be an important aspect of the subsidiary's power base.
One of the other articles focussing on language in the internationalisation of the firm is Crick
(1999). This article investigates the use of language within UK small and medium- sized firms with
export. The result from a large survey points to the conclusion that most firms are aware of the importance of languages but this is not reflected in their daily work and not within the recruitment and
training of personnel. Seen from our point of view especially the documentation of communication
problems in English speaking firms is interesting.
The research topic is placed in a cross-cultural perspective, the use of foreign languages being one
of the most salient elements of the communication of internationally working firms. The immediate
research context is set by two studies referred to by Crick reporting:
1) That approximately 33% of English companies experience language problems in
their contact with foreign markets
2) That UK companies in general are losing valuable trading opportunities because
they lack language skills in certain la nguages
Related to the main topic of managers' perceived importance and benefits of using foreign la nguages in their export operations, Dave Crick studies a number of related themes which are:
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1) Issues preventing their use
2) The functional use of languages within businesses and
3) The firms' recruitment and training policies in respect to languages.
Crick divides the firms in 4 groups according to their size, but all 4 groups of managers show the
same attitude towards the use of foreign languages. All of them see the use of foreign languages as
important to their firms' operations and for the same two reasons. The use of foreign languages enhances image and increase orders. The managers also agree on the reason for the benefits of foreign
language skills. It signals a willingness to come forward to meet the clients and is thus closely related to the image aspect and the relational field. A significant difference in attitude can be noticed
though when it comes to the issue of why languages are not put to use in the firm. To firms with
less than a hundred employees the arguments of English as a widely spoken language, lack of relevant skills, time and cost involved are given a high priority whereas companies with more than a
hundred employees see these aspects as less important.
Within the domain of recruitment and training policies all four groups of firms show identical behaviour. One half of the firms confirm to look for people with language skills when they are recruiting new employees whereas the other half doesn't look for this particular competence in the recruiting process. In general the firms don't provide any language training for their employees, neither do
they try to encourage the employees to take up language training. On the contrary, the companies
seem to rely on the employees' existing language skills.
Cricks findings correspond with our observations in the field of recruitment and training policies for
the Danish firms and the paper furthermore is a contribution to the discussion on the introduction of
English as company language in many internationally working companies as a strategy to overcome
the language barrier.
Mel Berger, see Berger (1998), works as a consultant in team building processes and in his article
he identifies the cross cultural skills that are essential for the communication with others for whom
English is not their first language. The article presents a short case about a teambuilding training
session in an English-French Company. Berger presents some guidelines ho w to evaluate a person’s
communicative skill. To Berger communicative skills mean to be able to understand the listener’s
situation and to adapt ones speech to the listener’s level of understanding. Communicative skills are
based on four competencies:
1) Gauging one's level of jargon and speed of delivery to the language fluency of the
2) Recognising the differing meanings of verbal and non- verbal behaviour
3) Listening and questioning to understand the views and opinions of others
4) Awareness of what is expected at the initial stage of building a relationship in order to build sufficient trust to work together productively.
The case example showed that the English employees were hard to understand for their French colleagues because of their speed of talking and their extensive use of jargon. The French employees
were contrarily seen as irrational and lacking credibility because of their enthusiastic communication style and their emotional approach to discussions.
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The consultant William Oncken III, see Oncken III (1998), works along the same line although he
is dealing with different registers within the same language, not with different languages. He offers
a definition of communication that we will refer to in our paper. To Oncken III: Communication is
the chain of understanding that integrates an organization form top to bottom, form bottom to top,
and from side to side…Chains of understanding are not easy to design or to maintain.
Freelance writer Jean Cumming, see Cumming (1998), deals in her article with the strategies Canadian bankers put into use in order to adapt their services to a multiethnic, multicultural and multilinguistic society. In opposition to the other articles Cumming deals with companies which face
multi- linguicity on their immediate home market. According to the author, most Canadian banks
have a positive cultural response to the multiethnic character of the the ir markets, expressed e.g. by
the celebration of "ethnic" holidays. The linguistic element in this celebration is quite obvious, for
example greetings and wishes in Tagalog, Gwich'in, Mandarin etc. Employees are taught to say
simple greetings in the langua ge of their clients as well as printed materials are available in their
mother tongue. The telephone banking services have put a very conscious effort into the recruiting
of bilingual personal. To a certain extend traditions from the clients' cultural background are integrated in the services of the banks, for instance in relation to gift giving traditions. The benefits of
this multi- linguistic profile are difficult to estimate but the bank managers consider it a strength in
respect to image. One bank manager is reported to say that thereby they gain valuable experience in
cross-cultural communication, which can be brought into use when it comes to operations on foreign markets.
If we take a look at language problems and language skills in the broader context of the internatio nalisation of firms it is interesting to see a parallel to the concept psychic distance, see e.g. Vahlne &
Wiedersheim Paul (1973); Sullivan & Bauerschmidt (1990); Klein & Roth (1990); Nordstrom &
Vahlne (1994); O'Grady & Lane (1996). The idea that the distance between a firm’s home country
and a potential export country not should be measured in kilometres or miles but as a psychic distance involves measures of cultural distance but also language distance. The concept of psychic
distance was heavily criticised – see e.g. Czinkota & Ursic (1987); Sullivan & Bauerschmidt
(1990); Nordstrom & Vahlne (1994); O'Grady & Lane (1996); Stöttinger & Schlegelmilch (1998) –
and almost disappeared from the internationalisation of the firm literature. One of the reasons for
overlooking the language problems in the internalisation literature is maybe that language has been
closely connected to psychic distance.
II. Methodology and data
The empirical data for the paper stems from exploratory research amongst Danish firms with subsidiaries in France. Through a database of Danish firms (CD-Direct) 30 firms with subsidiaries in
France were identified. All these firms are placed on the island of Funen, which has app. 15% of all
Danish firms. The firms were contacted by telephone to identify the person responsible for the
communication with France. A questionnaire with several open-ended questions was send by mail
to this person. 15 usable questionnaires were returned together with several e- mails with comments
and telephone conversation with several respondents.
The larger research setting is a project, which aims at looking at all types of business contacts with
French speaking markets. Four types of relations to the markets have been identified together with
the communication typically used in each relation.
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Figure 1: Typology of firms with relations to the French speaking markets
Type of relation
1. Firms with sparse contacts to France
– economically insignificant
2. Firms with periodically large customers in France. The individual order
is economically significant for the firm
3. Firms with intensive contact with
different kind of customers in France
4. Firms with intensive contact with
different kind of customers in France
systematised by the use of subsidiaries
in France
Communication in English
No plan for using French speaking resources in the firm
Systematic search for customers
Communication in English
External help is used for special purposes – translation of
technical matters, etc.
Systematic use of linguistic competencies in the firm
Communication in French
External help is perhaps used for specialised purposes –
translation of technical matters, etc.
Communication with the market is almost the subsidiaries
The employees at the subsidiary are almost all French
Communication between the headquarter and the subsid iary is in English
The formal French linguistic competence at the headqua rter is only used for quite simple routine tasks
Often native speakers in the headquarter are used as ‘la nguage nodes’
The data for this article comes merely from firms from group four – Danish firms with subsidiaries
in France. It is interesting to see the major difference regarding the use of linguistic competence
between firms from group three and four. Both types of firms have intensive and long- lasting relations with customers and suppliers in France, but the firms from group four operate in arms- length
through the use of one or more subsidiaries. The linguistic competence is thus merely developed
and extended in firms from group three.
As mentioned the questionnaires consisted primarily of questions with open-ended answers plus a
few questions regarding the firm – number of employees, type of products, etc. The respondents
were the one responsible for the communication with France and typically it was a person with
some kind of formal education in French. The respondents were often very frustrated by the lack of
professional communication in their firms. Often a lot of the core communication was given to a
person with a background in French – e.g. an engineer from France – who did not have the formal
education to translate between French and Danish. This frustration gave long answers from many of
the respondents – indicating that an emotional and important question was touched.
All the correspondence with the respondents (questionnaire, ema il, telephone conversation, etc.)
indicated, that the communication to French customers was separated in two sharply divided circuits – the communication between the mother company and the subsidiary and the communication
between the subsidiary in France and the customers. To that could be added a third circuit – the
communication between the customers in France and the mother company in Denmark. The contact
to the French employees in the subsidiary is extremely sparse and typically only one person at the
subsidiary has any contact with Denmark. The employees at the French subsidiary are, for example,
not invited to visit the firm in Denmark. This means that the firm will not get very valuable information regarding, for example, the culture, the customers, reactions to new products, ideas, etc.
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III. Definitions
By ’corporate communication’ we understand the communication, which takes place inside the
company – inside divisions, between divisions, between headquarter and subsidiary – and between
the company and its environment, for example customers. We will primarily focus on the internal
communication between the Danish headquarter and the French subsidiaries. The corporate communication will be discussed in relation to two key concepts:
Core communication
Functional communication
‘Core communication’ is a parallel to the concept of ‘core competence’ and covers the communicative activities, which are vital to the development of the firm. This innovative activity takes place in
a close co-operation between the client and employees placed in the firm’s headquarter. Core communication is thus intended to establish and maintain the relationships in which the individual solutions are designed.
By ‘functional communication’ we understand a set of communicative standard routines – e.g.
traditional business letters and technical documentation. The ‘functional communication’ covers the
implementation of the agreement that the parties engaged in the innovative process have reached
and on the relational level it establishes a two-part relationship distributing obligations and responsibility.
As mentioned it is often postulated that the general language skills are improving (read the ability to
use English amongst non native speakers are spreading rapidly), but we mean that is necessary to
distinguish between language skills and communication skills. A manager from the UK is of course
very skilled in speaking English, but not necessarily skilled in communication, see e.g. Berger
(1998). Through a technical competence it is often seen that the persons with almost no common
language are able to communicate. It could be an engineer from one country discussing a technical
problem with two technicians from some other country. This kind of technical, functional communication is limited to solutions of well known day-to-day problems. When it comes to core communication regarding e.g. contracts the technical and functional language is no longer enough. In the
same way the technical, functional language is often limited to face-to-face communication and can
not be used in conversation through email, telephone etc. – even if this is informal communication,
IV. Overview of results
It has been important in this preliminary research to see how the Danish firms find solutions to their
communication problems with the French subsidiaries. Data from the survey based on companies
from Funen show that the communication between the mother company and the French market is
organised in three circuits:
Circuit 1: Headquarter and foreign subsidiary
Circuit 2: Subsidiary and home market - clients
Circuit 3: Headquarter and clients – after sales service or follow up
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If we place the communication (divided in functional / core communication and in English and
French) in a matrix, we get the following broad picture:
Figure 2:Typology of communication
Communication in English
Functional communication Circuit 1
Circuit 2
(Circuit 3)
Core communication
Circuit 1
Circuit 2
Circuit 3
Communication in French
Circuit 1
Circuit 2
Circuit 3
Circuit 1
Circuit 2
Circuit 3
When the communication between the firm in Denmark and its subsidiary in France (and the customers in France) is split up in functional and core communication and in English and French as the
main language the picture looks as in the matrix above.
1: The functional day-to-day communication can be organised with English as the main language
between the mother company in Denmark and the subsidiary in France. This raises often new types
of problems as it can be seen in the case studies later in this article. Sometimes the communication
between the headquarter and the French customer is organised in English e.g. when negotiating details in contracts.
2: It is often seen that the day-to-day communication between the headquarter and the subsidiary
has to be organised in French due to lack of English speaking personnel in the French subsidiary.
The communication between the subsidiary and the custome rs in France will of course be in French,
but then the communication between customers and the headquarter in Denmark often has to go
through the subsidiary.
3: The core communication – e.g. negotiating a large contract with a customer in France – is often
organised in English due to the fact that several persons in the headquarter will be involved in this
communication. As we will show later in the case studies organising the core communication in
English – ‘the language of this firm is English’ is not quite as simple as it sounds. The communication between the mother firm and the subsidiary will be in English, but typically only a few –
maybe one single person in the subsidiary – are able to speak English at a core communication
level. The Danish firm and the French customers will be negotiating the major elements in e.g. a
contract in English, but the implementation of the contract and task of finding new customers etc.
will be the subsidiary’s. This communication will be in French. The subsidiary is in this communication situation lacking information about core elements of the communication in the firm. Seen
from the Danish side the subsidiary is often seen as lacking competence in negotiating contracts and
is not seen as capable of working on its own.
4: The alternative when organising the core communication is to use French as the ‘official’ language in the communication between the mother company, the subsidiary and the customers in
France. The advantage of doing this is that the subsidiary typically is capable of taking a more responsible role in e.g. negotiating large contracts. Often it is seen that only one or two persons in
Denmark is capable of speaking French at a high level. And often this person (or these persons) is
placed in focus of the core communication because of his or her knowledge of French and not be-
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cause they formally are assigned a role in the firm’s core communication with the French market. It
could be an engineer who is married to a French woman and who speaks perfect French. He is then
assigned the role of communicating with the French customers and the subsidiary and will have the
function of a ‘communication node’ as mentioned earlier.
As seen in Figure 2 there will always be problems of communication whatever solution the firm has
chosen. These problems are summed up in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Problems in communication
Communication in English
Circuit 1 – problems in subsid iary
communication Circuit 2 – not existing?
(Circuit 3) – problems for clients
Circuit 1 – problems for many emplo ycommunication ees in the subsidiary
Circuit 2 – subsidiary excluded from
communication with clients
Circuit 3 – large problems for subsidiary and possible problems for clients
Communication in French
Circuit 1 – problems in HQ
Circuit 2 – lack of information to HQ
(Circuit 3) – (possible problems in HQ)
Circuit 1 – problems for many emplo yees in HQ)
Circuit 2 – HQ to a large extent excluded from communication with clients
Circuit 3 – large problems in HQ due to
lack of information
As we can see from the matrix, this way of organising the communication creates big problems in
circuit three, where the mother company is dealing directly with the client. Often the Danish companies express these problems in terms of unsatisfactory market shares. The subsidiary is often seen
as either lacking the competence to take over responsibility for e.g. negotiations with customers
(when the language is English) or the subsidiary is not giving enough information to the mother
company (when the language is French).
The picture given here is of course quite simplified as a simple choice between English or French.
In the real world the choices are not so quite straightforward but is often a muddling-through finding the best solutions from day-to-day. This often implies a mixture of French and English depending on the situation and which persons are ready to take over a certain task. As e.g. Marschan et al.
(1997) shows the middle managers that are responsible of finding the solutions often find their own
personalised solutions to the language problems. It can for example for a Spanish subsidiary be a
list of Spanish speaking personnel at the mother company. People on the list are then used as key
informants when the Spanish managers need information from the mother company. This way of
building your own network of communication to overcome the language problems are seen in the
Danish firms too, but at minor scale as the Danish firms are a lot smaller than Kone used as case
study in Marschan et al. (1997).
V. Case studies
Following the general picture of language and communication problems in Danish firms with subsidiaries in France we will take a closer look at a few of the firms. Of course the fifteen firms in the
survey each have their own way of finding a solution to the language and communication problems,
but we have found two firms, which can be seen as general cases.
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Case 1: This company produces large machinery, mostly for the construction industry, and it is extremely oriented towards export. In total it has (with subsidiaries) app. 330 employees of which app.
200 are emp loyed in Denmark. The firm has two large subsidiaries in France and France is an important market for the firm (the percentage of export to France is not known). The firm has only one
employee in Denmark, who is able to speak French even at a functional level.
“We have two large subsidiaries in France and app. 200 employees in Denmark and
I am the only one who is able to speak French. This says something about the machine-industry – and by the way French was not the reason to employ me.”
Respondent comes from case 1. Translated from questionnaire.
The respondent has a master’s degree in Business Economics and French from a Danish university
and she has due to her knowledge of French become a key person in the company’s communication
with the French subsidiaries – despite the fact that the official company language is English.
“Our company language is English, but several of the French employees like to communicate in French – and then they call me, if it really gets hot.”
Respondent comes from case 1. Translated from questionnaire.
It is clear from this case study that the decision to adopt English as the company language does not
eliminate communication problems with subsidiaries in e.g. France. The linguistic competence in
French is thus needed but not recognised in any official way. This means that the respondent (who
functions as a language node in the communication with France) never is able to develop her competence through e.g. courses.
A lot of very important communication goes through this person but it is typically informal communication and the knowledge is not disseminated in the organisation. Because of the lack of a
formal language strategy (except adopting English as the company language) in the organisation the
knowledge exist mostly as ‘tacit knowledge’.
Case 2: This firm produces equipment for automatic distribution of food, drinks, etc. Almost 100%
export sale with France as one of the major markets. Almost 400 employees in Denmark, the number of employees in France is not known. The production is in Denmark and the French subsidiary
has only the responsibility for the sale to France. The respondent has an education in French (and
other languages) from a Danish business school and works as secretary for the managing director.
The respondent has seldom any communication in French.
“Most of our internal correspondence in the company is in English unfortunately
there is not much work with French.”
Respondent comes from case 2. Translated from questionnaire.
The machinery produced is normally standard designed but with the possibility of changing colours
and other decorations. The subsidiaries are responsible for market research, contact to customers,
signing up contracts (within the frame of a standard contract and standard prices), etc. In this way
almost all contact to the French market is done by the subsidiary.
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If we use the previous terms the communication in circuit one between the headquarter and the
French subsidiary is always in French and consist of sales figures, contracts and orders from the
subsidiary and product descriptions and new standards for e.g. contracts from the mother company.
Circuit two – the contacts to the customers – is solely the responsibility of the subsidiary in France
and circuit three does almost not exis t. Orders are given two to three weeks ahead combined with a
system of options for quick deliverance of new orders.
This system is well functioning when the market is stable, but in times of unstable markets (as in
the summer 2002) the time frame for decisions at the headquarter is with this system of almost independent operating subsidiaries only two to three weeks. The lack of communication with the
French market from the headquarter in Denmark makes the firm extremely vulnerable to sudden
changes in the market. Information is mostly given in the form of orders and options and any unrest
in the market – which is not seen in the stock of orders – is not observed by the managers in Denmark.
VI. Conclusion
The communication between a Danish mother company and a subsidiary abroad will necessarily
take place in a foreign language if you consider the communication process from the Danish company’s side. Though English world-wide (in the eyes of many managers) has acquired the reputation and status of a unive rsal language allowing people to communicate with each other no matter
what their native languages are and despite the fact that many French ‘cadres’ speak English, the
companies still prefer that the direct communication with clients or potential clients takes place in
In their search for a cost-efficient way to allocate the sufficient and relevant linguistic resources to
assure the communication process with the French market, a large majority of the concerned companies seem to see the establishment of a subsidiary in France as a pertinent strategy.
In most cases the French subsidiary is a small structure with only a few employees who are in
charge of sales and client contacts. The employees in the French subsidiaries are mainly of French
origin, and it appears that the Danish companies seem to prefer solutions where native speakers deal
with native speakers. This leaves the companies with a problem: how to communicate with the subsidiary?
Here it seems that the companies have two different solutions – English or French. In the machine
industry – and especially the larger firms – English has acquired a certain universality and many
companies have already introduced English as their company language. If this is the case, the
French subsidiary will of course have to adapt to this and use English in its communication with the
Danish mother company. We can see that this creates a situation where almost all employees in the
Danish company can communicate with the French subsidiary. In the French subsidiary we can see
on the contrary that communication in English narrows the communicative potential of the employees. Often only one person – on managerial level - can communicate in English. When other employees who are not so competent in English have to communicate with the Danish company they
will therefore have to turn to informal and individual solutions such as asking friends and colleagues in other departments for help.
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If the communication can take place in French the situation will be reversed. All employees in the
French subsidiary will be able to communicate with the Danish company, whereas the Danish company only dispose of one or two persons who are able to communicate in French – if any at all.
Very few Danes master French at a professional level so it is not likely that the Danish staff will
have this competence and the companies don't seem to valorise formal qualifications within this
field. If the staff in the Danish company counts a person of French origin this person will often be
assigned to the French communication no matter what his or her qualifications are. In one case an
engineer and in another case an agricultural technician is playing the role of language node between
the subsidiary and the mother company and between the clients and the mother company when direct contact between the clients and the mother company makes it necessary.
From the contact to the respondents it is clearly seen, that the contact to the French subsidiary (and
from Denmark to the customers in France) too often is characterised by muddling- through solutions. The company finds somebody in Denmark who has a French background and gives this person the responsibility of being in contact with France. Typically this person has not even a formal
task or position to take over this responsibility. This leads to two major conclusions:
1. The firms are extremely vulnerable. Often one single person at the subsidiary and one person at
the mother firm have the responsibility of managing the French market, which in many cases is an
important market for the firm. The French linguistic resources in the firm are taken as given and are
not developed or secured. Another question is whether the person responsible for the communication with France is capable of doing this.
2. The quality of the communication between the mother firm and the French subsidiary is in no
way secured. Being a good French-speaking engineer in Denmark does not necessarily mean that
you are good at Danish – or good at communicating.
Germany is the single mo st important market for Danish firms, and it is interesting to see, that the
firms in general treat the German market in quite another way than the French market. Linguistic
competence in German is present at many levels in the Firm. It is required at employment and the
companies work hard to develop this competence. This is maybe the reason why the Danish export
to Germany (and England and Sweden) relatively is much higher than to France (and Italy and
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