Language pervades every aspect of organisational life. It touches everything either spoken or written.

One of the big challenges facing companies in Asia Pacific is determining what their language strategy should be.

If businesses hire on language capability, they inevitably reduce the size of the available talent pool and run the risk of missing out on some of the more technically qualified candidates.

Alternatively, should companies take a different approach and go for native talent and hire translators to help overcome any resulting language barriers?

Developing a comprehensive strategy for managing languages can help transform vulnerability into a source of competitive advantage.

I know of one major multinational which has a strategy whereby the vast majority of the offices work in local language and English is not a requirement. For them it is about ensuring they have the maximum access to talent.

Then there is the challenge of what constitutes a good grasp of a language. Some people will say they are fluent but in actual fact have a fairly rudimentary grasp of the language. Often people can speak a language but are not able to write it. Mandarin is a particularly good example of this whereby sometimes people can speak the language but are less confident at writing to a business standard.

Of course, only being able to speak the local language will have consequences in terms of further career progression outside of region with mobility being that much harder.

South East Asia has a huge talent pool, especially in the Consumer and Industrial sector but, predominantly, commercial activity is conducted in the local languages as English is not commonly used as a business language.  This means talent who have bi-lingual capabilities are being snapped up by MNCs as they can bridge the language barrier gap.

Choosing a common language can dramatically improve how employees collaborate across borders but this introduces new challenges. The decision to adopt a common language must be balanced with the need to speak local languages and adapt to local cultures.

Companies may decide to have English as their common language but may also identify several other languages as important to serving local markets.

A further complexity is that in order to advance into more senior roles, a certain level of fluency in English is generally deemed essential.

In order to address this issue, a number of MNCs build English lessons into the career development plans of many of their most promising talent.

  • Armstrong Craven is a global talent mapping and pipelining specialist with offices in the UK and Singapore.

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