Managing difference as easy as one, two, three

October 17, 1997

European decision-makers of the future will have to be proficient in at least three languages, says Nicole de Fontaines

A common language, spoken and understood by all, is a dream for some people and a nightmare for others. The universal language anticipated by so many and dreaded by others is English. The media, the computer industry, new technologies, the Internet, the financial market are dominated by English.

However, it is a terrible mistake to believe that being bilingual is sufficient. In business trilingual graduates are greatly in demand. This trend is reflected in the Community of European Management Schools which brings together 13 leading European business schools. To pass the CEMS masters in business studies one has to be trilingual.

Graduates have been through a tough entrance selection, followed a demanding curriculum in management and stand among the best of their generation I and they all speak English. So why should they have to speak two other languages fluently?

The answer is CEMS' quest for "added-value excellence". The community's corporate partners, 50 major companies, participate in designing the curriculum and have strongly expressed the need for trilingualism.

CEMS is not alone. For example, a Swedish company, a world leader in its field, expects its newly recruited managers to be at least trilingual. They are required to speak English and, if possible, Swedish, but in addition two other languages are sought.

The company's organisation requires all the decision-makers to be involved in the drive to work within multinational firms. Even though English and Swedish are the main "working languages", neither on its own meets all the company's needs. Teams of workers, sales representatives and buyers cannot be motivated in a foreign language.

The idea of the "global village" is an illusion. Apparent harmonisation of markets and the impressively high-speed flow of information should not obliterate the differences and diversities.

Managing these differences is at the heart of management know-how, a reality perfectly understood by advertisers and marketing managers. They aim to apply universal concepts while respecting the differences.

Managers face a paradox: they are asked to understand thoroughly a variety of cultures and inspire multinational teams, but in a unified market in which the enriching differences provide the unity.

The most concrete evidence of these differences is the languages. Those who think that the ideal in one situation can be transplanted elsewhere face failure. Take the story of the car manufacturer which learned too late that the marketing identity of one model meant in vernacular Italian "the oldest profession in the world". Computers have since been programmed to avoid such traps.

The difficulties met by many Asian companies in Europe is also instructive. Discontent among the staff is frequently due to the fact that Asian managers in Europe are not fully immersed in the local language. Expatriates are expected to be immediately operational. A good knowledge of the local language has become essential.

"Management" is an English word, widely used in other languages. But the manager, unlike a rock star who can be understood in 50 languages, has to know how to motivate, speak, analyse, understand and adapt in several other languages.

A truly global approach has never considered national and cultural differences between nations as a problem.

The managers of the future must be totally "international", live in a single, unique universe also rich in differences. Without the ability to communicate in three languages they will be unable to capitalise on the advantages of diversity.

Nicole de Fontaines is executive director of the Community of European Management Schools.

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