I work for a global company… in theory. While it is true that we have staff in various important cities around the globe, and we conduct business in most major industrial nations I add the qualifier “in theory” because I have come to believe that most “global” organizations are really not very global at all. This is not the first “global” company I’ve worked for, nor will it likely be the last.
To be more accurate, these are domestic companies who like to sell things overseas. But simply conducting a transaction in another country does not make one global. If that were so then anyone who buys some tacky bit of knick-knack crap on eBay and has it shipped across an international border is a global organization as well. And this isn’t a purely an American phenomenon either. I’ve worked for, with and around “global” companies from the UK, China, Denmark, Germany, France, Australia… all over the world companies are globalizing at an amazing rate. Beyond the pure semantics of the term “global” to describe a company (after all, how much business are we conducting in the Arctic… or at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean… or in the middle of the Gobi desert?) I increasingly believe that there are a few sure signs that your company is not global.
Go to your company’s website. Are the customer service, tech support, and product pages available in multiple languages? Look carefully now, as a common trick is to simply offer a front page that has much of the text translated, yet all of the navigation is still in the corporate mother tongue. Even more common you will find that the “international” pages on the site have limited functionality, or don’t offer all the same resources. How nice it must feel if you are Korean looking for some support on your brand new blue-tooth headset only to find that the troubleshooting guide is only available in English. Apparently things only break in one language.
Taking this whole “why don’t the words you’ve written make any sense to me” thing one step further, it has to be pointed out that the website translation alone is just the tip of a giant iceberg. At a previous job, I was once asked to go to Japan, Korea and China to deliver some new product training to our sales teams, despite the fact that I speak little more than the basic functional niceties in any of those languages. On top of which the training deck I was handed was only available in English. I may as well have been standing up there reciting Shakespeare for all the impact the training had. I was sorely tempted to return from that trip and turn in a summary report of the training exercise written entirely in Hangul.
As a colleague at one of my former employers once observed about translated corporate materials “It seems our policy is to just wait until everyone speaks English and then ask if they would like to buy our stuff.” It’s similar to the idea that if you just speak it loudly enough, everyone understands English. All this pretending to not understand is just a game people play to annoy the Westerners… isn’t it?
Moving on, a global company should be able to support IT requirements in more than one country. I recently had to request a replacement laptop from my IT department. My current laptop is so antiquated that even the Amish make fun of it. It doesn’t so much run applications as it suggests them. The power brick might actually be made out of brick. Adding insult to injury, it is a hand-me-down laptop, re-purposed from a pool of laptops gathered from employees who had quit but whose laptops had not been fully depreciated by the company. Which means that the power supply has a US plug on it. The cover also has a large sparkly sticker on it which is almost but not quite as embarrassing as having to constantly carry around a plug converter just to plug in my laptop. It just screams “Of course I’m a local employee and my company intends to set down permanent roots in your country… but just in case that doesn’t work out, I’m ready to hop in a chopper from the roof of the closest US embassy and hot-foot in on back home where my laptop is actually INTENDED to be used.”
When this beastly contraption finally reached the end of its unnatural life cycle (and yes, no matter how many times it failed to boot, lost files, blue-screened, and nearly caught fire I had to wait until it reached the end of the depreciation schedule before anyone would believe that it had problems) I was eager, nay overjoyed, at the prospect of replacing it. I dutifully filled out my online requisition form (noting it is only available in English – so I hope none of my Chinese colleagues ever need a new laptop) and fired it off for approval. Not that I had a lot of hope. Ordinarily capital expenses requested from beyond the shores of America the Beautiful are treated much like a 16-year-old asking to borrow the car. A healthy dose of skepticism, heaps of warnings of dire consequences if this request proves frivolous, and in most cases flat-out rejection regardless of cause.
“Mother, I need to go to work now. May I borrow the car for the evening seeing as how you are completely engrossed by the “America’s Next Top Model” marathon and won’t budge from the couch all evening?”
“No. Take the bus.”
“Dear IT – our office has burned to the ground destroying all of our laptops and telephones. May we purchase new ones?”
“No. Those laptops don’t fully depreciate for another 17 months.”
“But… they are nothing but cinders now.”
“Use paper. If you need to communicate with people in other places yell loudly or send a letter.”
Given the generally dismissive attitude, I was truly shocked when my request was approved on the first try. And then dismayed when I learned that the laptop would once again be ordered in the US despite the fact that we could order from the SAME company the SAME laptop from here in Singapore. Of course it would cost less in Singapore, have the correct power supply and would actually have a local warranty so if it broke it wouldn’t have to be shipped across the Pacific Ocean for repair. IT is based in the US, so the laptop had to be ordered in the US. Apparently it has been determined that while we are all deemed capable of selling complex technical solutions to our clients around the world, no one in our company other than IT has the ability to install Microsoft Office on a laptop. When I asked if I could at least purchase a new power supply for the laptop locally which uses the correct power connection, I was instructed instead to go purchase an adapter. And not any adapter, a certain adapter which has been approved by IT. And costs more to buy and have shipped from the US than it would cost for me to just buy the local power supply in the first place.
Global indeed. We are so global we ship power adapters around the world to make every place else seem just like America.
This nonsense even extends to our travel policy. Bearing in mind that six or seven (depending upon which list you choose to believe) of the most expensive cities in the world are a regular part of our travel circuit in the region, we are still held to the US standards of not more than $150 per night for a hotel and not more than $35 per day for meals. Taking entirely out of the argument my personal contention that business travelers should be allowed some leeway for comfort given that they are giving up the comforts of their own home often for several weeks out of any given fiscal quarter, I would still challenge you to find a reasonable hotel in Tokyo… or Mumbai… or Sydney… or Singapore… or Shanghai… or Hong Kong for under $150 a night. You may occasionally find an off-peak sale price, but in general a standard room in a Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott or Shangri La business hotel is going to run you at least double that in most of these cities.
And while yes, it is possible for a local who knows the best places to get local hawker stall food for a couple of dollars to stay within in the $35 per day food allowance, it’s not so easy for the business traveler who for the sake of expediency is probably going to take 90% of his (or her) meals within a short walking distance of that same over priced hotel, if not actually in the hotel restaurant itself. Which means that unless you are going to survive on packets of sugar and whatever other hotel guests leave uneaten on their room service trays parked in the hallways, you will either go hungry or go well over the daily meal allowance. The other option of course is McDonald’s for every meal. While I admire the McDonald’s corporate approach to globalization (only offer the exact same things they offer every place else in the world) I’ve seen “Super Size Me” and have no desire to have my liver fail just because I had to travel for three weeks straight.
It’s for these reasons and so many many more that I suggest we scrap the term “globalization” for companies who just happen to have overseas offices and come up with a new term. “Transplantations” sounds a little too medical… “Foreign Invaders” while technically accurate could make it difficult to win over the hearts and minds of the local consumers… So perhaps it is better if we simply refer to ourselves as “Capitalistic Liberators…” A little too Rush Limbaugh for my taste but it will have to do for now. I’m open to any suggestions you may have though…
For now though, I will have to take your leave. I need to go exercise my vocal cords for a training course I need to yell in Beijing next month…
- Learning a new language? Try Globish, author says (reuters.com)
- A wider world, a wider web: my TEDGlobal 2010 talk (ethanzuckerman.com)
- The end of the office (theglobeandmail.com)