In the past fifty years, Western multinational corporations were virtually unopposed in their globalization efforts and international expansions in the global industrial pump and rotary equipment markets. Relying heavily on historical technological dominance and sheer economic might, Western companies were able to cement themselves in markets previously untouched by corporate globalization. Fast forward to today, however, and it’s easy to see just how drastically the playing field has shifted.
Many companies in pump-related industries—manufacturers of pumps or motors to firms providing engineering design or controls systems—from both emerging economies and recently established economic powerhouses have firmly entrenched themselves as global competitors in markets that were typically dominated by Western firms. In fact, it is commonplace for well-known American brands of pump systems to own subsidiary companies based in Europe or Asia. Internal communication within such organizations can present a challenge because, although international coworkers may be conversationally fluent in one another’s languages, the technical jargon needed to effectively communicate the information of a controls system can prove elusive.
In the face of international competition in various sectors of the pump market, Western companies continuously search for ways to streamline their business practices in order to remain competitive. One such area has been under a particularly strong microscope within the last decade—the language of internal communication. English has been permanently established as the language of international business. And although this has long been considered a strategic advantage for Western businesses in the global pump market, it can also present itself as an Achilles heel to productivity and budget in regards to internal communication at the international level.
With so many pump and rotary equipment companies having branches, subsidiaries, and partners in Europe and Asia, the language of internal communication presents a unique challenge for companies looking to save time and money in decision-making processes. Although technological advances have indeed helped, there is simply no substitute for adequate English language skills for foreign staff. English training for foreign staff is a well proven step to help counteract international language differences. But when written English has the potential to cost tens of millions of dollars or months’ worth of scheduling setbacks, multinational corporations are beginning to realize and implement an immediate solution: bypassing the language barrier altogether.
Ingenium Linguistic Services began in 2010 as a consultancy firm in Hamburg, Germany, offering English training and communication coaching specifically designed for engineers and technical personnel. By developing and providing English training curriculums based upon the technical needs of clients, Ingenium English trainers often become extremely familiar with the inner workings of their clients’ corporate environment. The weekly lessons for one client in particular, an American-owned agro-processing plant in Hamburg, normally began with a quick warm-up discussion of the engineers’ projects, progress, and technical challenges. It wasn’t long before Ingenium trainers began to notice a trend in progress reports from the engineering staff: proposed project schedules were continuously being pushed back due to language-based questions and clarification requirements from mid- and high-level corporate managers responsible for approving the project funding requests.
As in many companies, large-scale project funding requests for foreign plants and offices require approval from management at corporate headquarters. In the case of the Hamburg agro-processing plant, the approval process requires submission to multinational European management before being sent to America for final approval. However, the engineers and project managers, most of whom are German, are personally responsible for compiling and submitting all necessary documentation and descriptions for project funding requests—in English.
On the whole, German engineers tend to have a higher than average level of English competency. But even native English speakers can struggle with the monster that is technical English. Process description, component specification, and persuasive writing are often the bane of English-speaking engineering undergraduates. When such writing is required by someone who speaks English as a second language, it’s clear to see how difficult it can be to accurately write process system descriptions and proposals clear enough obtain a signature often worth tens of millions of Euros.
Recognizing both the cost of such miscommunication and the rich teaching opportunities contained therein, Ingenium English trainers began incorporating the engineers’ own technical writing into the English lessons. The engineers began bringing in drafts of their proposals to the lesson and submitting them to the English trainers prior to the lesson. The trainers would then display the drafts with projectors and smartboards for use as a teaching tool – correcting the students’ grammar, explaining the relevant linguistic concepts, and then using the drafts to segue into an English lesson focused on the specific technical English requirements of the students.
Everybody was in a winning position; engineers were having their proposals corrected by a technically competent native English speaker and the English trainers were handed the most valuable teaching resource they could ask for on a weekly basis. This trend continued for several months in different classes within the Hamburg agro-processing plant.
Over time, writing correction shifted from a simple warm-up exercise to the full-blown focal point of the English lessons. Also around this time, previously submitted proposals obtained their approval much faster due to a steep reduction in back-and-forth clarification requirements brought about by poor English legibility and contextual mistakes. Plant management naturally took notice and began holding talks with Ingenium to develop a systematic solution for the correction of internal international project proposals.
Ingenium was presented with the challenge of developing a document tracking and review system for integration with the client’s existing electronic communication system. The process was to be implemented first at a local level and therefore had to be kept within a tight budget in terms of technological requirements. Direct translation was quickly ruled out not only due to substantially increased costs, but because the engineering staff members were seeing definite improvements in their English skills by writing the drafts themselves and having access to the professionally corrected versions.
Luckily, text is the most universally convertible and transmittable form of electronic communication. Using browser-based open-source software, Ingenium devised a simple submission-correction-proof-return framework for the clarification of English project proposals. The system required no additional software or installations on either end and used E-mail as the primary means of submission and return. A mail-filter system was used to automatically direct submissions to the appropriate Ingenium staff member who would then obtain the necessary clarifications from the engineers. After making the subsequent language corrections, documents were then passed along to an internal Ingenium proofreader. The loop was then closed by returning the corrected and proofed documentation back to the original submitter and was normally completed within 1 working day.
This unique symbiosis has been in place since November 2011 and has been utilized an average of four times a month to date. Months’ worth of valuable project scheduling time has been saved and the client has seen significant financial benefit due to the decrease in time lost to language-based miscommunication.
Now, Ingenium is working to further expand the program to accommodate for additional communications including internal emails, contractor bid requests, and communications with foreign customers and suppliers. The program is also being expanded to accommodate the internal communications for other plants owned by the same company in northern Germany.
As emerging economies begin to encroach upon markets previously dominated by Western businesses, Western companies need to be able to streamline their business practices if they’re going to stay competitive. Internal communication is an area where this is most easily achieved. Ingenium’s unique solution for correcting and approving international technical communication has shown that although language will always be a communication barrier for multinational firms, it’s not a barrier that one must pass through – just go around it. ■
David Willenberg is the founder and director of Ingenium Linguistic Services. For more information on Ingenium’s technical language training and consultancy, visit
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