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Going Global? Get a Translator

Today’s guest post is from our board member, Bob Clements and addresses the wisdom of engaging local expertise in the design and implementation of global workforce management systems.


In 1981, President Carter toured Japan and China shortly after leaving the White House.  During this tour, he was asked to speak at a small college in Japan.  Everybody at the college – professors, students and the students’ parents – was nervous when he arrived for his speech.  President Carter decided to put the audience at ease with a joke to start his speech.  He knew the joke wasn’t his funniest, but it was short which he felt was important when translating from English to Japanese.

When his speech started, he told his joke and waited for the translation.  To his surprise, the audience roared with laughter. People were literally falling out of their chairs, as the story goes.  President Carter said that it was the best response that he had ever had to a joke in his life.

After the speech, the President asked the translator how he told the joke, because while the joke was amusing, he was surprised by the reaction.  At first, the translator dodged the question, but finally, he admitted that he did not translate the joke.  Instead, he said to the audience, “President Carter just told a funny story.  Everyone must laugh.”  And they did.

When President Carter recalls this story, he quips how good it is to be the President.  However, when I hear the story, I see how important a good translator is.  In this case, the President’s translator did more than regurgitate language.  He translated culture and social norms.  He knew that the Japanese audience would not understand President Carter’s joke.  He also knew the Japanese would be polite and laugh if asked.  And they did.

In my job, it seems like every company I speak with, regardless of where they are headquartered, is talking about taking their workforce management system and/or processes into one or more new countries.  This may be driven by a strategic initiative to open operations in a new country, the result of an acquisition, or a desire to streamline operations and standardize on a single system or set of processes.

Regardless of what is driving the initiative, I’m always surprised by the lack of knowledge and awareness – dare I say, naiveté – most organizations have when it comes to making a global deployment successful.  Even organizations that have deployed systems and processes globally forget that when you start talking about workforce management – or just about any other human resource-related initiative – you are affecting the way people are scheduled and paid, and when you mess that up, people get really upset.

Making matters more challenging, the rules that govern how people are scheduled and paid can vary dramatically, not just by country, but by region, facility, department, and job.  Variation can even occur by individual.

You cannot succeed in this complex environment on your own.  You need a translator like the one President Carter had.  This isn’t just someone who can speak the language.  It’s someone who understands the culture, and the way that people at your company work in that country.  For many organizations, the translator may be a local HR representative or seasoned manager who knows the local workplace as well as the workforce and the rules that govern them.  Ideally, he or she is well known and respected by the workforce.

Your translator is a strategic part of bringing your workforce management initiative into a new country, not just some lackey there to push through a corporate initiative.  He or she should be identified and involved as part of the project team from its inception.  Early in the project, your translator helps identify cultural, legal and contractual requirements that need to be addressed.  Later in the project, he or she can be your feet on the ground to help introduce the new system or process.  He or she can be your eyes and ears to understand issues with adoption and help identify solutions to overcome such challenges.

Bob’s mention of Jimmy Carter reminds me of another one of his unintended bloopers. In a speech in Poland he said ‘I want to know the Polish people,’ which was translated into Polish as, ‘I want to have carnal knowledge of the Polish people.’

What unintended consequences have you experienced trying to do the right thing, but doing it the wrong way?


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