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Global and Intercultural Fluency: Definition & Ways to Improve

Key Takeaways

1. Globally fluency is an ability to operate at the highest level of international business competence. Globally fluent companies are better prepared and faster to react to shocks and opportunities in their priority markets, making them more agile than competitors.

2. Cultural misunderstandings can be a significant block to international business expansion and success in global markets. Intercultural skills are an important aspect of global fluency which are in high demand amongst employers.

3. Successful global business expansion requires international intelligence around both strategic local issues (political, economic, social etc..) and operational local issues (employment and compliance law, tax regulations etc..).

4. You can make your business more globally fluent through measures including diversifying your workforce, valuing your staff’s international knowledge and skills, and conducting effective international stakeholder engagement.

In today’s international and interconnected world, business success relies on the ability to grasp diverse interests and build strong working relationships across geographies, cultures and languages. Global fluency describes the combined mindset and skillset needed to understand your international customers and suppliers, position your products or services successfully in the global marketplace, and build a robust and credible reputation for your brand worldwide.  

What is global fluency? 

Global fluency is an ability to operate at the highest level of international competence. It combines a range of knowledge, skills and ways of thinking, usually including languages, cultures and social norms, as well as international political and economic acumen. Within a company, global fluency can include or benefit from aspects of global mobility, workforce diversity, and remote working.

The components of global fluency fall roughly into three categories:

  • International understanding
  • This includes language skills, cultural awareness, workforce diversity etc… This understanding gives the ability to gather and use international information effectively.
  • International information
  • For example, possession of relevant strategic and operational data for priority markets, covering the political and economic landscape, and also the legal and regulatory environment.
  • International agility
  • This includes responsive local stakeholder networks, a globally mobile and flexible workforce etc.. Agility is an ability to move fast and accurately, and is enabled by both information and understanding.  

A globally fluent workforce is likely to be more effective across international work, helping to secure and maintain a competitive advantage for your business in the international marketplace.

Without global fluency, emerging multinationals may fail to realize their ambition to become global players in their sectors, while established multinationals could struggle to sustain their global market position. At the same time, businesses taking their first steps into overseas expansion may lack awareness of rising international opportunities, non-domestic strategic risks, or how to effectively influence international perception of their brand.

What are the benefits of global fluency?

The overarching benefit of global fluency for a business is improved ability to operate effectively in the international arena, and greater revenue, productivity and profit as a result. Whether you’re looking to improve performance in existing overseas markets, expand into new markets, or fundamentally reposition your business as a multinational brand, global fluency could be the key you need.

Global fluency can give your business:

  • Broad and deep intelligence
  • Global fluency gives your company the right information and insights to develop and deliver an effective overseas business strategy. Language skills, cultural understanding and a functioning local contact network, can all improve access to this intelligence, ensuring that your staff are knowledgeable and up to date on crucial economic, political and social trends in countries or regions of interest.
  • Flexibility, speed and accuracy
  • Globally fluent companies already have strong international knowledge and networks, which means that they are able to change course quickly and creatively in response to unexpected international opportunities and shocks. Without global fluency, there will be a potentially long preliminary stage of exploring and scoping the situation and alternative options when a problem or opportunity arises, especially if intermediaries must be found and deployed to support you.
  • A good reputation in priority markets
  • If you’re trying to create or enhance your brand and business reputation in local markets then global fluency should be in the toolkit. With native language skills, high levels of cultural appreciation, and deep local market insights, you can build a more intelligent and effectively targeted promotional or public relations campaign. Without these elements, attempts to boost your reputation could be misunderstood or ignored. 

What is intercultural fluency?

Intercultural fluency is the aspect of global fluency focusing specifically on effective working at the conjunction of different cultures. These may be national cultures or different cultures within a single country (e.g different linguistic or religious cultures).

Cultural misunderstandings and their consequences can easily become barriers to business success, potentially blocking international collaboration, obstructing international transactions, and incurring financial losses for businesses.

The potential for lost opportunity means that demand for intercultural skills is high. According to a British Council survey, employers have come to value intercultural skills as much as formal qualifications, and in some cases more than technical skills. Across nine countries, when ranking qualities important to their business, employers ranked ‘showing respect for others’, and ‘effective working in diverse teams’, as being more important to their business than technical skills. 

Grasping the local cultural context is crucial in successfully navigating foreign markets and positioning your brand. Amongst business leaders, cultural fluency is vital in building trust. Developing this cultural fluency links through to financial performance.

How to improve global and intercultural fluency

If you’re looking to boost global fluency within your organization, there are a number of steps you can take, including those below.

1. Build and maintain workforce diversity

A good starting point for enhancing the overall global fluency of your business is to build a diverse workforce, ideally with expertise across priority languages, cultures and demographics for your business. This solid base should give a quicker and clearer view of the market landscape, gaps where further market research and intelligence are needed, and the beginnings of stakeholder and customer networks essential for business success in target countries.  

Companies without a sufficiently diverse workforce should take preliminary steps to first diversify their staff or identify a globally fluent partner organization to support their overseas engagement and expansion effectively. 

2. Develop a practical international knowledge strategy 

Multinational companies often lack the local data they need to operate and grow effectively. Almost 40% surveyed said that lack of sufficient information about expansion is their main block to further global growth. Key knowledge gaps may include political risks, tax regulation, employment and compliance laws.

Building and populating an effective database for these categories of information and making local contacts in these areas, could decrease barriers to market entry while improving competitive advantage and global expansion options.

3. Focus on international stakeholder engagement 

Businesses don’t operate in a vacuum and the strength, reach and penetration of your stakeholder networks are one important measure of your global fluency. Customers, suppliers, regulators, media, policy-makers and the general public may all play important roles in the successful delivery of your business strategy.

Take time to map key international stakeholders against relevant operational, strategic and geographic goals for your business. Staff at all levels should ensure that stakeholder interests are understood and factored into business planning, and that they maintain appropriate levels of direct contact with stakeholders.

Failures in stakeholder engagement can make your company vulnerable to potential shocks beyond your control, for example, regulatory changes, new governments or national economic downturns in countries where your suppliers are based. Any one of these could end up having a major negative impact on your supply chain, total sales and customer satisfaction levels.

Globally fluent companies would be in regular contact with international suppliers and conscious of an important risk coming down the line. Knowing of a risk gives time and space to mitigate it, perhaps by renegotiating local contracts in that country, expanding the supplier base to other countries, or temporarily focusing on alternative products or services which are unaffected by the current situation.

4. Identify, value and reward international expertise 

In an internationally-oriented organization, all staff should have a base level of international understanding and capability. This could be written into standard recruitment specifications and/or learning and development programs for all staff, perhaps as part of a diversity and inclusion strategy. At a minimum all staff should:

  • Value and respect colleagues and stakeholders across culture, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion.
  • Carry out their work in a manner which is open, inclusive and respectful to all.
  • Understand and work with individuals’ differences, including disabilities, neurodivergence etc.. 

Above this base-level, an international business will likely have a higher tier of global fluency occupied by staff who possess particular international skills, competence or experience (e.g. native speakers of a priority language for your markets, those with experience of working in priority countries).

Globally fluent staff are valuable assets. They may already be be aware of challenges or opportunities in key countries months or years ahead, via foreign language media reporting, past experience or personal contacts in-country. They may also possess an automatic appreciation of local values, customs, and perceptions which can guide your in-country engagement and marketing, preventing costly misunderstandings or delays.

Businesses stand a better chance of recruiting and holding onto highly globally fluent staff if they recognize and reward the knowledge and skills they possess and there are many ways to accomplish this.

For example, language skills could be encouraged through corporate subscriptions to relevant foreign language media (e.g. national business publications from key markets). Managers should also be aware of relevant employee language skills and deploy them sensibly. This could mean staff joining overseas delegations and trade missions, supporting senior colleagues in meetings with country stakeholders, or keeping teams up to date with news from foreign language press.

Performance, pay or bonus frameworks could incentivize acquisition and maintenance of language skills, or other demonstrations of useful political, economic or cultural knowledge. In some organizations this might mean a priority language bonus for renewing a formal qualification every 2-5 years and using it in business dealings.

A final word on developing global fluency

Global fluency can guide your business through new geographies and uncertain times to reach its full international growth potential.

If you’re interested in building a more globally fluent business, then we’re keen to help. Horizons are experts in building and leveraging global fluency, drawing on our own experience as an international employment organization operating successfully in 150 plus countries. Drop us a line today to find out more about how we could support global fluency in your organization.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Global fluency is the ability to operate effectively at the highest level of international competence. A globally fluent company has the knowledge and skills to function effectively in the global marketplace, and a solid understanding of the languages, cultures and values of its priority countries.  

The individual countries and regions in your target markets may have radically different languages, cultures and values to those of your company’s home country. To become a top performer in priority markets, your business must be better at understanding local customer needs and maneuvering within the marketplace than their competitors. Global fluency gives you this edge.

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