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Our most used communication and collaboration apps have little understanding of today’s multilingual, multicultural, multinational businesses. They don’t reflect the nature of the modern workforce or the nature of globalization.

Internationalism in software is equated with localization, end of story. So what can we do about it?

Reaching a Worldwide Workforce

Forrester predicts nearly half  the US workforce will be working remotely by 2016. Meanwhile, Ernst and Young is reporting that cross-border migration has spiked 42 percent in the past decade, demonstrating the workforce is more distributed than ever due to globalization. While IT departments continue to improve their support of the business’ collaboration needs, the workforce itself is evolving at twice the speed.

We need a new class of enterprise applications to address these changes. One-size-fits-all tools do not and will not suffice as the workforce becomes more diverse each and every day. Colleagues now speak multiple languages, operate within different business cultures and have generational gaps that are larger than ever. But our tools typically mimic the cultural and collaboration traits of company headquarters at the cost of outcasting offices and remote employees across the globe.

Whether it’s email or Intranets or social business apps, CIO’s have a daunting new task in front of them: they need to deliver technology that’s built to spec for an ever-changing workforce that operates in multiple languages, within entirely different business cultures, and have generational gaps that are larger than ever before.

Why bother?

Recycle solutions that work: In many multinational corporations each region is largely isolated from the others. More often than not, they invest time and money to find solutions for problems that have already been solved elsewhere in the company. Effective cross-border communication will reveal opportunities to recycle solutions and expertise.

Bring in the A-Team: Using a unified collaboration platform across all regions will enable each regional office to draw not just on the expertise of the brightest minds within that region, but the brightest minds in the corporation globally. Furthermore, providing a place for these brightest minds to exchange ideas can lead to a whole new level of synergy.

Activate hidden talent: Some employees might simply never get the opportunity to chime in on discussions or be asked their opinion to start with. If you are a global company, chances are that you are not utilizing the full potential of your own staff who have much more to offer than their resumes reveal to you.

Engage and Motivate: While inclusion and cultural awareness are critical to engaging employees, knowledge workers still struggle to be productive when they lack context. They need to know how their work feeds into the larger organizational strategy and goals, or else they lack the necessary motivational factors to do their best work.

A successful collaboration strategy requires context sharing in order to align the goals of your teams. Put simply: your teams in Russia need to understand how their work connects with the contributions from the team in Brazil. This doesn't just reduce confusion, it increases motivation and engagement across your company.

Here are the three ways to make sure your collaboration tools are ready to be taken global.

1. Know Thy Cultural Melting Pot

As your company grows globally, it’s impossible to deliver technology that is perfectly tailored to each culture involved. But most CIO’s don’t give this bucket enough attention, if any at all, when developing their collaboration strategy and deploying new applications.

Certain cultures have great deference for their superiors and leaders, whereas other cultures encourage people from any level of the organization to voice opinions. Japanese businesses are traditionally more hierarchically organized and authority driven than, say, Scandinavian countries.

So in a Japanese company, the idea of a new hire being able to weigh in on a post by the CEO could terrify a more conservative management. Conversely many Japanese employees would find it difficult to post any highly opinionated content without first touching base with their peers and superiors to make sure everyone feels comfortable with their contribution.

Collaboration and communication tools are useless without an active user base across your business, and these cultural mismatches are one of the most common causes of underperforming collaboration tools. When your online work environment feels like a foreign country, most of your workers would rather stay at home.

2. Break Down Language Barriers

As you begin engaging employees and partners across the globe, you will open a whole new can of worms: language barriers.

When buyers start bumping into language and translation problems, the common solution is deploy a discrete tool to each region. That’s a fatal mistake in collaboration.

Successful collaboration requires transparency, open communication, and inclusion. Inclusion, in short, means that you’re ensuring teams have access to a diverse set of skills, opinions and expertise. And while that sounds soft and fuzzy, it’s a proven recipe for high-performance teams.

You’ll need to deploy a tool with multi-lingual support in mind from the very beginning. This goes beyond translating the interface to making sure that key content can be delivered in the mother tongue of the recipient. Even if an employee is “bi” or “multi” lingual there are few of these that can actually absorb contents in a foreign language as easily as in their native language. It takes work. Because it takes work, it will either not be done, or an inordinate amount of time will be spent by many trying to decode the message. Much better is to simply source these messages to people within your organization that can actually do the decoding.

This ultimately isn’t about solving language barriers -- that problem has been solved already. This is about valuing diversity and inclusion in your business. If you dig into the research on the matter, you’ll quickly find that this is as important a part of your collaboration strategy as any.

3. Don’t Drown Your Team

Collaboration tools have always run the risk of creating so much noise from sharing context and goals that you drown out the signal. How can you make sure that your teams are seeing the information that’s relevant to them, and not drowning them in information from the farthest corners of your enterprise?

The first step is to make sure that your application can, at the highest level, mimic your organizational structure. If your teams are fairly isolated, a set of tools that have private groups for teams will probably suffice. But if you’re like most enterprises, and various teams need to engage with each other from time to time, then you need to deploy a product that makes it possible to invite temporary or external members of the group.

Second, the CIO will need to plan for cross-department collaboration in the same way that a department manager views their world. That means integrating tools that make it easy for people to find the person they need to speak with, and then quickly take it to a private chat or phone conversation or video conference.

In short -- simulate real life human habits. Instead of putting all contributions in front of everyone -- regardless of involvement in the project, let your collaboration app allow people to do their jobs in smaller groups within the platform. Groups everyone is open to join and leave or even just peek into freely, just as much as their current involvement in the project requires.

Recognize Diversity

The globalized workforce is diverse. Our systems need to match the diversity of the people using them. But principles are just one side of the coin: organizational cultures are only as successful as the collaboration environment that supports them. If you practice diversity, inclusion and goal-alignment you need a platform that supports these principles for collaboration success without borders.

Given, this is not a particularly easy task. But we are not global companies because it is easy. When it comes to our supply chains, or our cloud infrastructure, we rise to the occasion. We can apply the same rigor to cross-border collaboration. The ROI is too big to ignore in today’s global economy.

Title image by violetkaipa (Shutterstock).