U nlike other large corporations such as Procter & Gamble and IBM that are sending willing employees to foreign language training programs at outside schools on a one-by-one basis, Intel is testing the waters of developing a more comprehensive course in-house. Despite the popular thinking that foreign-language training for Americans is expensive and unnecessary because English is the language of business, the technology giant is expanding its unique language program.
At Intel, employees with a business need can take classes in Mandarin, Japanese and Spanish at various offices throughout the United States, free of charge. The courses are not designed for expatriates destined for assignments abroad, but instead target employees who, through technology, are in direct contact with foreign clients or who work on cross-cultural teams within the company. With 78,000 employees in 294 offices in 48 countries, Intel has teams that are regularly made up of employees from different cultures working in different locations. The optional 12-week courses, taught at three levels by contracting companies, are designed to help minimize the culture gaps within these teams. The classes meet for two hours a week and cost the company approximately $300 per person. Employees are allowed to repeat courses.
Marcos Garciaacosta, a business alliance manager at Intel who is based in Arizona, has been taking Japanese classes since he joined the company seven years ago. He says that the "ease and flexibility of on-site classes" keep him motivated to continue to learn. And while he says he is far from fluent, he is now at a proficiency level that enables him to better communicate with business contacts and customers in Japan.
The in-house strategy is not new. Company spokeswoman Tracy Koon says that Intel offered its first language programs in Japanese in the 1980s. But despite its 20-year history, the program is still relatively small. Since January 2002, Intel has spent only $54,000 to train 180 employees in these three languages, a tiny fraction of its workforce, and one that does not include expatriates, who are compensated for language training outside these company classes. Without making a huge investment in the concept, Intel is receiving some positive results. Kathy Powell, the foundational development manager for Intel University, the division of the company that manages training, says the demand for foreign-language courses is increasing. Intel plans to expand the language-training program to overseas offices and to train 300 more employees by the end of this year.
The language classes are part of a larger in-house cultural-training curriculum for Intel employees. The company also offers optional one-day classes with titles such as "Working with Russia" and "Doing Business with the Japanese," which are designed to give employees basic information that they need to build relationships and do business cross-culturally. Class size is about 15 students, and subjects include culture, history and an overview of various countries and their business practices. Classes about other cultures are also becoming more popular. During the past 27 months, Intel has spent more than $762,000 on the program and has trained 2,495 employees. It plans to offer the classes to 2,300 more employees by the end of this year, at a cost of about $450,000.
"Our business is very global, and there are a large number of people here working across cultures," Koon says. "By having these language and cultural tools at your disposal when you work with employees from different countries, you can understand the do’s and don’ts of the cultures. You’re not going to be an effective team if you are constantly offending the other members without knowing it."
Workforce Management, May 2004, p. 49 -- Subscribe Now!