Language Training Improves Global Business at ARCO

February 1, 1997
Johnna Capitano isn't planning to go to China, but this spring she took a 12-week class in Mandarin Chinese. Now she can exchange greetings in the dialect, and she knows enough to be careful when she uses the Chinese word ma, which, depending on the intonation, has different meanings, including horse, mummy and mother.

"It was very challenging, because the tones are difficult to master," says Capitano, a Los Angeles (LA)-based human resources development consultant for ARCO Products Co., the downstream refinery and marketing arm of ARCO. "At times it was very frustrating, not being able to pronounce a word the way the instructor kept repeating it."

But Capitano stuck with it and was one of 10 employees who completed a pilot class in conversational Mandarin Chinese that the company conducted this spring. Twice-weekly classes, which met for 1 1/2 hours at a time, were held at ARCO Products Co.'s two sites in Los Angeles and in Anaheim, California. The company is exploring potential business opportunities in China and has already hosted Chinese delegations on tours of its LA refinery. Capitano will probably be involved in hosting future delegations.

Paula Johnston, ARCO Products' human resources consultant for international projects, set up the pilot language training in response to employees' requests. "Members of our technical team who had been to China to analyze business opportunities found it was difficult to communicate because everything was done through interpreters. We've also had several Chinese delegations visit ARCO, and did everything via interpreters. We thought since we're just looking at opportunities now, why not use the time appropriately and offer Mandarin classes before things heat up?"

Johnston requested bids from three vendors: a university, a consulting firm on the East Coast and Berlitz. Berlitz was selected, Johnston says, "not only on the basis of economics, but [also because] it offers a great deal of flexibility. It's a firm we could utilize not only at the beginning level, but also later for a total immersion program if somebody was actually selected for an assignment, and even in China for follow-up training. [The company offered] continuity and consistency."

Johnston set up classes during work hours at the company's LA refinery site, where Capitano took the class. She also set up a class at the firm's engineering and technology facility in Anaheim so employees wouldn't have to travel. About 28 employees began the classes, but enrollment ultimately dwindled to about 10.

"It was very tough, because some people's schedules were just too busy or they were placed on special projects," explains Johnston. "Some people probably couldn't keep up or just lost interest."

Capitano agrees. "People would get tied up in other projects, and it was difficult to pull away and say, 'Oh, I've got to go to my Mandarin class now.' Employees—and the company—all have to make language acquisition a priority.

"A language isn't easy to learn, especially when it's so different, like Mandarin. It really has to become a work priority that everyone understands," says Capitano.

Johnston is in the process of seeking feedback. Although her impressions, so far, are good, she doesn't want to overplay it. Why? "Because we did lose people for a variety of reasons," she says. Of the people who completed the program, the response, she reports, is "pretty enthusiastic." Although the reports are mixed, learning their customers' language can never be a futile endeavor. Because language training at ARCO hasn't been an afterthought, the wheels of global business are spinning with greater efficiency.

Workforce, February 1997, Vol. 76, No. 2, p. 38.