TWC News, views and project tips


working in multilingual teams

Having worked in various project management roles for the past 10 years I have spent a great deal of time working on projects alongside people whose first language has not been the same as mine. These projects have ranged from short translation assignments that have been processed in a few hours to more complex assignments that have taken several months to complete. I have found that throughout these projects the ability to communicate with members of the project team has ranged from excellent (speak better English that wot I does!) to poor (relying on my conversation languages/drawing skills to communicate the point).

Global BPO (business process outsourcing) isn’t always a purely a cost based business strategy – often it is because companies don’t have the skills in house and digital technology allows them to source workers globally. Developing countries around the world can provide remote access to a highly skilled and educated workforce. Anything can be produced anywhere. Project teams can have team members based in the 7 different continents.

But managing these teams of suppliers isn’t always easy, especially if you are managing teams who speak multiple languages and you have “limited” foreign language ability. For this blog post I wanted to share with you my tips for working with suppliers who are non-native speakers (does not share your mother tongue). As most of the organisations I have worked with have been UK based, non-native speaker means that English is not their first language (and in some cases not even a language they speak).

Tip 1: Make sure you have all the credentials you would normally have for an internal hire. The process of hiring a supplier to work with you on a project can now largely be anonymous. But with all that anonymity, how can you be sure that the person you are hiring is able to meet the standards you require and will actually be able to deliver on time within budget. It may sound obvious but one of the first mistakes that I’ve seen companies make is to treat the process of hiring an external supplier differently to that of employing someone internally. Making sure you have covered all the same details you would for an internal vacancy such as CV, information on skills and experience and any references is crucial to hiring the right person. Just because their online profile states they are able to do xyz does not necessarily mean xyz is what they will produce for you. Checking for references can be a real help here.

Tip 2: Ask for a free sample of their work. Whether you are looking to have documentation translated or you need a website built – getting a sample of the proposed supplier’s work can be very beneficial. When requesting a free sample don’t ask for too much, the objective isn’t to get work done for free, but enough to give you a good idea of their work and their quality level. A common approach is to request a sample or ‘test piece’ that you create covering the various requirements of the assignment but in a scaled down version. Any supplier who is serious about their business should be more than happy to provide this.

Tip 3: Be clear in your brief about the requirements of the assignment. Don’t leave the project open to ambiguities. External suppliers and freelancers are professionals and will follow a specific process to meet their objective of fulfilling the project brief. An unclear brief can lead to poor project performance whatever the language. It’s also worth gauging the level of understanding the supplier has of English (if of course the brief is in English). If it is limited it may be worth having the brief translated by a professional prior to providing it to the supplier. Thankfully in my experience most non-natives who are employed in the provision of business related services are able to communicate in English even if it is only in the written form.

Tip 4: Make use of all the free digital communication platforms available. Systems such as skype and messager and even microblog sites like twitter are great for communicating with your external supplier. Skype for example gives you the option of either verbally communicating or sending real time text messages. As projects evolve and there are queries, these tools are great for quickly finding out the answer to simple questions.

Tip 5: Speak clearly and slowly. This may sound a little obvious, but in my experience this can really help communications, especially if a lot is done verbally via the telephone. Designers who get excited over their plans and designs seem to be the worst culprits for “speed talking” when they are describing their requirements. It’s worth thinking to yourself as you speak that the person listening is not only internalising what is being said, but also translating from your language to theirs. A general rule is – the slower the better.

Tip 6: Avoid using inter-company terminology or words or phrases not used outside of your country. Some non-native external suppliers may well be aware of the idioms of the English language (I was very surprised recently when an Italian translator – living in Italy used the expression “nippy” to describe the weather conditions), but many are not. This is also true to words and phrases that are only used within your organisation. If a knowledge/understanding of these words is important to the project it may well be worthwhile supplying a glossary of words and phrases.

Tip 7: Be polite and courteous. Sadly some organisations treat external suppliers with little respect, and use them purely as a means to an end. In most cases these people are pivotal to the success of the assignment so it’s worth being respectful. Make sure they feel part of the overall team.

Tip 8: Understand where the supplier is coming from. The very nature of their operations often means that external suppliers will work independently and remotely from an office. The communications you have with them may be the only interaction they have during the working day. For some suppliers this may be the reason they work in the field they do, for others it may be slightly lonely and they relish the opportunity of speaking/communicating with you. Again, as with tip 7, be polite and courteous and show interest in them as you would any other work colleague.

Tip 9: Have a central point of contact for the project. If a project is being undertaken by a sole external supplier, to have a myriad of requests from different personnel within your organisation can often cause confusion. It is much better to use one person to head up the conversations with the external supplier to help keep communication uniform and similar.

Tip 10: Outsource the project management. In the long run it can be more cost effective to outsource the project management of your assignment to a 3rd party. A common situation we find is for a client to approach us and ask us to take over the management of their requirement, having already spent time and resources working with freelancers directly. Often the reason for making the switch is down to the logistics of managing multiple suppliers and the hassle this has caused them. In many cases it is far better to leave it to an agency that can not only facilitate the management of the suppliers but also provide one central hub for communication, briefing, invoicing etc.

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Posted by Tom Wilson-Copp

Tom Wilson-Copp is a document design and production consultant who specialises in the project management and delivery of B2B services including design, localisation, off-line production and digital marketing.
With over 12 years experience working within the business services industry, Tom has worked for both large multinationals as well as bespoke service agencies.