Corporate culture, corporate language

by Terence MacNamee

We talk about “corporate culture” by analogy with national culture. The idea is a simple one: just as countries like Japan, Germany, Canada and France have national cultures (ways of doing things, world-views, mentalities), so do organizations.

Unfortunately, the concept has come to be use all too loosely by writers who know little about the topic of national cultures or how they work. Managers are supposed to be able to create, reconfigure, recreate and discard corporate cultures at the drop of a hat. However, the whole problem of corporate cultures, like national ones, is that they just seem to be there and prevent change even when it needs to happen. Many a merger and acquisition have failed because of incompatible corporate cultures.

If we talk of corporate culture, we should be able to talk about “corporate language” by analogy with national languages, which are usually associated with national cultures. If as an English speaker you set yourself to learning the French language, you will inevitably learn a lot about French culture. And you might have a shot at describing Japanese culture in English, but you will have to use a lot of Japanese words for intranslatable concepts. Languages are tools for communication, but at the same time they express cultures.

Languages have a drawback, of course: they are incomprehensible to those who do not speak them. It would not do for an organization to have not only a “corporate culture” but also its own language which only those inside the organization could understand. And yet – keeping with the metaphor – within each language there are “dialects” used by social or regional groups which are understood by the other groups of speakers; and particular authors or types of authors have “styles” which identify them. It seems reasonable to think that an organization might develop its own “dialect” or “style” of spoken and written language.

Indeed, one German communication guru, Hans-Peter Förster, has developed a subject that he calls (using an English phrase) “corporate wording”. Now, wording means the choice of words or the way you express yourself generally. Förster believes that each business organization should develop its own way of speaking and writing and use it consistently everywhere – internal communication, external communication, advertising, product documentation, and so on. His idea is that when you get a letter from such a company, you don’t have to look at the letterhead to know who it’s from.

This “corporate wording” is associated with the “corporate design” – the logo you use, the typefaces and graphic features, even the colours you prefer. All these, along with your wording, contribute to maintaining a distinct identity for your organization and keeping it in the minds of consumers and customers.

There is, I think, a lot more to be said about corporate language than Förster in his publications has given us, but his effort shows that “corporate language” like “corporate culture” are useful concepts that really need to be systematized and not just thrown around.