CALL FOR PAPERS
Special Issue of the Journal of International Business Studies
THE MULTIFACETED ROLE OF LANGUAGE IN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS: UNPACKING THE
FORMS, FUNCTIONS AND FEATURES OF A CRITICAL CHALLENGE TO MNC THEORY AND
Special Issue Editors
• Mary Yoko Brannen (INSEAD and The University of Victoria,
[log in to unmask])
• Rebecca Piekkari (Aalto University, School of Economics, formerly Helsinki
School of Economics, [log in to unmask])
• Susanne Tietze (Sheffield Hallam University, [log in to unmask])
Deadline for submission: November 23, 2012
Tentative publication date: Spring 2014
Streams and sequences of decisions and resource commitments characterize the
day-to-day activities of multinational companies (MNCs). Such
decision-making activities encompass major strategic moves like
internationalization and new market entries or diversification and
acquisitions. In most companies, strategic decisions such as these are
extensively discussed and debated. They are generally framed, formulated,
and articulated in specialized language often developed by the best minds in
the company. Yet the language used in such deliberations and in detailing
and enacting the implementation strategy is usually taken for granted and
receives little if any explicit attention (Brannen & Doz, 2012). MNCs have
come to recognize the importance of language when it comes to national
language in deciding upon language policies and employing the services of
specialized interpreters in order to avoid Babel-like communication
inefficiencies. They have also understood the importance of an official
corporate language in regards to eliciting employee and investor commitment
around strategic initiatives. Carefully “word-smithed” statements of
strategic intent and corporate values in annual reports, internal
organizational documents, and plasticized pocket-sized value-statement cards
are just of few indicators of this. In addition, more and more companies
have begun to put in place implicit language guidelines for use in virtual
communication including e-mail, texting, webex, and video conferencing in
order to avoid misinterpretations.
As such, the interplay between language (corporate) and languages (natural
and national) is a critical challenge to international business theory and
practice (Welch, Welch, & Piekkari 2005). The common corporate language is
built over time around firm-specific usages of words, acronyms, and stories
that often reflect the industry context and the language environment in the
firm’s country of origin. While the corporate language is clear to insiders
of the MNC, it is not to outsiders who lack their shared experience.
Language is at once an artifact of how thoughts are formulated as well as
how they are communicated and discussed. Therefore, the language used by
decision makers in international business both shapes and bounds what the
firm focuses on and how it articulates its strategic options (Brannen & Doz,
2012). In this regard, language can facilitate and significantly limit
strategic growth and performance of the MNC.
There have been attempts to render IB studies more sensitive to the
existence and influence of languages and language use in the corporate
context. Models about the internationalization process of the firm, both
traditional (Johanson & Vahlne, 1977; Luostarinen, 1979) and recent ones
(Knight & Cavusgil, 2004), are cases in point. Johanson and Wiedersheim-Paul
(1975) viewed language as one of the key factors that prevented information
about the target market from reaching organizational decision makers. More
recently, there have been efforts to raise the field’s awareness about the
existence and influence of languages in internationally operating companies.
These efforts have been pulled together in conference streams (Critical
Management Studies, 2007) and also in special issues of journals
(International Studies of Management & Organization, 2005; Journal of World
Despite these contributions, the field of IB research remains
unsophisticated in appreciating the multiple forms, facets, and features of
language and its impact on MNCs and on the way in which we study IB
phenomena. This special issue is meant as a continuation and extension of
this emergent body of research on language in IB. We concur with Cheng et
al. (2009: 1072) that “moving [IB] forward is not about reformulating novel
dependent or independent variables; it is about addressing a phenomenon that
can only be unpacked by combining theories, concepts, data and methods from
multiple disciplines.” As such, we seek interdisciplinary insights gained
from a plethora of fields such as anthropology, communications, linguistics,
political science, and psychology in order to generate genuinely innovative
frames of reference for understanding the role of language in international
Language and Knowledge
During the past decade IB scholars have devoted considerable attention to
studying knowledge and knowledge transfer across national, cultural and
geographical boundaries of the MNC. Yet language considerations have
remained peripheral in this endeavor. We see language and knowledge as
inseparably linked in that knowledge is always coded into language.
Firms face pressures to continually reformulate their strategies based on
new knowledge accumulated through organizational learning (Levitt & March,
1988; Schultz, 2002). This is especially true for firms operating in global
contexts as strategy implementation is mediated by the effects of divergent
cultural and institutional environments (Westney, 1993). Having a
multi-country presence can provide tremendous opportunities for comparative
learning for firms capable of simultaneously managing the additional demands
from foreign markets, conflicting pressures on organizing in diverse
cultural and institutional contexts, and cross-border integration. In fact,
this learning opportunity has been termed the promise of the metanational
firm (Doz, Santos, & Williamson 2001); that is, to sense, stockpile, and
redeploy knowledge within its global footprint.
In this special issue we acknowledge the diversity of disciplinary
perspectives on language and knowledge and adopt an inclusive position
toward the range of approaches available to IB researchers. For example, in
linguistic anthropology language is considered as “a cultural resource” that
(re)produces the social world (Duranti, 1997). Building on this view,
Tietze, Cohen and Musson (2003) define language as a system of meanings that
is central in constructing organizational, social, and global realities. In
this vein, language has a performative aspect because using language then
becomes equivalent to “acting in the world.” Language is the first and
foremost means and source through which the connecting of different
socio-cultural, institutional and individual worlds occurs (Tietze, 2008).
Yet achieving such connections in international contexts is far from easy.
Even in situations in which English is used as the common language, speakers
attach invisible meanings to knowledge that stem from their own interpretive
frames and complicate the transfer (Henderson Kassis, 2005). We also denote
the importance of verbal and non-verbal language in IB research. For
example, in semiotic terms transferring the linguistic signals alone across
borders does not ensure that the meaning is transferred as intended. On the
contrary, more often than not shifts in meaning occur as the linguistic
codes are given sense in a new cultural context, from the perspective of
local interpretive frames and communicative norms (Brannen, 2004).
Why Make Language Central to International Business Enquiry?
Despite the dominance of English as a lingua franca, IB encounters have not
become monolingual. On the contrary, given the growing importance of BRIC
countries, languages such as Chinese, Russian, and Spanish are gaining
prominence. In this regard, the field of IB has not advanced further in
documenting and thus realizing the mechanisms by which MNCs can learn from
their operations embedded in different language environments. One reason for
this is that the methodologies used have been ineffective. In the JIBS
special issue on qualitative research in IB (Birkinshaw, Brannen, & Tung,
2011), Westney and Van Maanen (2011) posit that this shortcoming is due to
the fact that management knowledge in international business has been
largely developed using classical economic models and that even when
field-based studies have been deployed, these have been focused on
executive-level practices. This has resulted in a ‘bird’s-eye-view” from
afar and atop rather than an “up-close” and contextually grounded
understanding of the micro-processes that either block or facilitate the
dynamic organizational learning that is essential for an MNC to improve its
performance. The latter requires research methodologies designed to surface
deep, contextually rich insights from individuals at all levels, functions,
and geographies in the MNC’s multilingual community (Marschan-Piekkari,
Welch, & Welch, 1999).
Another reason for not realizing the mechanisms for organizational learning
is that such learning is generally facilitated by multicultural teams. And,
language, as both an essential artifact of culture and the vehicle by which
strategic thoughts are formulated, communicated and discussed plays an
essential role in the functioning of such teams. Building an integrated
global strategy across markets which are geographically remote and have
differing native languages and cultures is undoubtedly harder than what has
been commonly acknowledged in IB research. Whether we are talking about
language as the vehicle for expressing corporate strategic values and
purpose (Brannen & Doz, 2012) or languages as the means of expression of
multiple unique cultures and groups within and around organisations (Harzing
& Feeley, 2008; Welch et al., 2005), the IB literature to date fails to take
adequate account of its influence and impact on realizing international
The Scope of This Special Issue
This special issue invites submissions that develop, discuss, or apply
interdisciplinary language-based approaches to IB phenomena in order to
advance IB theory and research. The special issue is hoped to lead to an
important reexamination of current IB models and frameworks and unravel the
micro-processes through which MNCs, institutions, and networks are created,
maintained, or disrupted. For example, themes may include understanding the
effects of language on knowledge-sharing in MNCs or how knowledge residing
in foreign subsidiaries is managed in linguistically constrained
environments. Challenges in regards to transferring explicit knowledge such
as issues related to effectively translating standard operating procedures,
processes, and polices as well as in transferring tacit knowledge that is
deeply socialized and context specific are of interest. Language
considerations may also be one of the decisive factors in selecting an
appropriate foreign operation mode to serve a target market or in making
decisions about where to locate a shared service center or a foreign
production unit. For marketing and service companies, resources in the
customer language – both in-house and external – may be instrumental in
reaching out for foreign markets and providing high-quality services. In
terms of staffing and international human resource management, language
requirements may influence job performance and affect staff selection,
opportunities for promotion, as well as training and development.
Bilingualism and the role of biculturals in global teams, cross-cultural
communication, and innovation offer an increasingly relevant area of
We also invite submissions that treat language as a methodological question
and a window into cultural meanings. While IB researchers often construct
survey instruments in multiple languages and pay considerable attention to
equivalence of meaning and backtranslation (Usunier, 2011), the effect of
the chosen language on survey responses is seldom examined. Language can act
as a type of psychological priming that then affects survey responses.
Further, data are generally collected and analyzed in one or multiple
languages but reported predominantly in English. Such translations and
crossing of language boundaries often go un-mentioned and un-problematized
in methodology sections of published IB articles and therefore do not enter
Submissions that contribute to the field by offering novel linguistic
approaches are also encouraged. These approaches could be derived from
semiotics, evolutionary linguistics, socio-linguistics, neuro-linguistics,
as well as from other non-linguistically based fields such as political
sciences, psychology, or artificial intelligence in order to shed light on
constructs such as translation, intercultural communication, negotiation, as
well as micro aspects of managing MNCs. Here, scholars are invited to redraw
the intellectual reach of IB from a language perspective.
Potential Themes of Interest to This Special Issue
The purpose of this special issue is, therefore, to identify new research
questions and avenues that originate from a focus on language. We welcome
papers that approach well-established IB phenomena through a language lens
or make a contribution through interdisciplinary pollination (Cantwell &
Brannen, 2011). Our call for papers invites language-sensitive research that
is pluralistic in terms of underlying philosophical assumptions and research
methods employed (Welch et al., 2011). We intend to include theoretical and
conceptual contributions as well as empirical work that draw on qualitative
or quantitative methods or an innovative mix of both. To achieve these
goals, we also welcome conceptual pieces that attempt to frame language
issues in IB and encourage submissions that are related to the following
Control, coordination, and communication in international organizations
• In what ways does language use (corporate as well as national language
use) affect communication and coordination within and outside international
• Is it meaningful for MNCs to have official language policies? If so, how
should they be designed and implemented?
• How do national languages blend with corporate language?
• How do language policies and practices differ between large MNCs, SMEs,
and NGOs, and what are the effects on productivity?
• How does language use evolve in MNCs and what is the effect on
organizational growth and performance?
• What are the costs associated with managing language diversity in an MNC?
• Is there a need to re-examine the basic code-model of cross-cultural
communication given today’s changing workforce demographic of biculturals
• What is the role and impact of non-verbal aspects of language on managing
Internationalization and foreign operation modes
• How does language explain different internationalization processes and
patterns? Is there something called “language-driven internationalization”?
• How does language influence the choice and implementation of foreign
operation modes (e.g., FDI such as mergers, acquisitions, greenfield
investment, international joint ventures, outsourcing or the Internet)?
• Does language foster cooperation and/or conflict between companies and
their foreign export intermediaries?
• What is the role of language in negotiating and contracting with
Managing people in international organizations
• How does language diversity influence workplace interactions and
relationships between, e.g., local employees and expatriates?
• Does language competence in general and bilingualism in particular
pre-dispose managers to communicate better across cultural boundaries?
• What kind of psychological and emotional effects does the imposition of a
non-native language have on staff?
• What is the impact of a common corporate language on human resource
policies and practices?
• How are language considerations taken into account when recruiting and
effectively managing immigrant workers (e.g., English language manuals)?
Innovation management, knowledge transfer, and organizational learning
• How do language barriers enter global innovation and diversification
• What kind of new product or service innovations may emerge from
multilingual global teams?
• How are tacit as well as explicit language issues overcome in knowledge
sharing and organizational learning across contexts?
• How is knowledge transfer in the absence of a common language?
International marketing issues
• How is translation handled in international marketing activities?
• How does the consideration of the “customer language” affect international
• How is language diversity accounted for in services that are offered
across language boundaries?
• Are global branding and advertising language-free or language-dependent?
• What is the role of language in the traditional dilemma of global
standardization and local adaptation?
• How does language diversity in collaborative research teams affect team
dynamics and the production of knowledge?
• How can key questions in research design and methods in IB be better
understood from a language perspective?
• What improvements can be made to current measurements of language
differences in comparative IB research?
The above is an indicative list, and we invite authors to explore themes and
research questions beyond it. Detailed information about JIBS’ mission,
emphasis, and preferences is available at www.jibs.net.
All manuscripts will be reviewed as a cohort for this special issue.
Manuscripts must be submitted in the window between November 5, 2012, and
November 23, 2012, at http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/jibs. All submissions
will go through the JIBS regular double-blind review process and follow the
standard norms and processes.
For more information about this call for papers, please contact the Special
Issue Editors or the JIBS Managing Editor ([log in to unmask]).
Birkinshaw, J., Brannen, M. Y., & Tung, R. 2011. From a distance and
generalizable to up close and grounded: Reclaiming a place for qualitative
methods in international business research. Journal of International
Business Studies, 42(5): 573–581.
Brannen, M. Y. 2004. When Mickey loses face: Recontextualization, semantic
fit and semiotics of foreigness. Academy of Management Review, 29(4):
Brannen, M. Y., & Doz, Y. L. 2010. From a distance and detached to up close
and personal: Bridging strategic and cross-cultural perspectives in
international management research and practice. Scandinavian Journal of
Management, 26: 236–247.
Brannen, M. Y., & Doz, Y. L. 2012. The languages of strategic agility:
Trapped in your jargon or lost in translation. California Management Review,
Cantwell, J., & Brannen, M. Y. 2011. Positioning JIBS as an
interdisciplinary journal. Journal of International Business Studies, 42(1):
Cheng, J. L., Henisz, W. J., Roth, K., & Swaminathan, A. 2009. Advancing
interdisciplinary research in the field of international business:
Prospects, issues and challenges. Journal of International Business Studies,
Doz, Y. L., Santos, J., & Williamson, P. 2001. From global to metanational:
How companies win in the knowledge economy. Boston, MA: Harvard Business
Duranti, A. 1997. Linguistic anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Harzing, A. W., & Feely, A. J. 2008. The language barrier and its
implications for HQ-subsidiary relationships. Cross Cultural Management: An
International Journal, 15(1): 49–60.
Henderson Kassis, J. 2005. Language diversity in international management
teams. International Studies of Organization & Management, 35(2): 66–82.
Johanson, J., & Vahlne, J.-E. 1977. The internationalization process of the
firm: A model of knowledge development and increasing foreign market
commitments. Journal of International Business Studies, 8(1): 23–32.
Johanson, J., & Wiedersheim-Paul, F. 1975. The internationalization of the
firm: Four Swedish cases. Journal of Management Studies, 12(3): 305–322.
Knight , G. A., & Cavusgil, S. T. 2004. Innovation, organizational
capabilities and the born-global firm. Journal of International Business
Studies, 35(2): 124–141.
Levitt, B., & March, J. G. 1988. Organizational learning. Annual Review of
Sociology, 14: 319–340.
Luostarinen, R. 1979. Internationalization of the firm: An empirical study
of the internationalization of firms with small and open domestic markets
with special emphasis on lateral rigidity as a behavioral characteristic in
strategic decision-making. Helsinki: Helsinki School of Economics Press.
Marschan-Piekkari, R., Welch, D. E., & Welch, L. S. 1999. In the shadow: The
impact of language on structure, power and communication in the
multinational. International Business Review, 8(4): 421–440.
Schultz, M. 2002. Organizational learning. In J. Baum Ed.), The Blackwell
companion to organizations, 415–442. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Tietze, S., Cohen, L., & Musson, G. 2003. Understanding organisations
through language. London: Sage.
Tietze, S. 2008. International management and language. London: Routledge
Usunier, J.-C. 2011. Language as a resource to assess cross-cultural
equivalence in quantitative management research. Journal of World Business,
Welch, C., Piekkari, R., Plakoyannaki, E., & Paavilainen-Mäntymäki, E. 2011.
Theorising from case studies: Towards a pluralistic future for international
business research. Journal of International Business Studies, 42: 740–762.
Welch, D. E., Welch, L. S., & Piekkari, R. 2005. Speaking in tongues: The
importance of language in international management processes. International
Studies of Management & Organization, 35(1): 10–27.
Westney, D. E. 1993. Institutional theory and the multinational
organization. In S. Ghoshal & D. E. Westney, Organizational theory and the
multinational. London: Macmillan.
Westney, D. E., & Van Maanen, J. 2011. The casual ethnography of the
executive suite. Journal of International Business Studies, 42(5): 602–607.
Guest Editorial Team
Mary Yoko Brannen is Visiting Professor of Strategy and Management at
INSEAD, Fontainebleau and the newly appointed Jarislowsky East Asia (Japan)
Chair of Cross-Cultural Management at the University of Victoria beginning
Fall 2012. She is also Deputy Editor of JIBS and as such will serve as the
internal guest editor of this Special Issue. She has PhD and MBA degrees
from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a BA (with Distinction)
from the University of California at Berkeley in Comparative Literature. In
addition to publishing in noted management journals including the Academy of
Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Journal of International
Business Studies, Journal of Management Inquiry, the California Management
Review and Human Relations, she has also published pieces on language and
culture in Semiotica, and several anthropology journals. Her 2004 AMR
article which develops a model of recontextualization using semiotics to
understand semantic fit as an important complement to strategic fit in
internationalization is widely recognized as an important methodological and
theoretical contribution across the disciplines of management, marketing,
communications, culture theory as well as political science.
Rebecca Piekkari is Professor of International Business at Aalto University,
School of Economics (formerly known as Helsinki School of Economics) and
serves on the JIBS Editorial Review Board. Her first article on language
issues in MNCs dates back to 1997 (co-authored with Denice Welch and
Lawrence Welch). It was followed by a stream of work which focused on the
implications of a corporate language in MNCs for e.g., the control of
foreign subsidiaries, power plays and politics between units, human resource
management, internationalization patterns, as well as integration of
cross-border mergers and acquisitions. Moreover, she has actively
contributed to the discussion about language as a methodological question in
IB research. Her work has been published in journals such as the Journal of
Management Studies, International Business Review, Management International
Review, and International Journal of Human Resource Management as well as in
handbooks of qualitative research in IB and research on international human
resource management (by Edward Elgar).
Susanne Tietze is Professor of Organisation Studies at Sheffield Hallam
University, Sheffield Business School, UK. She is a linguist by training and
is widely regarded as a renowned authority on language and organizations.
She has been awarded MBA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University and MA in
English and German (first class), from Karl-Ruprechts-Universität,
Heidelberg (Germany). Her highly regarded innovative book, International
Management and Languages (Routledge), establishes the relationship between
two orientations – social construction and linguistic relativity – and
demonstrates how they can be drawn on to frame and understand the activities
of managers. Her research focuses on language and discourse as used in work
contexts and she has conducted studies on emergent forms of work
organizations. She has published in leading scholarly journals such as
Organization Studies, Journal of Management Studies and Journal of Business
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