Small businesses are a very big presence in the world. They’re work as engines for larger businesses, or independently, and sometimes even become big businesses themselves.
Sexy names such as Starbucks, Google, Toyota, and Samsung dominate global business conversation and get all the headlines. However, small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), sometimes called micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), are the driver, the Wizard of Oz, of the global economy.
They’re the little (and sometimes pretty big) engines that run the world’s industry. Hey, even Apple started in a garage.
SMEs Hold the Real Power
SMEs are a remarkable 95% of firms and 60–70% of employment in OECD countries. They have similar numbers in developing countries and can account for over half of some countries’ national GDPs.
SMEs in the Globalized Economy
Globalization is the modern economy, though some companies keep resisting it. Free trade agreements allow more businesses to get past trade and regulatory barriers to sell their products and services between countries. Local markets are becoming global.
For SMEs, there are so many opportunities. Both in emerging and developed economies, SMEs have great flexibility to sell around the world.
This means they must also step out of regional niches they used to rely on.
Emerging Trade Opportunities
The World Bank notes the increasing number of SMEs and the huge amount of international trade waiting for them.
Rapid development of the internet has also broken down traditional trade barriers. Today, anybody with an internet connection, even just through a mobile phone, can participate in global trade.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has, in fact, noted that SMEs with an online presence are five times more likely to export than those that rely on traditional channels.
This is good news for SMEs in general. As regional economies progress to a higher level of market integration, SMEs can benefit from a globalized perspective. Decades-old SMEs to do amazing craftsmanship, and aspiring tech companies with great ideas alike, can bring their business to a wider audience of consumers.
This requires communication. And the world communicates in English. Just look at how many companies for which English functions as an official national language. There are now 101 countries in which English is commonly spoken, each representing a potential market for an SME. Even for the other countries, English is most always the preferred language of exchange.
English as A Business Tool
With economies going glocal (global+local), there is growing demand for English proficiency for business. Business across borders and cultures is nearly impossible without a unifying language; English is typically that lingua franca. English is the bridge between supply and demand, and SMEs must learn business English or they’ll struggle to compete or have to bring in more staff to fill the language gap.
Big companies know the importance of English. Many have even made it their official language. With more limited financial and human resources, SMEs may try to rely on free or cheap translations. These companies view English as something “nice to have” rather than “must have”. They’re messing up. Not taking English seriously is a very expensive mistake.
Why Most SMEs Must Use English, or Risk Going Out of Business
With the huge potential for trade, globally minded businesspeople must have proficient communication skills to be able to promote their services or goods. Yet global trade for companies is no longer a nice option to complement reliable local markets.
As companies continually offshore their production, administration, and other functions, local markets can no longer sustain them. Just look at the hollowing out of SMEs and bigger businesses in countries such as Japan and the United States. These countries used to be able to rely on their robust national economies and domestic trade to keep their profits flowing. It was comfortable, familiar, and it made money.
Those days are (almost) done.
There are many reasons SMEs should be proficient in English. These are not limited to:
1) English is now used by most emerging markets
In developing economies and emerging markets, English has become a unifying secondary language. Globalization has further developed it for trade and commerce. English is therefore adopted as a language to conduct transactions, market goods, and communicate with foreign investors.
China is unique, with a billion-strong population of hungry consumers. Yet many Chinese products, even domestically, maintain an image of lesser quality than strong foreign brands from Japan, Korea, and the West. Therefore, import is robust. Export, naturally, remains strong on the backs of Chinese factories and labor that churn out the world’s electronics and other consumer goods. Transactions are in English, despite a slow increase of people studying Chinese.
Those who want to do business with China, either in import–export or in seeking manufacturers and factories, usually use English. Chinese certainly doesn’t hurt though, but why leave matters to chance? It’s much easier to confirm English contracts and other details. Want to tap that massive market of consumers? Again, you’ll more likely need English than Chinese. And the Chinese have a lot of money they want to spend on your goods.
2) English levels the playing/trading field
Using English allows SMEs to overcome cultural and language barriers. In the UK, the world’s fifth largest economy, most SMEs use English to communicate in international markets. Naturally, the UK is no longer a colonizer, but its offering of language to the world prevails. Those on the other end of these transactions will need English to do business with this market.
Being proficient in English prevents cultural and legal misunderstandings in business transactions.
Miscommunication caused by differences in language can result in mistakes that can occur through the entire supply chain. Similarly, they can exclude other partners from fully participating. Using a common language such as English gives SMEs equal footing with their business partners in negotiations.
3) English is the dominant language of the internet
The greatest amount of online content produced today is in English. A real estate agent in Nigeria writes a property blog in English to offer advice to potential clients. English may not be the first language there, but with so many dialects, it’s the safe medium.
In Taiwan, an aspiring model posts her Facebook selfies in both Chinese and English. This makes them both “cool” and accessible to the world beyond Taiwan and China. South Korean K-pop bands typically produce English (and sometimes Japanese) versions of their songs, making themselves accessible to other culture. Koreans, by the way, are brilliant localizers. Look at how Samsung and LG are killing brands such as Sony and Panasonic internationally. K-pop has become an international sensation and opened up huge touring and marketing opportunities.
With the internet becoming an international market for the global village of tomorrow, English proficiency will give your company or service, or Brand You, access to a vastly wider and more diverse consumer market.
Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba naturally recognizes the value of English in marketing and commerce. The company, led by self-taught business genius Jack Ma, who learned English by talking to strangers, has its own English language platform for product and B2B transactions. Thanks to this global awareness and its highly aggressive approach, it is now going head-to-head with Amazon for global e-commerce domination. English isn’t going anywhere if China’s powerhouse is relying on it for explosive expansion. By the way, Alibaba is a wonderful internationally translatable brand name; something many Chinese companies are lacking.
Economical Ways for SMEs to Boost their English Power
Many who only studied English as a school topic fail to make an emotional and pleasurable connection with the language. Japanese start “learning” English from junior high school or sooner, yet few can speak it at a proficient level. Why? Because it was a chore, stacked alongside math, science, and history. Sadly, this association of English with burden lasts into adulthood. Those who go abroad, study hard, and/or have a natural ability for English get scooped up by the big companies. SMEs must compete for whatever young people are left.
But it’s not too late to start enjoying learning English, and a proactive SME can introduce English in enjoyable and very affordable ways. For business, they can use services such as WorldEdits to refine their English for global audiences.
Here are the top three ways for SMEs to learn English.
1) Free or Subsidized Online Study of English for Business
The internet is a treasure chest of online resources for studying English, and much of it is free or low-cost. PCs or mobile devices offer countless English-learning apps. Some are geared to certain nationalities, some are all in English. Pick the style that works in your company. There are online classes as well for those who like an interactive format but work duties can make it hard to maintain a regular schedule. Try DuoLingo or iTalki for starters. These apps either include online lessons or pair you with real-life teachers. Many YouTube channels also offer entirely free lessons. Some are good, some not so good, but it’s fun to explore, whatever the case. An SME can easily cover the costs for such services and offer incentives to employees who pass certain landmarks.
If you like watching videos, there are a lot of instructional language videos on YouTube. Or you can watch your favorite business news channels online. Similarly, you can browse and read through the online content posted on business news sites. Not only will you be able to pick up how English is pronounced and used in particular situations, but you will also be updated with the latest news and business trends.
2) Make English Study a Companywide Effort
Learning communities prove far more effective for most that individual study. I (Adam) actually like a combination of group learning and independent studying. Studying in groups adds elements of socialization, and for some they add stimulating competition with other group members. It can be rewarding both to see what others know and to see where you’re a bit better. More skilled members can help struggling members and enhance their bonds of friendship. Whether this takes the form of study groups, company English classes or “only English day at work” policies, having employees learn English can be an important strategy in making a business successful.
Most importantly, make learning a pleasure and during regular work hours (don’t force your employees to stay late! Offer incentives, give healthy congratulations, bring the fun into learning. Employees will get the message that learning English is fun and profitable. That’s a lot stronger incentive than English being a duty as it was back in school.
Additionally, for SMEs seeking to selling their products internationally, English language training can enhance both sales and customer service. Even if staff are not capable of fluently conversing in English, being able to get by in conversations can open up massive new chances for sales that come in unexpected ways such as phone call to the office, casual networking, online networking, and socialization.
3) Bring in the English Expert to Edit Your Best Efforts
Certainly, using the “best-effort” English by under-skilled English language users, or even worse using auto-translate, is potentially disastrous for an SME. Yet, so very many SMEs do just that. The Web and print publications, especially in Asia, are littered with terrible English. This not only creates confusion, it seriously damage’s a business reputation. When a customer orders something and gets something very different, such mistakes can cost companies thousands of dollars in lost labor, product, and logistics. High-quality editing and proofreading services such as this one can take your attempts at English and make it perfectly natural. Even better services, can do more than translate your message, they can make it powerful for a specific market or a global market. English at its basic levels is a tool for communication. English at higher levels is an art form that is adjusted based on its purpose.
Look for a service run by native English editors who have extensive international and experience. Ideally they should also have business and scientific experience matched to the content you are dealing with. The best English editing services will do much more than correct your grammar and spelling. They will also help you with the contextual translation so that there will be no cross-cultural misunderstanding with your content. This is both a service and a language-learning lesson. Look at the tracked copy your editor sends you, study it, and improve your own English. Treat each new delivery of editing as a delivery of an English lesson.
The WTO expects global trade to continue to expand. SMEs should be ready to take advantage of this opportunity by becoming proficient in English in order to improve their competitiveness. In a world where the English language stimulates international economic exchange, this skill is an important tool for an SME to, first, continue to exist, and second succeed at great levels on a global scale.