Olá, hei, hej!
Olá, hei, hej! Three words, three letters, three countries, one meaning. Our discrete cases pose three distinct language groups—Finnish from the Finic-Uralic language-branch, Swedish from the North Germanic European group and Portuguese from the Ibero-Romance European—which may yield differences in resource constellations relating to language and education.
For the majority of the start-ups, language appears to be source of competitive advantage, yet a spectrum exists from necessity to indifference. To this end, general level themes are drawn out from the assumption that multilingual start-up companies achieve more international success than bilingual or monolingual ones (Table 2).
Although demonstrating a colourful array of primarily European languages, most firms appear satisfied with their current language abilities and strategies as they are necessary for their current operating markets. Notwithstanding, the Finns and Portuguese indicate a willingness to develop these skills, thus improving their resource package.
The interviewees remain divided in the consideration of language as a competitive advantage. For example, the Portuguese unanimously agree that language ‘is a huge advantage, especially when […] talking about global markets’ (Company D), although the Finns only generally agree—the exception being Company B that has a multinational team and already feels at an advantage. Meanwhile, two of the three Swedes remain conflicted stating: ‘I don’t see it as a competitive advantage. It is a must of doing business, that’s it’ (Company I) and ‘[It] depends on your ambition I would say’ (Company G). This perhaps asserts that the Swedes take their language skills for granted in the internationalisation process and also infers an unwillingness to adopt long-term linguistic strategies for new market penetration. Nevertheless, all companies agree that without language skills, new international businesses would fail, to which Company F extends: ‘above all start-ups like us’. Here, the Swedes somewhat contradict themselves by not assigning such ability to competitive advantage. Nevertheless, Company D (Portugal) outlines the role of context as a contributing factor which links the micro and macro perspectives, consistent with the company’s domestic—rather than international—outlook. The Portuguese indicate that it is not always necessary for firms to need such advanced language skills as context can constrain action and inform effectiveness as the normalisation of language ability is contextually embedded. This illustrates the hampering potential of institutionalisation which can negatively affect internationalisation potential.
Contextualisation is also reflected in the shared language histories between Sweden and Anglo-Saxon countries with English as the business lingua franca. These linguistic histories, stemming from Germanic roots, are shared alongside the colonial histories of Viking exchange which increase assimilation potential. Effectively, the Swedish respondents equated language ability and competitive advantage to a lesser degree than the other linguistic groups, although recognising it as vital for business survival which may be explained via normative and cultural-cognitive institutionalisation over time and space.
Although English is considered by all companies as the language of primary interest for international business, discrete trends are clear. The Finns note Russian and Mandarin of future importance, whereas the Portuguese pose Brazilian-Portuguese and Mandarin, and the Swedes note Spanish. These trends indicate potential foreign market selection as the recursive process of strategising by assimilating core language skills deemed necessary to penetrate such (emerging) markets. They also are inferential of historical ties. Indeed, this may either be the result of prior ties in the broad sense of historical national acquaintances that stimulate legitimising effects and perceived trust or the perceived corporate effectiveness of future ties based on both financial and social concerns for emerging markets. That is, the choices may be a reflection of normative underlying context-bound assumptions on future markets which can relate to, for example, geography, history and sector. Taken together, language ability is evidently vital to future development and therefore can be seen as a source of competitive advantage from the entrepreneurs’ perspective, affecting start-up success likelihood.
Multilingualism is considered essential for sound business practice by the Finns who state that ‘if you don’t have the language skills […] you miss that important tool for creating contacts’ (Company A). Further, ‘when you do business, at least the final service has to be in the local language’ (Company B). Thus, from initiation to end-service, language infiltrates the whole business process for the Finns. This ‘essentialness’ is also outlined by Company D of Portugal where ‘attention to language skills […] can have a positive impact […] on the company’s operations’. These findings relate to the assumption that language ability affects organisational rapport, trust and legitimacy. Further, the responses extend communication as relating to feedback processes, cooperation, international scope and quality. For example, Company E states that ‘most […] start-ups need to have an international scope’, to which Company F furthers:
‘Language and communication are the keys to achieve success. It is through language that we communicate our company and our products. And, if we don’t communicate well through language we will fail. Our daily operations are conditioned by the quality of communications’.
This infers that inadequate communication is detrimental to business legitimacy. If communication is on a foundational level per se, it can compromise the corporate image of the start-up and effect business potential. From a Swedish perspective, language ability through multilingualism is considered to pose little problem, apart from more effort on the behalf of the Swedes. The insinuation of resentment with regard to communication with customers who have inferior English levels suggests a misalignment between country-level skills, which are the product of embedded institutionalisation, as instigating frustration and hindering positive relations: ‘In Sweden, you can do business in English, but in Brazil […] nobody speaks English so we have to hire people to speak Portuguese’; ‘we only hire people with good English skills’ (Company I). Companies G and H propose patience on behalf of the Swedes dealing with foreigners’ lower English levels as illustrated by the quote from Company H:
‘There are plenty of examples of companies […] where English is not the natural second language and you can spot that immediately […] you definitely lose credibility straight away so you have to appear as almost as English is your first language […] if you don’t have that, you need to take help’.
Of course, these are subjective opinions from a selection of entrepreneurs and not sweeping cultural generalisations. Nevertheless, such normativity exhibited by the Swedes offers institutionalisation to varying degrees whereby perceptions of the ‘other’ are framed by internal, contextually bound assumptions. This is reinforced via the use of modals verbs such as ‘have to’ and ‘need to’ which suppose the Swedish interviewees as the purveyors of mastered second languages, discrediting those ‘inferior’ by assuming what can be interpreted as an authoritative role. Indeed, this may relate to the strong internal education systems as regulatory forces in Sweden where languages are incorporated from an early stage as products of the domestic institutional education system, i.e. the regulative pillar of institutionalisation. Nevertheless, start-ups from other countries may perceive language assimilation and ability as extremely difficult, as their institutional environments focus on other skill sets or different language branches.
Rapport through similarity?
All business is founded upon relationships whether internal or external, thus the extent to which the start-up communicates in its customers’ lingua franca is likely to improve organisational trust and rapport, as well as build legitimacy in the eyes of the ‘other’. Appendix 1 provides an extensive summary and some empirical examples of the more nuanced themes drawn out from the interviews with regard to communication aspects and cultural awareness between the start-ups and their customers. These primary themes are overviewed in Table 3 below. They are related to the concepts of trust (T), organisational rapport (OR) and legitimacy (L), which were drawn out from the literature review and provide a detailed thematic analysis at the national level (Fig. 1).Footnote 4 And although many of these themes may overlap, they serve to highlight that the start-up companies’ perceptions are varied per context. To this end, the illustrative examples provide an understanding based on rich description of the role of context in the interpretation of communicative rapport as related to smooth business processes.
For the Finns, relational aspects such as adaptation to the local culture are emphasised, as well as a generally positive attitude towards cultural difference. Notwithstanding, Company A also states it ‘not necessary [to modify your behaviour] when working abroad [as] everybody can be themselves’. The Finns also stress the importance of ensuring that the correct message is received by the foreign counterpart and that bilateral cultural education and learning should be the foundation of building sustainable business relations. This is exemplified in the prevalence of a communicative approach based on organisational rapport. As such, core values such as transparency and openness, alongside respect and tolerance, are presented, moving beyond traditional neoclassical ways of doing business. In this sense, the Finns embrace the position that cultural awareness is a necessary skill to be learnt by the entrepreneurs.
The Portuguese, however, take a more pragmatic approach which is slightly orientated to legitimising effects and has managerialist intonations: ; ‘I have never had serious problems of miscommunication […] due to language difference. We just need to take care and be sure everything is okay and all was well understood’ (Company E). Nevertheless, Company F aligns more so with the Finns regarding to the need to adapt and actively learn about the other culture. The Swedes emphasise legitimacy the most by adopting practical responses that infer corporate aims of strategic competitive advantage such as: ‘We are going to need to adapt […] because in many countries English is not as widely used’ (Company H); ‘You have to be careful that you don’t just do things as you would at home and assume that people will do [as they say] (Company I). Here, legitimacy is outlined regarding the a priori of ‘credibility’ which suggests superiority in eloquent English-language skills can boost corporate image and therefore competitive advantage. Thus, one can view this as a spectrum from the proactive, rapport-building communicative Finns, to the more pragmatic legitimising Swedes who are instrumental when conducting business over national (online) borders; that is, adaptation and cultural tolerance as the ‘by-products’ of conducting international business.
The Finns and Portuguese unanimously agree that culture is a competitive advantage with Company C (Finland) noting such skills as the ‘ground for all doings’, that is, they are essential in order to establish good relationships within the business world. Yet, the Swedes’ responses vary and cultural significance appears dependent on multiple control factors such as location and sector (Company G). Further, Company H highlights that even though a company may not need cultural skills in the beginning, these become more important with regard to innovation over time, composing part of the organisation’s internal resource systems and complementing the resource-based view of the firm. This suggests the incremental institutional assimilation of culture over time and (cyber)space that moves from the domestic realm to the foreign. It also echoes original uses of institutional theory in the liability of foreignness literature that supposes firms overcome the liability by integrating, mimicking or diffusing in the foreign market (see Zaheer 1997).
An illustration of shared histories
Given that Finland and Sweden occupy the House et al. (2004) Nordic cluster, the start-up firms from these countries are arguably expected to exhibit similar trends. This similarity does not relate to language but rather is based on shared histories and proximity. Therefore, Finland and Sweden—in theory—should display comparable behaviours, opinions and trends, which would be dissimilar to Portugal in the Latin European cluster. Thus, detailed nuances from the entrepreneurs’ responses offer further points of interest, especially as both the Swedish and Finnish interviewees overtly refer to one another without probing.
Company B (Finland) notes that when working with Swedes he tries to be as ‘diplomatic as possible [by] trying to act in a way [he thinks] would [be] the most comfortable’. This accords with the notion that the Finns highly regard organisational rapport in order to make the ‘other’ feel comfortable and, in many respects, represents learning informal social skills and cues based on continuous improvement for an improved cultural resource base. Meanwhile, Company H of Sweden comments on prejudices he has about the Finns:
‘… they are great to work with, but take some time getting used to as they are quiet. The northern part of Finland is not as good in English. A big difference in the profession, very different [than] if you are in the South’.
This ‘quietness’ is of interest, given that the Finns appear to actively concentrate on building a communicative approach. Also of interest is the regional divide between the north and the south, suggesting that ‘national’ culture is indeed not entirely national; a view that is addressed in Tödtling and Wanzenböck’s (2003) study of regional patterns of entrepreneurship in Austria. One can only hazard a guess that these sources of—perhaps unfound—criticism (from both sides) are most probably the combined result of institutionalisation, that is, the result of shared—and sometimes conflicted—histories, as well as personal experience.
It is inevitable that comparisons are made between business–customer market bases based on commonly-held, institutionalised or even stereotypical views, which can be both positive and negative for a variety of reasons. For example, Company G of Sweden praises Finnish customers for their quick adaptation to new technologies and speed in signing contracts, comparing them to their much slower Swedish counterparts. Here, institutionalisation is orientated negatively towards the respondent’s home market by the recognition that ‘home’ is not always the most efficient from a corporate perspective. Nevertheless, the fact that both countries offer illustrative examples of their neighbours suggests deep-seated connections and long-established business networks between Finland and Sweden, partially verifying of the notion of the House et al. (2004) cultural clusters.
Entrepreneurship does not appear to be an institutional movement given that the responses of our interviewees focus on the individual-level. To this end, the patterns do not support the view that underlying educational and cultural systems are necessary prerequisites to become an entrepreneur (Table 4). Such findings go some way towards better understanding if entrepreneurship can be taught and EO can be learnt.
The responses reflect a variety of subjective opinions which make for an interesting read, both supporting and rejecting existing literature strands. Here, context is not as obvious, although one could argue that the Swedes concretely agree that logically anyone can become an entrepreneur—at the superficial level of interpretation at least. Deeper analysis suggests that this question requires further investigation as the role of teaching entrepreneurship seems contested by the entrepreneurs themselves, which would indicate the non-necessity of entrepreneurship education from the practising entrepreneurs’ perspective.
The indifference towards official education or training was signalled by interviewees from all three contexts, alongside the notion by some, that it could do no harm. For example, Company A (Finland) notes ‘you have to have some kind of idea what it takes to become an entrepreneur, but you don’t have to go to a particular school or have four years of training’. Company D of Portugal furthers ‘there are examples of very successful people who have created great empires from scratch, basically with good judgment and common sense. So, I don’t think it’s something necessary’. And, Company G of Sweden emphasises that ‘the most important thing is personality, i.e. if you have the drive and other personal traits necessary to start and build all the components of a new company’. This goes some way towards validating the importance of individual traits and EO as intrinsic.
The responses not only reflect the dynamisms and debates inherent within the academic field but too the subjectivity of the very raison d’être—the essence—of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mind-set. Thus, contemporary research regarding the necessity of entrepreneurship education remains perplexed against the backdrop of both academic and entrepreneurial debate. Further, as the responses express similitude between the three nations, cultural background therefore does not determine entrepreneurial success by creating specific EO characteristics as some studies would infer (e.g. Hofstede 1984; House et al. 2004), at least not through entrepreneurial training at least. This champions the idea that entrepreneurship tendencies borne from within and not the product of culturally specific environments. That is, EO is primarily the result of intrinsic characteristics rather than extrinsic features. Thus, one can only infer that localised factors influence understandings of international entrepreneurship and that instead, entrepreneurial tendencies are primarily based on personality traits. However, the extrinsic indeed creates opportunities through developing core competences, such as language skills through education, as resources to offer international success. Essentially, these responses suggest that language education is essential for the internationalisation process as opposed to official entrepreneurial training programmes. In this sense, the ‘entrepreneurship as learnt’ paradox remains open to debate.