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What the future of localization holds

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Donald A. DePalma photoIndustry veteran analyses perspectives and offers some viable paths to follow

As I write this, two piles of paper overflow the left corner of my desk. One stack contains notes, articles and case studies about the best practices for buying services online. The other mound — much bigger — is an eclectic assortment of consumer, business, cultural, automotive, sports and other news items about globalization and its positive, humorous and surprising consequences. This second pile will feed my idea factory for a future report, will become the subtext of the next edition of Business Without Borders and will inspire many cocktail-party conversations. Together, these two collections of paper represent two possible futures for the localization practice.

The first future is a bleak one for everyone with the notable exception of Ariba. Translation will continue down the slippery slope to commoditization, where the end result is an Ariba-enabled online auction with bidding increments of 1/100 of a US cent. That auction actually happened recently in the United States.

We empathize. We reluctantly participated in our first reverse auction last month. Our prospective consulting client wanted to buy some advice on global content management, help in defining their business case for globalization, assistance in isolating the requisite processes, and work to identify and formalize best practices within the company. Our contacts told us that they would make their choice based on an array of criteria, not just price. Not surprisingly, when we logged in with our bid, the only information we could see about our rivals was their prices. The only operative point of comparison for the bidders was how much their competitors were willing to settle for to do the job. Needless to say, the contract went to the company with the lowest price. That wasn’t us, so it looks like I won’t be driving that new Porsche any time soon. But I can still smoke most minivans with my ten-year-old T5 Volvo.

Our research shows slow but steady growth of online auctions. We hear more and more tales of language service providers (LSPs) getting squeezed on price in the name of scientific purchasing and efficiency. These enlightened buyers learned some valuable lessons in economics in the supermarket, where reducing the price of a can by a few cents can shift the behavior of the buyer. Given how many LSPs position themselves on the triad of best price, highest quality and best service, it’s easy for buyers to assume equal levels of quality and service from any vendor — and test them on the promise of best price. The economic buyer in the procurement department will benefit from reduced cost, but we know that the actual localization buyer will wonder about the loss of rhetorically compelling translation and elegant product localization that will come from this focus on price.

What the future of localization holdsThe second future promises to be much more interesting but stressful nonetheless. In this scenario, companies recognize that their buyers live in dozens of countries around the world. These nations and the consumers in them are interconnected by cross-border industry, investment, individuals, information and the internet. Following the lead of software and hardware companies, manufacturers the world over are thinking about simultaneous shipment (simship), deployment, publication and web marketing. This new model of simship puts a premium on practitioner vision and innovation. At the same time it raises the bar substantially for supplier responsiveness, ability to deliver within aggressive timeframes, buyer-supplier collaboration and automation. Different vendors have named it. SDL calls it global information management. Lionbridge labels it Localization 2.0. Others have called it the age of the simultaneous enterprise.

What is different about this new wave of localization? Two years ago we labeled this phenomenon the real world enterprise, with the emphasis on “world enterprise.” Aspirants to becoming a world enterprise deal with a flood of code, content and data that does not respect national, organizational or even corporate borders. They have to create language- and locale-independent processes to transform this content into a form, language and style appropriate to the needs of consumers in disparate markets and roles.

Three realities will drive forward-thinking companies to become truly world enterprises and change the practice of localization forever.

1. Many manufacturing companies already operate like software development houses. Java, microprocessors and Linux continue to creep inside an ever-widening array of devices. Manufacturers of cars, medical devices, phones and MP3 players regularly create software-enabled, multilingual applications for markets around the world. Nokia ships 55 mobile phones localized into 80 languages. Microsoft will support nine Indian languages in a version of Windows customized for the subcontinent. Worldwide rollouts of complex offerings such as BMW’s iDrive depend on localized variants being available in all markets at the same time. Even small companies will find the need to compete on a global basis.

Development groups at these companies have come to resemble independent software vendors in composition, metrics and schedules. They deal with streaming content and code for rolling product releases. While cost will never disappear as a factor, availability and support are paramount in these new-age software applications.

2. Global marketing pivots on websites. Consumers in São Paulo can see products and prices on your domestic website as soon as you post them. At best, this cross-border transparency creates demand. At worst, it embarrasses you by showcasing products that you can’t deliver because you don’t have a Portuguese interface or a Brazilian distributor. To avoid embarrassing inconsistency and confusion, world enterprises increasingly harmonize branding and messaging across their global sites.

In this scenario, companies become accidental publishers, distributing massive amounts of information directly to consumers through their websites. Travel and leisure companies, consumer electronics, and automotive manufacturers lead the charge to providing more pre-purchase help and post-sales support through their websites. Rhetorically compelling, targeted information provided in a dozen major languages and dozens of “smaller” languages will be the norm.

3. The world enterprise flows across borders. Most companies will consider “foreign” operations to be outside the scope of the real-time enterprise — until the next unwelcome surprise originates in a business unit that operates in a language, currency and practice unknown at headquarters. In the last few months we have seen companies such as Google, Disney and Yahoo and countries such as Denmark surprised by local and global response to their actions in what they thought were standalone markets. These factors demand the monitoring, analysis and transfer of huge volumes of information wherever your company operates, putting a new burden on database, knowledge and enterprise resource management systems.

What does this mean in practice? To deliver on the promise of the world enterprise, companies will have to think less about being an American or German company and more about structures, products, organizations and applications that work globally first, nationally second. To execute on this vision, they will need to adopt and adapt the techniques of simultaneously shipping digital deliverables, products that embed multilingual content, internal data flows and inter-company communications across international boundaries. This won’t be news to larger software and computer hardware suppliers that simship products to many international locations. However, this effort will put a strain on development, marketing and support organizations long accustomed to simple product rollouts within a single national market.

The world enterprise model opens an opportunity for today’s localization professionals to share their expertise in simship with the rest of the industry and for suppliers to distinguish themselves on their performance in rapid product, application, and content development in many languages for many markets. I think both practitioners and suppliers would bid more for this second future than the supermarket madness of auctions and the inevitable cents-off coupon of that model.

Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2006, #79 Volume 17 Issue 3) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc., www.multilingual.com.


Donald A. DePalma, founder and president of Common Sense Advisory, is the author of Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.


This article was also published in Сcaps Newsletter (http://www.ccaps.net)

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