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Global to the Core or Why IBM Can't Tell You How Much Money It Spends on Globalization

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Bill Sullivan, IBM LISA is in the process of updating its Localization Primer, a publication read by people around the world interested in learning about localization. As part of this process LISA decided to update some figures about how companies spend their localization budget, so Mike Anobile called up Bill Sullivan of IBM to ask him how IBM spends its localization budget. Bill replied that he couldn't say, that he had no idea how much money IBM spends on globalization or what areas the money is spent in. What's more, he said that he was "delighted and indeed proud that [IBM does] not have that data".

At a time when the GILT industry is fighting for visibility this sounds like bad news. Is this a return to the "bad old days" when localization was so chaotic that no one knew what they were spending, or what they were getting for their money? As it turns out, IBM's inability to say how much money it spends on GILT may herald the start of a new era of globalization.

I appreciate how disappointed Mike Anobile must have been that I cannot provide a percentage estimate of what IBM spends on the various elements of product globalization… how much for translation, how much for tools, how much for I18N, G11N, or L10N. I'm sure it would be very useful information. But let me explain: The operative words in the sentence above is "cannot provide" (not "will not"). Perhaps it is suprising that we do not have that data (while others with famous names all do). That looks like sloppy bookeeping perhaps, but here's something that may surprise you even more: I am delighted and indeed proud that we do not have that data because it means that we have been successful in integrating globalization seamlessly into the mainstream of product development rather than viewing it as an add-on. After all, when your company's first name is "International", people have certain expectations.

IBM's approach to globalization, internationalization, and localization reflects a long history of commitment to our worldwide customers. We have been providing localized products for more than seventy years. I am certain that in the early days it was easy to determine the specific costs associated with preparing large computer mainframes and complex operating systems for use in a particular country. Those products were first developed in English and then translated and modified for each country. The localization tasks - although they were probably not known by that elegant name at the time - were separate, and the time that people spent could be carefully tracked and the costs could be recorded. When analyses were done it was easy to see that the product revenue was worth the investment.

Over the years, however, it became clear that the most effective way of preparing products for a worldwide audience was to internationalize them first - to design them so that they would be easier to modify for each language. The task of designing products in this way became part of the overall design process. It was harder, therefore, to determine exactly how much was being spent on internationalized and localized products. Some tasks were still discrete while others had become mainstream. But IBM was committed to serving customers worldwide, so there was no question that all of these tasks were imperative. Interestingly, when the analyses were done, the investments still proved to be very rewarding. For years, more than half of IBM's software revenue has come from countries where English is not the primary language.

With the arrival of the internet and the surge of e-business a new model arose. It became clear that internationalized and localized products are not enough. Products that succeed in the e-business arena must satisfy any customer anywhere. They cannot be tailored to one language at a time. They must be globalized. One version of a product must serve all. To achieve this, we have carefully integrated more and more of the globalization tasks into the end-to-end IBM product development process. Our business plans assume worldwide coverage. Our user-centered design reviews begin with global customers in mind. Global architectures ensure that our products will perform planetwide. All of our software developers are trained to think globally. Special tools and technologies provide support for global product development. Special tests are performed to ensure that our products will work anywhere. In short, everything about product globalization has been integrated into our process.

This view of the world makes it impossible to answer the question of how much IBM invests in globalization. It would be like asking "How much do you spend making your products usable?" But it is easy to talk about a return on investment in this context. In our view, globalization is an imperative; a non-negotiable customer expectation. It cannot and should not be treated as an add-on feature. It is a condition of participating in the e-business marketplace. Instead of asking themselves how much they will earn by investing in globalization, companies should ask how much they will lose if they do not.

Investment in globalization is more than just re-engineering an internal business model or development process however. Companies must be aware of trends in the marketplace and advances in the technical arena. IBM is a strong participant - an investor - in many standards organizations like LISA because we understand their value in this business equation. Standards are critical to every company's success in a complex, multilingual, multicultural e-business environment. Companies like IBM rely upon them; customers - sometimes without even realizing it - benefit from them. They are key to our success. In many other environments the companies found in LISA are competitors. In LISA, however, we are partners. We realize that without organizations like LISA, without focused technical workgroups, without acknowledged standards, we all lose.

Bill Sullivan has worked for IBM for more than a quarter century and in the globalization arena for 12 years. During that time he has worked with hundreds of software and hardware products from laptops to mass spectrometers. He has also served as a globalization consultant to IBM solution and service providers supporting a broad range of industries. He is currently Program Director for Globalization and manages a worldwide team of globalization subject matter experts. Bill is a member of the LISA Executive Committee and provides strategic direction to the organization.

When unplugged from the world of technology, Bill is an aficionado of Chinese gardening and an instructor in the martial art of t'ai chi ch'uan.


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
7 April 2003, Volume XII, Issue 2.1.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider:, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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