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Project Management, ROI and Efficiency. Doing More With Less.

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Cathyann Swindlehurst It is tempting to get lost in the details of day-to-day project execution, but strategic decisions such as (1) alignment of project execution with business needs, (2) implementation of standards and (3) identification of "hidden" resources, can only be effectively considered early in the project lifecycle. These strategic choices are levers that can be pulled to increase the overall efficiency of the project, thus enabling the Localization Project Manager to deliver more - with less.


ROI and Localization Projects

ROI has become a rallying cry of management in the post-bubble technology world as it works to dampen the screams of stockholders around the globe. ROI, return on investment, is generally measured in very narrow financial terms. "How much money (assets) did we give you (invest), and how much money (return) did you make and give back to us?"

By this definition, localization projects often fail to pass the "ROI hurdle." The standard localization project could be described as an upfront cost (generally perceived as "expensive") that generates an often-unquantifiable return ("goodwill," "increased likelihood to buy," "potential new markets").

Even when hard sales and margin figures are available, it is often impossible to differentiate the "return" which is present solely because of the localization work. Perhaps the product would have sold some number of units regardless of whether it had been localized; after all, "our customers all speak English." Management remains notoriously hard to convince, and the numbers for return on localization investment remain notoriously "soft."

In most organizations, localization work is perceived (and often classified) as a "cost center" - that is, the "return" generated by localization is not specifically measured and tied back to the actions of the localization team. As the "cost center" name implies, from the business perspective, the localization effort costs money, but does not directly influence revenue.

In tough economic times, woe to the cost centers of a corporation! Many corporations see cost centers as "low-hanging fruit" for budget cuts. Cost centers often lose resources and staff to layoffs well before the "profit centers" of a company.

Given this reality, can good localization project management ever be perceived as making a positive contribution to the corporate bottom line? How can Localization Project Managers (LPMs) support and be recognized for working towards the company goal of increased ROI? Although the long-term answers require investment in clear industry-driven metrics which measure the contributions localization work makes to the marketing and sales cycle (defining the "return"), the short- and medium-term answers are to be found in the first half of the ROI equation - managing carefully the amount of money (resources) a corporation uses to generate the "return."

Doing More With Less

Doing more with less is another corporate rallying cry. Budgets are cut while the workload increases. Whether through layoffs or attrition, staff reductions become a quarterly event. However, any manager who has lived through an economic downturn knows there are a few time-honored ways of "doing more with less."

A common approach to resolving the dilemma of limited resources and increasing expectations is for management to squeeze the staff that remains to produce more results. Translators are expected to translate more words per day. QA testers are expected to work until early evening for the same amount of pay. Project managers manage more projects - and so routinely update plans and respond to team emails from their homes late at night.

While these methods are often successful in the short run, they are disastrous in the long-term. Although it is true that many of us could be more productive than we are, this "squeeze the people" strategy simply sacrifices the future of the team for a short-term, current objective. Once the job market improves, the corporations' best people - the ones who have survived all the layoffs because they were the best workers - will be looking for a company that will treat them as the professionals they are, rather than as indentured servants.

A second approach to doing more with less is to invest in newer tools and better infrastructure. Although this is often exactly what is needed, winning approval for new capital spending is difficult, if not impossible, during an economic downturn.

If squeezing staff produces only short-term results, and spending money doesn't stand a chance in today's business climate, what is a good Project Manager to do? The simple answer is not the easy answer: make more efficient use of the resources already allocated to the project.

How is that to be done? Again, a simple answer: get strategic.

Efficiencies and Strategy

It is well-documented wisdom among software project managers that careful planning is the key to successful (and cost-effective) projects. Thoughtful planning during a product's design phase can save the product from costly re-work once it is in production. Similarly, a detailed requirements process can help ensure the product, as built, will be well-received by the market for which it is designed. Carefully planned QA software test scripts and planned unit testing can mean defects will be caught during the coding process, rather than later in the project, when it is likely that key engineering resources will already have been reassigned to new projects. There are few who argue against the logic of careful planning; however, there are even fewer who invest sufficient time and resources in this critical step.

Increased attention to project planning is the best lever with which to affect project efficiency

It really is that simple. If a company wishes to increase ROI, but does not have cash to invest in the latest and greatest technology, project managers must invest a greater amount of their time in strategically planning the project course.

Identify the Business Need

The first commandment of project efficiency is to "Know thy business need." Every single decision made during the course of a project's execution should further the business need which the project was created to address.

For far too many projects, at some point during the project lifecycle, the purpose of the project becomes the completion of the project, rather than the fulfillment of the business need(s) that set the project in motion.

Consider a project to localize a new product into five languages; a project that will take six months to complete. The product is being introduced to five new markets, three of which are extremely quality-sensitive. The "home" market is not as concerned about quality. The launch is important because it is the first public step in creating an "international" image for the company. Growth in the home market has stalled, and management believes future growth will only come from expanding internationally.

The LPM and her team report in to the R&D organization. R&D has just shipped the newest version of the product in its home market and is now in the midst of planning for the next big release. Localization kicks off just as the product ships.

Over the course of the first couple of months, everything proceeds smoothly according to plan. However, midway through the project, there is a problem which causes a delay of almost three weeks. This slippage is more than the "slush time" remaining in the schedule. The LPM is then informed by R&D that key engineering resources will not be available for fixing bugs if the project is extended. The LPM also knows that it is critical for the product to launch on time, so she decides to compress the QA schedule to recover the three-week slippage.

This is a great solution from the point of view of the LPM and R&D - after all, the project meets its schedule. The potential cost, however, is to the three markets where extreme quality is a key requirement.

Strategic thinking on the part of the LPM that incorporates an understanding of the business need driving this project ensures that the LPM inserts "double checks" into the plan. These checkpoints dovetail with the Marketing rollout plan for each target market and include go/no-go decision points in the localization plan to match those in the Marketing plan.

Similarly, these "double checks" provide flags when changes in the localization plan should be reviewed by the "internal customer," in this case, Marketing, to ensure that the right choice is made. In this example, if Marketing believed strongly that the QA cycle should not be compromised, they could have negotiated a schedule extension with the head of R&D; or perhaps arranged for more budget to be made available for the project.

As the business evolves, the localization project plan needs to evolve right along with it. The way to ensure this is for LPMs to recognize that they need to be as "plugged in" to the corporate business meetings as they are to the development meetings. Although it is sometimes unusual for LPMs to have direct access to these meetings, it is critical that LPMs use the managers around them to stay in touch with the business side of their projects throughout the life of their projects. This helps keep the localization project in its proper context and provides the LPM with the tools s/he needs to make efficient strategic choices with regards to the allocation of scarce resources.

Use Standards

Implementing standards in both the technical and process/project arenas can dramatically increase project efficiency. The most efficient time to implement standards is during the project-planning phase!

If you doubt the power of standardization to impact the bottom line, consider the example of Southwest, the only major U.S. air carrier to remain profitable after September 11. Southwest's low-cost strategy is predicated on the efficient use of resources. As such, Southwest only flies one kind of aircraft. This means only one kind of training for their mechanics - and all mechanics can work on any plane in the fleet. The same can be said for their pilots, flight attendants and gate staff. Every bit of knowledge gained from any flight crew is useful to everyone. Southwest can use the same boarding process for every flight, and when they order new seat cushions, they can take advantage of incredible economies of scale. These cost-savings from standardization go directly to the bottom line. Are there issues with this approach? Absolutely. Would it work for all airlines? Probably not. However, when pursing a low-cost business or project strategy, there are few levers more powerful than standardization.

It takes some amount of time for organizations to adopt their practices to new standards. This "learning curve" of decreased efficiency is the reason often cited for the non-adoption of standards. "We just don't have the time to do it a new way" is a common rationalization among over-worked project teams.

It is the responsibility of the LPM to drive the adoption of standards. The LPM, during the scoping and planning stages, can make strategic recommendations as to the overall savings (both in time and cost) that can be gained by implementing standards. Even in light of the short-term productivity decrease, the LPM should be prepared to make the case for long-term benefits that, in aggregate, far outweigh the short-term consequences.

Consider the following:

  • Implementing a standard file type and format for those dozens of small files requiring translation saves vendors many hours of converting files and saves the LPM from having to accept files with type/format errors.
  • Standardizing source control for localization files goes a long way towards eliminating the need for new builds with one or two "pre-latest-revision" files.
  • Establishing a formalized standard for scope change control (both within the team and between the team and the various stakeholders) ensures that all project changes are appropriately communicated, scoped and approved.
  • Adopting stable technical standards (for example, UNICODE) provides interoperability. This saves product teams from designing custom solutions or workarounds to problems that have already been solved for free.
  • Requiring Vendors to adapt to your standard processes will decrease the amount of time the team needs to invest in vendor-management issues.

Of course, part of responsible standards integration is making sure the team has the training and the schedule slack to implement this standardization. That is why the decision to implement standards is a strategic issue and must be addressed first with adequate planning.

Identify Hidden Resources

A final key area to leverage is identifying "hidden" resources that might be able to help with a project. These are resources not directly under LPM control, but whose goals are a natural fit with the localization project. This is another place where strategic planning can make all the difference.

Imagine taking the time during project scoping and planning to really listen to the needs expressed by others on the larger rollout team. Yes, the LPM's job is to get the product localized and tested, but the Professional Services organization has to get the product installed and the customers trained. Marketing must figure out branding issues half a world away. These teams, similar to the localization team, have both available resources and challenges.

With strategic planning, these somewhat disconnected resources and challenges can be integrated into a more efficient use of the team as a whole.

  • Testing of localized versions can be performed by Professional Services. This reduces overall testing costs (and perhaps time) while training them how to deal with issues they're likely to encounter in the field.
  • Marketing can (in writing) identify key branding issues likely to be faced in new markets. Sending this report to the translation vendor(s) ensures that the translators have the correct source materials from which to appropriately translate critical branding materials, thus saving numerous rounds of back-and-forth.
  • The same resources used by Marketing to make local branding decisions can be tapped for translation review. This ensures that reviewers are properly trained in the correct issues for the review, as well as giving the LPM more clout with the reviewer to enforce a timely submission of comments.

Sharing wider corporate resources to create increased project ROI is the ultimate win-win. Before you propose a creative partnering however, make sure you can articulate exactly what is in it for the other team - and how your proposal works to meet their needs, as well as your own.


LPMs are being pushed to find ways to reduce costs and increase the elusive "return" on corporate investment in localization projects. Direct methods of squeezing staff or investing in more efficient infrastructure are either not available or not sustainable in many cases.

Good project managers will search for ways to use their skills and creativity to increase results while reducing cost, and the most powerful place for those skills to be put to use is during the early planning phase of a localization project.

It is tempting to get lost in the details of day-to-day project execution, but strategic decisions such as (1) alignment of project execution with business needs, (2) implementation of standards and (3) identification of "hidden" resources, can only be effectively considered early in the project lifecycle. These strategic choices are levers that can be pulled to increase the overall efficiency of the project, thus enabling the Localization Project Manager to deliver more - with less.

Cathyann Swindlehurst is a Globalization Consultant for Cygnet International, a company she founded to provide consulting services to companies dealing with the business issues associated with Localization and Internationalization. Along with extensive experience managing localization projects for software companies, she holds a Bachelor of Science (summa cum laude) in Theoretical Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology from Northeastern University, and an MBA with Highest Honors from the Simmons School of Management. She can be reached at


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
22 April 2003, Volume XII, Issue 2.2.

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

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