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Making your company more global
Kit Brown

A useful checklist to help you improve your globalization efforts


To be an international company, all you need are offices in multiple countries. To be truly global, however, requires that multicultural sensitivity, understanding and accommodation permeate the company, from the CEO to the janitor. Being truly global means consciously considering how every action — or inaction — affects all of your customers, suppliers, distributors and employees, regardless of where they live in the world. It means building such consideration into the fabric of the company at every level: organization, process, product and documentation.

At the organizational level, upper management must make it clear that globalization is a key part of the company’s strategic plan, from the corporate brand to the market analysis and product designs.

  • Build awareness and buy-in among the employees, particularly the management team. Activities can be as simple as reminding everyone to include the Greenwich Mean Time in meeting requests or as complex as a full corporate audit of internationalization/globalization issues.
  • Determine the priorities for localization/expansion to particular markets. For example, if 50% of your international revenue comes from Japan, you will probably want to focus your initial efforts in that market.
  • Evaluate the existing infrastructure to ensure that it supports an internationalization strategy. For example, do you have existing international offices? Do they have a translation manager or someone else responsible for reviewing localized versions of the product? What processes do the international offices currently employ for localization? What percentage of their overhead goes to managing localization?
  • Create a cross-functional team to determine the best strategy for the company. Because internationalization can impact every aspect of the company, it is important to include documentation, web, engineering, testing, manufacturing, marketing and administration staff on the strategy team if you want to have a cohesive strategy. Each group will have different needs and a unique perspective on the issues.
  • Identify the key players and evangelists who will be responsible for implementing each aspect of the strategy. This requires management buy-in and understanding of the importance of the strategy to the company’s overall success.

Taking the time during strategic planning and brand building to consider the global market will save time and money later on; helps to build a solid framework on which to base decisions related to processes; and provides each team with a set of goals and tasks for implementing the strategy.

Being global adds a layer of complexity to project management and process implementation. Multiple sites, languages, cultures and teams make it even more important to have documented processes that accommodate localization issues and to clearly communicate responsibilities, action items, status and issues. Considering these issues when developing best practices or evaluating technology will help permeate globalization throughout the organization.
  • Establish protocols for virtual teams and for meetings. Often, team members are located in multiple locations and do not have the opportunity to meet in person. Combined with cultural differences and language barriers, this can make it difficult to establish a rapport and to work effectively together. Providing guidelines for teambuilding, taking the time in the beginning of projects to get to know the team members, and agreeing on team rules can go a long way to ensuring success.
  • Outline responsibilities and clearly identify someone to “own and drive the process.” Consensus is great and an important part of teamwork, but ultimately someone has to steer the boat in the right direction.
  • Document all action items, and summarize phone conversations in writing to ensure understanding. Checking understanding of verbal discussions can prevent costly misunderstandings later on, particularly when people are operating in a second language.
  • Evaluate the tools to ensure that they accommodate the needs of the localization team. Does your accounting system support multicurrency? Do your documentation tools and software/firmware code support Unicode?
  • Develop a change management and version control system to provide more accurate estimates for localization and to more efficiently identify changes that impact localization.
  • Expand usability testing to include international customers.

Such processes enable companies to be more organized and proactive in their interactions with the localization team, as well as saving time-to-market and costs.

Product design
A while ago, a rather unfortunate story circulated about a child who died because the doctor could not decipher the color coding on the bypass machine and accidentally sucked out all his blood when the doctor meant to return the blood. With proper user-centered design and internationalization, this problem could have been avoided. The machine lacked proper labels on the buttons, and the color coding was counter-intuitive in the cultural milieu of the doctor.

Is your company ready to go global?

It is much easier to build internationalization into the design of a product than to retrofit it later. Some key areas to consider include the following:

  • Regulatory differences. Electrical, medical, financial and other regulations differ from country to country. By designing for these differences, the company can save considerable costs in retrofitting later. Examples include designing buttons to accommodate a language sticker instead of molding it into the product case, ensuring that electrical appliances accommodate North American, European and Asian plugs, or ensuring that a financial software program accommodates the differences in accounting principles used in Europe and the United States.
  • User preferences. For example, date/time formats, telephone number formats and postal code formats are different depending on the locale.
  • Translatable strings. Storing translatable strings as separate resource files makes it much easier to translate.

Researching and considering the needs of global customers during the design phase can save significant costs in retrofitting, returns and litigation.

Documentation content
Documentation teams wield the most influence and control in the content itself. By ensuring that the team is producing internationalized and high-quality documentation, documentation managers can make a significant contribution to the “bottom line.”

For example, one compile error in the English version of online help gets passed on and magnified in each language that the system is being translated into. If that error takes one hour to fix in the English help and the help is being translated into 23 languages, the documentation team saves at least 23 hours of localization time by fixing the error before the help goes to localization.

Increasing consistency and using standard terminology that is carefully defined in a glossary reduce the number of questions a translator will have and increase the accuracy and efficiency of that translation.

The documentation elements of an effective internationalization strategy are based on the basic principles of good writing — consistency, clarity, accuracy and organization.

  • Create, maintain and use a style guide, glossary and templates. These items will ensure consistency throughout the documentation set and identify standard terminology to be used.
  • Ensure that a strong editing process exists so that each document is thoroughly edited before it is given to localization. The process should include organizational, content, internationalization and copy edits. This will not only improve the quality of the source document but also identify and resolve issues before they get to localization.
  • Conduct periodic internationalization audits to ensure that the documentation meets the needs of an international audience. The first one establishes a baseline and identifies issues. Subsequent audits verify that the initial issues were eliminated and that new ones have not been introduced. Remember, if it is not clear in the source language, it will not be clear in another language.
  • Train the team members so that they understand how their work with the source documentation impacts the localization process.

Small, inexpensive changes in the documentation can significantly increase the quality of the localization, as well as reduce the time-to-market and the costs associated with localization.

While globalizing your company may seem like a daunting task, you can break the effort into easier-to-manage chunks. In most cases, globalization is primarily a matter of adjusting your corporate mindset to permeate the culture with considerations about how activities affect global customers, distributors, suppliers and employees. Making the effort takes time, but it results in a “sea change” — a profound transformation — within the organization.

Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2006, #82 Volume 17 Issue 6) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc.,
Kit (M. Katherine) Brown is the principal of Comgenesis LLC, a technical communication services and consulting company. She has 16 years of experience writing and consulting for the medical, biotechnology, environmental and computer industries, as well as several years working as a consultant in the localization industry.
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