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The Conveyor Belt Approach and Terminology Management
Christie Fidura

Beware of those shortcuts when managing your corporate content


The first time I visited Europe was with my new husband and his mother. After a long and stressful overnight flight from the United States, we arrived tired and cranky to find that our luggage had been lost. We spent the next 17 days touring five countries wearing the same clothes, with daily promises from the airline that it would show up “any minute.” And why had our luggage been lost? It had fallen off a conveyor belt somewhere in transit. Despite Henry Ford’s phenomenal success with the assembly line for his Model T, my faith in the system was shaken.

My doubts notwithstanding, the conveyor belt approach is heavily in place today in every type of organization. From a fast-food restaurant to a small print shop to a multi-locale global software vendor, the most efficient way to deliver a product to market is to use the conveyor belt approach. This driving need for efficiency is directly related to the company’s bottom line: time is money, and the faster competitor wins the customer. So, with this need at the forefront of operations, the most sensible way to achieve maximum efficiency is for an organization to structure itself into a process-related hierarchy and to isolate individual functions into divisions — one business unit, performing one task incredibly well, delivering its finished product to the next business unit and so on. It’s completely reasonable — that is, until the product you are delivering is content and you add the pressures of globalization into the mix.

A company decides to expand internationally for one reason: to increase its global footprint and/or brand and, therefore, the size of its bank account. As an American living abroad, I have seen thousands of instances where an established organization brings its home product to new shores and readies the product for global sale by simply changing the currency symbol that appears in front of the price — same product, same price, vastly different revenue realization for the company (thanks to the exchange rate). I have also seen many cases where the business does not perform as well as it expects, and it slowly begins to understand the importance and power of making your message appropriate to the local culture. Too little too late, this analysis concludes that:

  • The local message is just as important (if not more) as the global brand message.
  • The serious impact that lack of awareness of the existing corporate brand has in a new local market.
  • In order to succeed in a new market, the brand must be established as if it were new again, which requires maintenance investment.
  • Price adjustment requires more effort than simply replacing one currency symbol with another.

If it’s so fraught with risk, why do so many organizations think that operating globally is future-critical? It’s simple, really: the computer. It’s changed all of our lives, just as Bill Gates predicted it would. Many of us haven’t picked up a phone book in years because we search for local services on the internet. We can stay in touch with one another for the price of a broadband subscription, meaning that we may have closer personal relationships with one another than ever before without the benefit of physical contact. And children today are unbelievably tech-savvy. My friend’s three-year-old isn’t allowed to start pre-school until he knows how to use a mouse, and he doesn’t yet speak in complete sentences! My own MTV Generation has turned into The Now Generation: I want it, I want it now, and I should be able to click to get it.

The internet has increased the consumer’s ability to know which products are available, compare features and prices with other providers, get independent research and consumer reviews, and make a purchase, all without direct physical interaction.

This is great for consumers, but makes things much more difficult for companies. Because businesses no longer have such strong human relationships with their clients, they have less knowledge about their customers and, subsequently, less of an idea of how to reach them. Technology has given us more customer channels — e-mail marketing, wireless, even digital billboards — but without that strong foundation knowledge of the customer, it makes it that much harder to develop a message for an individual. Marketing is significantly more difficult than it used to be. Now imagine trying to do it on a global scale from a central office located within an isolated business unit.

Best practice dictates that a small group located in corporate headquarters creates the overall brand message and then passes it to local marketers who manipulate it for their audience with their cultural expertise. In 1997, Fortune magazine stated, “In the twenty-first century, branding ultimately will be the only unique differentiator between companies. Brand equity is now a key asset.” InterBrand’s Best Global Brands 2006 reported Coca-Cola as the number one most valuable brand (not company), worth about $67,000,000,000.

With such enormous values at stake, it is critically important that the corporate brand message be consistent, yet simultaneously flexible enough to sustain a local marketing influence. In the translation industry, we call this nuance. Leveraging a cultural expert’s knowledge ensures that the larger global message becomes one that is equally significant to the local consumer and does its job in evoking a particular emotional response. Again, this process depends on one thing: the content conveyor belt. Content must be produced and distributed to the local marketing teams for manipulation and distribution. A seemingly small change at the corporate level can have an enormous effect on a local office responsible for all print, media and marketing communications.

The problem with the information I have presented to you thus far is that it is narrow-minded. Only external communications that are marketing-oriented have been mentioned. But, of course, not all content is produced for marketing purposes. Every company that has ever sold anything produces information about its product. Sometimes that content is published externally and sometimes not. Here are some examples:

  • Internal use: processes, plans, functions, ideas, requirements, procedures, standards, intellectual property, administration, account management, accounts payable, accounts receivable.
  • External use: brochures, license agreements, user guides, website, presentations, bills of lading, public relations, advertising, product packaging.

Multiple types of people located worldwide are responsible for creating these individual types of content. Engineering writes up product specifications; Operations creates procedures; Technical Documentation creates user guides; Design creates product packaging; and so on. As mentioned before, each of these groups is structured into its own business silo, never needing to interact with any other community. But this is the really interesting bit: each of these groups is using content developed by another group as the originating source of its own material. Engineering creates product specifications and passes them to Technical Documentation. This group uses that source information to create, for example, the user guide, which is then given to Marketing for use in developing the product messages. These messages are used by the Sales team to sell the product. Operations may also use Engineering specs to develop appropriate and efficient processes for product development and delivery, and so on. A single piece of content is used again and again for multiple purposes, and this is where the breakdown happens.

Regardless of the final delivery point of a document, internal or external, it is extremely likely that someone somewhere will use it as reference material. If anyone within this user chain makes a change, an inconsistency has, by default, been introduced into the source materials. Because this information is passed onto another content creator, the inconsistency is then replicated into other documents. Unfortunately, with the corporation organized into business silos, there is no transparency into the content being produced by the company, and monitoring it for accuracy and consistency is thereby impossible. But inconsistency in source materials produced in a single language is not the only issue. The problem is multiplied exponentially when these documents are translated into different languages, as shown in Figure 1, below.

Figure 1: An inconsistency in the source material is replicated in other
documents and multiplied by the number of target languages

Microsoft provides us with the best real-world example possible. Multiple applications reside under the Microsoft Office umbrella (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), yet share many pieces of common functionality. One of the most familiar is the shortcut key, which enables users to execute a command by pressing a series of keystrokes instead of using a mouse. A shortcut key can be recognized by an underlined letter within the word, such as Zoom. I have just called it a “shortcut key,” but what does Microsoft call it? In various pieces of user documentation, it can be seen as:

  • hot key (also hotkey)
  • shortcut key
  • keyboard shortcut
  • access key
  • accelerator key
  • keyboard accelerator

Because there is no standard for what this particular function should be called across Microsoft documentation, it causes repercussions for customers and the company. Imagine the confusion of a customer looking up a problem with his or her “access key” in Excel on the Microsoft Knowledge Base Support site, yet not finding any results. Instead, the user should have been searching for the “shortcut key.” This small inconsistency has caused the customer to feel confused and frustrated, and subsequently means that he or she now must contact Customer Support to find the solution to the problem. The customer’s contacting Microsoft costs the company money and simultaneously eradicates the very reason that the online Knowledge Base was created in the first place! The customer can no longer support himself or herself because of an issue with corporate terminology.

“There is no common vocabulary at Microsoft,” said Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief technical officer, in 2002. “Our lack of standardization undermines our trustworthiness.” The company recognized this problem and took action, publishing its terminology online in a knowledge base. Today, terminology is so important to Microsoft that you can find an entire Microsoft Terminology Community Forum, as well as the company’s Community Glossary Project which helps local governments, universities and other groups worldwide to build standardized glossaries.

The example presented above becomes even more challenging during the translation process. According to Microsoft’s Terminology Translations on its GlobalDev website, the company is currently translating into 59 languages. So, each single inconsistency of terminology in the source language of English may be replicated 59 times.

This same problem was experienced by Giesecke & Devrient, a 150-year-old German banking institution with an established reputation for quality. Producing both hardware and software, each product deliverable was organized into its individual business silo. All development for the product — from specification to quality assurance to technical writing — occurred within the silo. It was only when finalized documentation was given to the single translation department that problems arose.

Even though the same functions or features were used across all products, each business unit used different terminology. This meant that existing translations could not be re-used from one document to another, thus making the translation process longer and creating a direct impact on product delivery to market. The translators spent most of their time asking the multiple business units questions (“Which of these two terms is correct for this one function?”) and then waiting while the departments argued it out. Inconsistencies were mounting up across languages as well as within the source language. The content conveyor belt approach in place at Giesecke & Devrient was efficient, but completely impractical for globalization.

Companies spend significant time and effort establishing terms that create their brand and establish their products within the marketplace. These terms must be used consistently across every piece of documentation produced by the business. Their power cannot be underestimated. In fact, a study by Rohit Mahajan and Ben Shneiderman (“Visual and Textual Consistency Checking Tools for Graphical User Interfaces,” IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, 1997) found that inconsistent terminology slowed user performance by 10% to 25%, which would negatively affect the customer’s perception of the application. Here are some examples of how managing terminology has benefited global organizations:

  • SAP found that seeding a new local market with its technical terms established the company as the leader within that market for its solutions, leaving competitors far behind.

  • Siemens Medical Solutions found that inconsistencies in its technical information across product lines made it challenging to find information quickly and easily. Customers required additional explanatory documents to overcome the inconsistencies they saw, thereby causing a huge expense for document production. With a simple goal of ensuring that customers knew how to use its products properly and effectively, Siemens used terminology as a foundation component for its common platform of global content delivery and improved the access to critical product technical information for more than 4,000 customer service engineers worldwide.
  • Hewlett-Packard’s management of terminology significantly reduced customer support costs, deterred legal problems that could be the direct result of misused or inaccurate terms, and improved search results on the company’s website.
  • Giesecke & Devrient implemented a terminology management system that centralized term assets that were used by everyone from engineering to the CEO to a secretary in the repair depot, reduced translation costs by 20%, enabled better communication between development and documentation, and produced consistent information in all languages.

Terminology can be much more than a way to maintain a brand or reduce costs. It can also throw a wrench into the content conveyor belt. The biggest problem caused by business silos is the lack of transparency and the inability to share knowledge across the organization. Cross-departmental checks and balances cannot occur because there is no ownership of that process, no automating technology that encompasses all business units, and no possibility that it could be done because it’s bigger than a human’s capacity to undertake. Individual departments are responsible for the content they place on the belt, but immediately disown it once it’s passed to the next group for manipulation.

Companies are trying to control the amount of content they are producing, which is why content management systems (CMS) are more popular than ever before. Managing content is only one part of the process, however. Terminology must be managed holistically, yet external of content; it cannot be part of a CMS because of the in-depth information required for the localization effort, which is simply due to the sheer complexity of language — consider abbreviations, parts of speech, male/female articles, plurals, trademarks and patents, and so on.

Organizations such as HP, IBM and Giesecke & Devrient have all learned a hard lesson: delays to market directly impact the bottom line. If enterprises can get a handle on their terminology — and do so in an automated fashion so that it is available to all content creators — before it reaches the customer, internal transparency results. Knowledge can be shared throughout the organization without the need to break down established corporate hierarchy or those amazingly efficient business silos. Internal knowledge can be leveraged, the customer experience greatly improves, and the global brand is protected —  pretty good results considering all you did was to make sure everyone in your organization knows it’s called a shortcut key. 

Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2007, #90 Volume 18 Issue 6) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc.,

For over 15 years, Christie Fidura has been working with content: authoring it, managing it, and overseeing its translation. A fluent Spanish and English speaker, she intrinsically understands the importance of translating with relevance for a specific target audience. During her tenure as Senior Product Marketing Manager for terminology at SDL International, Fidura combined her expertise in marketing and bringing products to market with insight into the trials and pitfalls of authoring to enhance SDL technology applications. She is currently providing services in the research, content and technology arenas which range from messaging and positioning to brand consistency for companies like IDC, Magus and CommonSense Advisory, to name a few.

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