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Globalizing an Enterprise Content Architecture
"E" can mean something other than English
Nov. 29, 2004 12:00 AM
Rushed to deployment under the mantra of "now or never" in the late 1990s, many corporate Web sites have received major makeovers in the last few years. The driving force behind these efforts has been the increased use of the Web to create an active channel of communication with consumers, corporate buyers, resellers, shareholders, and employees. As they integrate these external Web sites with corporate systems managing customer relationships or supply chains, corporate planners envision their corporate URLs as the first point of contact in a lifelong, online journey with a customer or business partner.
This vision makes a lot of sense. Given the reach of the Web and the potential for creating powerful interactions, it will work at most companies - until it reaches the borders of the United States or encounters someone wanting to speak a language other than English. In continuing research into the online practices of large businesses, Common Sense Advisory has found that 40% of the U.S.'s biggest companies address visitors to their corporate Web sites in English only. American companies are not alone in this monolingual approach - in a survey of 400 companies worldwide (the 25 largest firms in each of 16 markets), more than three-quarters offered content only in the official language of their corporate headquarters.
Given the hothouse growth of China, the continuing expansion of the European Union, and growing reliance on developing countries as outsourcing hubs, more people speaking other languages from more countries will show up at corporate Web sites. Will these online portals and the enterprise systems they connect to serve up anything other than English gibberish to these foreign visitors? This article discusses the globalization of corporate systems that should accompany any remodeling of any externally facing enterprise architecture. To succeed in serving and satisfying international customers and partners, companies must offer them something that they can understand. This will mean adapting Web sites, products, and services to their needs.
Gone Are the Days of Online Corporate Brochures
As e-business has become just plain business at many companies, the supporting infrastructure has become as intricate and distributed as other channels. Various internal workflows and systems make this content available to visitors, customers, employees, business partners, and even governmental overseers - both on the Web and through catalogs, stores, customer service representatives, and other channels.
Many companies have great intentions when it comes to offering products and ser-vices to other markets, but cannot keep their disparate global sites synchronized with consistent, current information. Globalizing content architecture involves looking at processes (and sometimes the lack of processes) for getting information from, let's say, the U.S. to China and from English to Chinese. Quality, cost, and timeliness underlie the basic issues that companies will face as they take their online business and their supporting information systems into international markets.
Globalization Begins Deep in Enterprise Systems
Effective globalization begins at the core of the enterprise and proceeds outward to all externally facing systems. In their review of online architectures and the systems that support them, planners aim for easier integration with other corporate systems, greater flexibility in adding new features, and the ability to respond dynamically to visitor requests. They will bring the Web under the umbrella of corporate reliability, availability, and scalability (RAS) standards as they integrate their Internet investments with other channels of corporate communication and commerce. What will be missing in many plans is an active, systematic plan to adapt these systems to support any market on the planet.
This will not be a simple task - besides a lack of awareness of international market issues, this complexity probably explains why many companies don't look too far beyond their home markets. They find that the layered, multiplexed complexity of system architectures - Web, legacy systems, client/server, desktops, Web services, and the alphabet soup of underlying technologies - stands in the way of simply translating the screens that show up in browser windows. In such corporate systems, well-defined browser interfaces suddenly explode with SQL and transaction processing messages, turning a well-crafted French UI into a mish-mash of English variable names and errors.
As data journeys upward through these technology stacks from DB2 to Internet Explorer, various systems accrete layers of messages, metadata, and potential errors. Thus, efforts to globalize enterprise systems must start at the very heart of corporate systems and work their way up to the surface. Done right, they will ensure support for any human language and markets that future applications throw at it. This initiative will involve low-level technical remediation plus the work of translators and market specialists:
Translate Only What Matters
A company taking this approach will typically specify several tiers of content, such as: 1) the basic information that a firm wants to post about itself and its offerings in an international market; 2) more detailed product and support information for countries where its presence is more evolved; 3) comprehensive data supporting a strong in-country presence; and 4) an international site equivalent to the U.S. presence in most, if not all, respects.
Branding continuity and consistency drives this tiered approach. To ensure consistency across business units and among individuals, companies often create style guides and glossaries. A style guide describes the company's general manner of expression and specifies corporate conventions for grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Very large companies such as GE or Siemens that have many different business units will generate not only corporate guides but business-unit guides as well. To be most effective, style guides and glossaries need to be available in both the source and target languages.
Finally, when developing a content catalog and corporate style guide, companies should clean up their source content, but the reality is that many don't. Eliminating repetitive text, verbosity, multiple synonyms, and market-specific graphics will save on translation costs and eliminate confusion. Analysis of existing processes for managing content will uncover not only chaos, but also lots of ugly content. Specialists characterize much of the documentation, online help, contracts, e-mail communications, and other free-form data that flows through companies as verbose, ambiguous, too idiomatic, buzzwordy, repetitious, turgid, inaccurate, expired, and country-specific. Such information not only takes up more storage space than it should, but it increases costs by confusing, misdirecting, and misleading readers.
Technology Meets Translation
If companies expect to keep their international presence and brand consistent, they must end this costly, time-consuming cycle. Over the last few years, many of the early Web tool companies have adopted open standards such as XML, Java, and Web services, all of which address the problems of integration and standard interfaces. This drive toward fewer differences between the output of tools, Web services, and more centralized development and management of core technology will make translation and market adaptation more cost-effective with a globally compatible, internationalized platform.
Further, a company's software platform should be able to support critical cross-border functions such as dynamic content generation, customer relationship management (CRM), and supply chain management (SCM) using the same backbone technology. Otherwise, it will be doomed to reinvent the same technology wheel for every country it enters.
Look at Machine Translation
Although machine translation is not ready to create compelling sales pitches or translate best-selling novels, it can perform several important supporting roles as companies move into markets. These useful functions range from translating materials that otherwise will never get translated down to helping multinational development teams communicate. Expect this technology to improve over the coming decade as linguistic technology improves and as more potent computers provide the platform at lower prices.
Overview and Key Recommendations
Organizations looking to take their online presence and supporting information systems into international markets should undertake the following three tasks:
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