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ERP Journal: Article

Globalizing an Enterprise Content Architecture

"E" can mean something other than English

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
In the early days of the commercial Internet, companies would simply place product brochures on their Web sites and sometimes update them when specifications and prices changed. But this old "brochureware" approach soon yielded to online businesses such as Lands' End, Dell, and now Nissan that configure goods to a buyer's needs and desires. Information-only Web sites morphed into transactional tours de force that allowed customers to buy goods and services 24 hours a day.

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
The most revisited discussion in globalization is whether to centralize efforts around the corporate site or let country units manage their own markets' sites. One of the likely outcomes from the review of how a company manages data, documents, and other content will be that it should centralize the technology investment, focusing on the creation of the most reliable platform for its business applications, whether online or offline. Content, on the other hand, will come from around the company and from throughout the supply chain.

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:

  • Internationalization enables the use of different character sets, currencies, date formats, and other language- and market-specific details. Supporting other alphabets may be easy with software that was Unicode enabled by its supplier, but getting the data in and out via less internationally minded development tools and business intelligence tools might be an issue.
  • Localization refers to the process of adapting, "culturizing," and legalizing products, services, support materials, documentation, Web sites, and infrastructure to the requirements of other markets. Localization requires internationalization and usually implies translation.
  • Translation describes the process of taking information from one language and conveying the same thoughts and details in another language.
Companies need to do some heavy lifting just to enable clear communication and commerce with the audiences they need to reach. Once the systems have been internationalized and interactions localized, then they can start thinking about what they need to tell visitors - and how to tell them in the most effective way (see Table 1).

Translate Only What Matters
What exactly are people looking for when they visit a corporation's international site? Successful companies have found that thoroughly localizing complex Web sites hosting enormous amounts of content and interactivity is very difficult. This realization has led them to limit the content to a nucleus of essential facts called the "content catalog." Because they know exactly what needs to be translated, global planners can accurately estimate the cost of setting up and managing a national site.

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
During the boom, anxious companies used whatever tools let them build sites fast, but often with little concern about future enhancements, integration with other systems, access by other tools, or standardized formats. While doing routine software audits, some IT departments have discovered that their developers have been using 30 different content creation tools to manage content. This technology smorgasbord incurs heavy costs in training, software acquisition, time to market, and translation; and for each localization project, the source content must be converted into a form that a translator can edit and then converted back to the original file form before it can be posted.

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
Computer-generated translation - often called machine translation (MT) - figures prominently in science fiction and military intelligence, especially in today's post-9/11 world. Simply stated, a computer translates text from one language into another at lightening-fast speeds. Depending on the power of its software, its ability to learn, and the use of specialized dictionaries, computer-generated translation has approached high levels of accuracy - better than simply "gisting" the sense of the original, but nowhere near the level of an accomplished or even pedestrian human translators.

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
Translation is not something that should occur in isolation. Companies will benefit both on the corporate side and in international markets from a methodical review of how content is created, managed, presented, and kept current.

Organizations looking to take their online presence and supporting information systems into international markets should undertake the following three tasks:

  • Announce that quality translation is not an option. Even though many potential customers and partners may speak the same language, many do not. By not offering them the choice of interacting in their language, a company is put into a net deficit position relative to the potential customer or partner's needs. Creating a core content catalog for the company and using it as the vehicle to enter new markets will bound both the cost and required resources.
  • Revisit content architecture. The rapid development of corporate Web sites in the mid-to-late 1990s resulted in unstable software, cobbled-together work flows, and too many tools and file formats. Newer, more stable technology, key standards, and a better understanding of how distributed authoring works are a few of the benefits that will result from a systematic review of a company's online business.
  • Insert globalization into the heart of its business. As companies build out their global business, they should include translation as an early step in product development. Support it through mainstream content management, good translators, documented processes, feedback, monitoring, and the automated business rules in global resource servers to keep international sites provisioned with only correct, current, and consistent information.
Companies need to remember that the U.S. is just one country with its own language and business practices. Once they've sated the American market, the next step for them is to take their offerings global. That means enabling core systems to extend beyond North America. Only then will the "E" in ERP, EAI, and ETL stand for something other than English.

More Stories By Donald A. DePalma

Donald A. DePalma, PhD, is the author of Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing, and the president and founder of business globalization research and consulting firm, Common Sense Advisory. For more information on Common Sense Advisory's research, workshops, and consulting services, visit or call 866.510.6101.

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