The offices of the German-based tech company are buzzing as the organization works to release a new global human resources software program. Localization teams work hard to translate the software into English, French, and Arabic for customers with offices in multiple locations around the world.
Everything seems to be going well after the launch of the software, and the staff in the home office celebrates when the first product inquiries come in — but soon realize that simply translating the software into different languages was not enough.
Complaints arrive from customers that purchased the program. In some of their offices located in the Middle East, the software is virtually unused, as many of its entry fields will not accept text that reads from right to left. To make matters worse, the scheduling feature of the software cannot accommodate the Sunday-through-Thursday work weeks prevalent in that region of the world.
To relaunch the software successfully, the organization forms special strategy teams to further accommodate a wide assortment of language requirements. In addition, the company must adopt other aspects of the software to local use as well as to country-specific hiring practices and laws.
The whole problem might have been averted if they had thought about the software as multiple local systems rather than a single global platform.
There are many reasons why companies might want to introduce a global system, IT (information technology) change, or global platform. They may wish to standardize processes, even across national borders. They may wish to integrate technology or organizational systems across offices and countries. The organization may also want to establish norms across company culture, and a global platform or system is one way to facilitate that.
Localization refers to the process of adapting content, technology, or a product to a particular market or regional location. Differences in laws, languages, business practices and cultural values are some of the typical triggers for localization efforts.
It is important to emphasize that localization is not equivalent to language translation. While it is certainly important to ensure that a global ERP (enterprise resource planning) software implementation plan includes translation of the key text into local languages, for example, this alone is not enough to ensure implementation.
Implementing a global system or platform and localizing a product or offering mean tailoring entire packages and processes for specific markets. Thus, in addition to having translators work on user guides and other written materials, local consultants, marketing experts, engineers, legal advisors, and others should be consulted to ensure that products meet multiple needs in a given target market.
Because technology and the Internet are commonplace in modern industrial societies, it can be tempting for IT project teams to see culture as translatable. A website is a website, whether viewed by a customer sitting in front of a computer in Canada or China. However, it is important to emphasize that global experiences are still essentially local.
Even seemingly ubiquitous technologies may not be adopted seamlessly by international markets without a strong localization strategy. For example, the need to use a search engine to navigate the Internet might seem like a universal technology demand. Yet, while the world may be using the Internet, the way local audiences navigate via search engines varies. For example, in China, the top four search engines are all produced by Chinese companies, with Baidu being the most popular. Baidu feels natural to native Chinese speakers; it addresses the unique language, culture, and technology needs of that part of the world.
It is not enough to launch a new international release or to commit to product or service localization. Localization efforts are only successful if local partners and users adapt to the new technology or offering. While training can be beneficial, many other factors are involved in ensuring that the new offering is attractive enough to adopt at the local level, especially with other alternatives present.
A solid localization strategy can mitigate against false confidence when taking products across national boundaries. In one survey, for example, 40% of 300 executives at international organizations felt that their product or service offerings were stronger than local options when it came to addressing customer needs and the operating environment. Yet research has shown that high-performance global companies are generally not as effective as local companies at forging relationships with local partners and governments, implementing ideas and products, creating a shared mission or vision, and encouraging creativity and innovation.
International companies have established, often through trial-and-error, the importance of strong localization plans. Uber, for example, decided to expand into China, and the move was expected to work seamlessly. Surely the popular ride-share app would be successful in a market of busy cities and multiple transportation options.
However, Uber lost $2 billion over two years and eventually surrendered to the local competitor, Didi Chuxing. As Uber founder Travis Kalanick noted, “Each city is unique in its transportation pain points, its density, its transportation alternatives, regulation, even its transportation culture.”
In addition, China has its unique laws, tastes, and business culture. One key difference is that business is less transactional and more focused on relationships. While Kalanick visited China frequently to address this, Uber did not partner closely with an established local company when launching its services. By trying to enter the market alone, Uber was unable to overcome competition from Didi.
HR leaders of international organizations face similar challenges in China and elsewhere—especially in terms of managing software, systems, and technologies in a global context. One way to address such challenges is to develop strategies that create networks of knowledge rather than a centrally based system. Instead of a top-down model, HR can create a system of business partners with the authority to operate at the local level, distributing responsibility and function.
Company mission, vision, and even basic systems can provide common ground, while decision making at the local level allows offices to address regional needs, remaining engaged with the larger international mission and using standardized software to negotiate challenges internationally and domestically.
Companies with a local presence may see 30-40% higher returns when compared with companies working with a more centralized model.
There are many localization challenges for international organizations:
Localization efforts taking more than six to eight weeks to complete after a product launch may cause loss of market share in an environment where simultaneous product launches are the expectation.
Some organizations hand over localization considerations to resellers or distributors for expediency. In doing so, however, they may lose control of the process and may even end up losing ownership and intellectual property rights for some offerings.
Localization can affect a company’s image in a local market for an extended period of time. A poorly executed launch can create an unfavorable impression of an organization and can hurt profits, while a positive launch can result in goodwill and sustained interest.
Languages have different character sets, and around the world, readers read in different directions. Companies cannot assume that people will be reading from left to right, which is just one of many reasons why translation alone does not address the needs of localization.
Technology often combines multiple areas of focus. The lines between hardware and software are increasingly fuzzy, and high-end technology may combine biology, electronics, and other areas. During a software launch, it is important to keep in mind there are few universal platforms and formats today. Software may need to work with multiple other programs and formats to meet local demand.
Local laws can impact implementation strategies across the globe. For example, IT teams need to be aware of changing local privacy laws, data security and storage requirements, and other legal aspects that can affect how users interact with offerings.
Localization must take into consideration national languages as well as dialects and regional language particularities. For example, in Polish, there are different idioms and phrases used depending on whether a conversation is formal or involves friends and family. In Asia, publishing information in Chinese means dealing with two different character sets — “simplified characters” for China and Singapore, and “traditional characters” for Hong Kong and Taiwan. The work of translating and interpreting is much more difficult than most people realize. On the surface, two sentences may appear to say the same thing, but they can have very different and nuanced meanings. It is important to uncover and address such issues prior to product launches.
The way users and partners experience a product launch or internal clients experience a global software implementation will be shaped by their values and culture, and it is crucial to address such issues well ahead of time. In order to gain cooperation and engagement in a software initiative, for example, do employees expect to be informed via a blanket e-mail sent out by HR? Or do they prefer to hear about it personally from a line manager or senior operations executive?
Different countries have different ideas of liability and marketing. Some nations require double opt-in mechanisms or do not allow companies to gather private information. In some countries, too, citizens are not used to being asked for telephone numbers or other private data, meaning any attempts to cultivate this type of information could negatively affect an otherwise successful launch. The cybersecurity issue often arises with online payment as well. In some countries, using cash or bank transfers is typical, while in other countries using credit cards or mobile pay options are more popular. It is important to consider cybersecurity, privacy laws, and local views about personal information as part of any successful localization strategy.
Your team can strengthen your localization strategy by:
Digital and IT product development mean focusing on the localization of:
In addition, it is vital to embed cultural values into the design and process flow. For example, when people from countries in which Confucianism has a strong influence (such as China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan) are asked to rate products or services on a graded scale, they tend to avoid the extreme ends of the scale. When designing software or other solutions for those markets, it is important to adjust assumptions about online reviews.
Abiomed is an American company involved in creating medical products designed for heart failure patients. When the company needed enterprise software, they had just acquired Impella, a German company, and the organization had plans for further expansion. This led the company to choose SAP over Oracle and other competing products. SAP was able to help Abiomed succeed internationally by offering localization features such as conversion to local currencies.
In the first decade of the 2000s, McDonald’s initiated a commitment to global e-learning localization efforts by launching a pilot training program for new and current employees. The material was developed in English and localized for various markets, with careful attention to content implications, local culture, social implications, local business values, and economic sensitivity. As a result of this localized effort, McDonald’s reduced training costs by close to 50% while improving training effectiveness.
Clearly, IT teams face challenges, but also opportunities, in localization efforts and when distributing new ideas within an organization. Whether you are implementing HR software across global offices or want to launch a new tech product around the world, localization is a big part of the process.
Aperian Global provides scalable solutions for industry-leading companies seeking to succeed globally. Our offerings can assist you in gaining the cultural agility and intelligence you need to thrive globally and locally.