The arrival of November marks the two-year anniversary of my time in the localization business. And in the time I’ve spent understanding the amazing work that translators, testers, interpreters, content creators, LSPs, and localization departments do to support global commerce, I remain struck by an observation I made very early in my tenure as Lionbridge’s CMO. As an industry, we don’t measure or focus on the impact of our work. Put differently, we don’t focus on outcomes.
We price by the word. We obsess over data quality. We debate data ownership. We worry about data provenance. We strive for ever-faster turnaround times. Look at a case study from any LSP and you will see cost savings, volume increases, SLAs met, quality improvements, and speed gains. What you won’t find is revenue impacted, customer experience scores improved, market share captured, employee advocacy scores increased, lives saved, or people helped. Read any RFP and it will ask about language prices, use of translation technology to improve efficiency or speed, quality controls, KPIs, and a host of other ways to look at the “factory” that is localization production. What you won’t find are questions about customer impact, customer value, ROI, or any other business drivers or customer outcomes.
There are many reasons for this I suspect. I won’t elucidate all of them here, leaving that instead to a future blog. In short, I believe it comes down to the reality that there are very few true global organizations. There are many companies and NGOs that operate across the globe, in dozens or hundreds of markets. But there are precious few that operate globally – few where strategy and execution start with the operating assumption that the 7.7 billion humans walking this planet are their total addressable market.
What I find most ironic about this truth is that the localization business was born to support the globalization of the world economy. From the early days of the commercial internet, computers as the primary knowledge work tool, global trade treaties, fast and efficient global shipping, and travel, and the dawn of digitization, localization (and its higher order older sibling internationalization) has been one the key enablers. Yet here we are nearly 30 years later, and most companies still operate with the old industrial economic organization structures and budgeting, marketing, customer service, and go-to-market strategies. And most of these same companies still view localization as a cost center, part of the factory, something you do to the product, to marketing materials, to the website, etc after you do the hard work of strategizing, conceptualizing, building, launching, and executing core experience or product.
I am most certainly not the first person to see this phenomenon, nor the first to write about it. As with all good ideas, timing is often everything. Sometimes life, the universe, whatever just isn’t ready. From my perspective, we are at an important inflection point in this industry and the time is now to revisit our obsession with the factory and activities.