Community Lives: Corporate communities

Recently in the San Francisco airport while trying not to watch the seconds tick as delay after delay piled up, I found myself fascinated with the thronging diversity of my fellow travelers. There we all were, coming from all over and (hopefully) going all over, sharing the common goal of completing our journeys.  

Is this not a pretty good analogy for our working lives? We have our own, distinct jobs and we work with specific languages and tech, but we are all focused on our common goal of getting the job done. If only nonlinguists were aware of what we do and the value we bring to the companies we work for.

I anticipate language communities being poised to become a new fixed star in the corporate firmament. In the past, we certainly suffered from monolingual blindness. Translation and interpreting were niche roles brought into play, like special teams in football. The internet and the global economy has swept that kind of retro-thinking aside to an extent, but there are still too many blank looks from clueless corporatists when terms like “localization” crop up.

Certainly these folk understand the need to speak to people in their native tongue, but what actually is the point of localization? Talk about speaking a foreign language! The “use Google Translate, duh!” mantra holds far too much sway in many corners. Ordering sushi in Japanese in Tokyo is a blast with machine translation, but what about trying to explain complex medical problems to emergency room physicians? A trite example perhaps, but linguists, including localization engineers, know the hazards of placing complete faith in tech.

This brings me to another source of puzzlement. Why have we, the members of our own community, been so slow to push our way to the front of the crowd? We haven’t always been recipients of lavish budgets or been seen as a main branch on the corporate tree. If we have been the poor relations, why haven’t we shouted louder? The reasons are not always apparent, but their effects are.

Traditional community impulses like volunteerism, charitable inclinations and a simple feel-good factor still have a place in corporate community strategies, but these are complex undertakings. For a start, corporations already possess a carefully defined structure with metrics in place to measure efficiency and productivity.

While it can be tricky to source good information about corporate initiatives due to confidentiality and security, I have been fortunate to encounter Yuka Kurihara, director of globalization at Pitney Bowes, and Amy Grace O’Brien and Giulia Dugo, who manage the WOLF community initiative for Adobe. They shared insights in promoting language services within their respective enterprises.

Adobe Systems was founded in 1982, making it one of the elder institutions in the youthful tech world. Its impact on the language industry is massive. PDFs, Photoshop, Creative Suite, PostScript and a whole host of diverse products have been critical technologies enabling multilingual projects. In spite of a number of corporate ups and downs, Adobe has also consistently been recognized as one of the best places to work in the US. Employing some 17,000 in 37 countries, Adobe is home to its very own global community. Taking its ethos from Rudyard Kipling’s insight that “the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” the community is charged with leveraging its international assets in pursuit of improving Adobe’s ever-widening range of products and services. Recognizing that they have expert resources to advise on multilingual issues creates connections that put diverse content managers on the same page. The idea is simple, right? But localization professionals know from experience that simplicity can be deceptive. Managing translations in X number of languages is one thing, but providing forums that build virtual bridges between language communities is another achievement in itself. The benefits of standardizing communications, keeping records and providing new users with knowledge that avoids reinventing the multilingual wheel is invaluable to an enterprise with a global turnover in the billions.

An important aspect of communities of all descriptions is their very survival. Like all groups, they go through peaks and troughs. But if the need persists, I find, the community persists. It may change and change dramatically, but this is invariably for the better. WOLF is no exception. Resources are a persistent problem with fledgling communities and can, of course, still pose problems for established ones. And change can, well, change everything! Most enterprises these days have to be nimble and alert to all manner of developments from technological change, to demographic change, to transformations in infrastructure. Adobe’s WOLF 2.0 emerged as a rebranded entity responding to international marketing campaigns that resulted in new language groups and new forums.

Create awareness among employees that there are internal resources to be utilized when seeking solutions to problematic localization, internationalization and globalization requirements. This in essence is how corporate communities function. With corporations now appointing all manner of experts with all manner of job titles and all manner of functions, the need for some fundamental cohesion between myriad groups helps avoid the chaos that is such a familiar outcome when economic growth goes into turbo mode. Building internal networks that enable professionals to better service a customer base, especially with the guidance of native language speakers, can only help community members to be more satisfied with the work they do.

Pitney Bowes is looking forward to its imminent 100th birthday. During its past century in business, it has developed from provider of postage meters to global ecommerce powerhouse with a presence in around one hundred countries, employing some 14,000 in their burgeoning offering of multilingual tech products and services. Overseeing these worldwide endeavors is Yuka Kurihara, their director of globalization. Central to facilitating her role is Yammer, Pitney Bowes’ online forum and social network, which was launched in 2009 with the goal of creating a corporate community to empower employees.

The initiative had a slow start, but the need to share information about translation vendors and follow globalization best practices persisted and efforts were renewed to establish Yammer as a “one-stop shop” for localization and globalization. As Yuka stated in her recent LocWorld36 presentation in Tokyo, “You ask questions, you get answers.” So, what has been the outcome of these question and answer exchanges? Here is a list of selected tips that provide some first-rate hooks upon which to hang ideas for those seeking to emulate Pitney Bowes’ community engagement success:

Information must be relevant — relevance is defined by usefulness and how interesting it is.

Information is fresh. Freshness derives from citing new industry trends. Real-time updates that inform with new details and pass on calendar and other such reminders keep everyone on the same page.

Posted information is located on a single source. Care must be observed in preserving authority: you do not want a community that lacks cohesion or is divisive.

Make it interactive. This is about leveraging opinion using, for example, polls, a tried-and-tested means of attracting user involvement.

Appreciation and respect — engage everyone, but take care not to overdo it. It is counter-productive when users feel swamped with information that lies outside their interest or needs.

Run virtual community events. We all can benefit from using the plethora of online tools to build networks of contacts. Every initiative — online contests, for example — enhances bonding and educates users.

Strong beginnings when forming a community are a given. Well-defined feasible objectives, detailed planning, open lines of communication and inclusiveness are all of strategic value in unifying and engaging all levels of corporate life. Diversity is not a quality that communities create, they reflect it and care must be taken by community leaders to promote it. There may be resistance, but as the benefits to the corporation emerge and the community experiences fewer intractable problems, it strengthens.

I am grateful to both the Adobe WOLF team and Pitney Bowes’ globalization team for sharing their experiences. Working with communities is enormously fulfilling and has broadened my perspective on global multilingual issues that only in recent times have begun to receive due attention from enterprises that previously were predominantly sales-driven. I find it so encouraging that along with the business imperatives of a global economy, cultural considerations are also being included. It’s actually a no-brainer. If we include all members of the community, nobody loses. Naturally, there will always be those who wangle more for themselves and this includes groups as much as individuals. But a community can only thrive if it regulates itself and it is up to the members themselves to ensure that happens. Whatever trials corporations face as they scale up to meet burgeoning demands, they will be aided best by their own people. Let’s never lose sight of the fact that those thronging places like airports all have common goals. We all have our destinations and while we are fixed on getting there, let’s not forget to spare a thought for our fellow travelers.