Writing the Playbook on Globalization Strategy

What do you do if you have a robust career in localization, have an insightful, valued group of industry colleagues, and want to share what you know and while you’re at it, learn more from your colleagues? According to a group of 12 client-side localization leaders, you write a book and give it away for free. The chosen topic was globalization strategy. 

Lyena Solomon of ServiceNow pulled together a task force of Globalization leaders in spring of 2021 to help client-side leaders think about collecting data for strategic uses. I joined the group, and upon completion of the book, I spoke to the other members about our work. In this article, I let them speak for themselves about their work and the collaboration. 

“The idea to create a book and a task force group came out of a discussion on data,” said Solomon. “We were talking about the data that companies use around localization, and I made the point that the metrics like cost per word or the number of words translated really does not help me with the strategic direction at ServiceNow. I need to measure the impact of localization on the international audiences — on the company revenue, on the company direction, and on the company NPS scores. To do that, I need to look at different metrics. We created a group to look at strategy, and decided to put out a playbook for strategic thinking. We hoped to help globalization leaders take their team in a strategic direction, to help them think, plan, and execute strategically.”

A recurring theme is that globalization strategy should flow from company strategy. The authors describe The Perfect Company, a mythical corporation where Globalization strategy is given consideration when building company strategy. The book then walks the reader through a gap analysis of their own company to determine what’s missing and how they can organize their department strategy. 

I asked Jean-Francois Vanreusel of Adobe why globalization strategy is so important now: “More than ever, globalization organizations are under tremendous pressure to deliver more localized content and products — and at a faster pace. This leaves little room for errors and requires a well-oiled localization machine and strategy. This playbook is a great tool to guide globalization teams in organizing themselves, adopting industry best practices, and avoiding classic localization pitfalls — ultimately transforming themselves into high-performing globalization teams.”

Natalia Levitina of PTC furthered the description of urgency: “The localization industry has just had a period of fast growth and is not showing any signs of slowing down. Businesses are expanding into emerging markets with their own language demands and requirements. There are so many startups who are thinking about their global go-to-market strategy, and who are looking for people to create and execute on that strategy. At the same time, many big and established companies who have been localizing their content for a long time are now streamlining their operations to be more efficient and reach the right audience.”

The playbook includes chapters on articulating a vision, working with stakeholders, and developing strategies for language, technology, and data analytics. It’s peppered with the stories of the authors’ experiences within their workplaces, which have ranged from startups to major multinational corporations in a range of fields, from enterprise software to consumer-facing companies.

Francesca Di Marco of Pinterest explained, “The stories are real examples that the writers experienced in their careers. They were anonymized, so you might know the size of the company and the challenge that the leader was facing but not the company itself. We aimed to stimulate some thinking. They offer examples of how the leader solved an issue — but it’s an option, not a recipe. The stories can resonate to different degrees with different leaders.”

Solomon elaborated on a specific example: “There is a story in the technology chapter that talks about a globalization leader who tried to unify the technology in the company and was not able to do it, and a marketing department went with their own technology. When you read the book, you would not only learn about what happened next, you would also see how this leader was handling the situation and what came out of it and what was beneficial for the company. There are also stories that illustrate how people approach challenges and how they resolve them with analytics or with collaboration with other teams.”

I asked Lorna Whelan of TripAdvisor why a localization manager should read the book. “This is really about the business of localization. It’s very easy to get caught up in the operational side of things, but this is really about taking that step back and helping people that are reading it really understand what it takes to think strategically about localization and raise the profile of it, and navigate the business of localization.”

Who else can benefit from the book? Vanreusel feels that, “All localization professionals will benefit from reading this playbook, that’s a given! Beyond globalization professionals, company executives would also gain from reading this playbook (at least the initial chapters) because it clearly outlines the complexity behind the globalization practice and busts the myth that localization teams just focus on providing translations. It can inspire them to become executive sponsors and remove some of the roadblocks usually faced by the globalization teams.

Each chapter was organized by one or more task force members, with other team members contributing to the chapters that resonated with them. I checked with the leaders for a summary of each chapter. 

Loïc Dufresne de Virel of Intel led the chapter on “Stakeholders: Strategic Engagement and Communication.” “The Stakeholders chapter was complex. One of our initial challenges was to categorize the way we look at stakeholders. We started with the most direct stakeholders that we do business with internally. We wanted to take this further, and include in the analysis the stakeholders that we may not regularly interact with.”

I asked Dufresne de Virel why this was so important. “We are the voice of the non-English speaking customers for our companies. The localization team is a hinge between sales and marketing teams in headquarters, their counterparts in-country that are in front of the customers and end-users in the field, the product teams that build stuff that you may need to localize, and your own team. We try to tie together your company’s strategy, your customers’ needs, and deal with all that to establish the necessary partnerships to go from ‘localization is a necessary evil, it’s a cost of goods sold that we have to deal with’ to ‘localization is my best partner in the business to help me achieve significant results that move the needle in terms of revenue, cost savings, customer satisfaction, and expansion across multiple countries and markets.’” 

Language Strategy’ focused on a number of facets, depending on the company,” according to Melissa Biggs of Locale Solutions. “The main focus was to highlight the complexity of language strategy and the different ways it could be implemented within larger companies. In some cases, there was a deeper dive in discussing language strategy from looking at how you influence at the executive or organizational levels versus more tactical types of information and best practices.”

From there the book delves into Technology Strategy, described here by Christian Redmann of Siemens Digital Industries Software. “The chapter asks that globalization leaders look at their company’s strategy for global growth, and ensure they have the capabilities to support the business. We ask how your technology strategy will contribute to these business objectives, typically focusing on growth, but also looking at new business models such as cloud, ecommerce, direct/indirect sales, and new markets. We suggest looking at which technologies might support each of these, and what is the scale and complexity the Globalization organization and program need to support, including the number of languages, product lines and products, content types, content repositories, release cadence, etc.” 

According to Wayne Bourland of Dell Technologies, the Technology Maturity Model was a concept that came together from the collective work of the team. “As we started looking at our different experiences and tools, and the way we’ve gone about building out our tools strategies internally, those different perspectives forced us to look at what’s nice to have versus what’s critical. We produced a Technology Maturity Model that looked very different from what each of us would have come up with individually. What came out of that collective conversation was that the integration/interoperability between tools drives a lot of the automation that we make use of or, on the opposite end, drives a lot of the manual work that our teams all do, as you think about moving things between tools, or aggregating data between tools. The integration of those pieces that build up as you go through the maturity model is what drives your overall value, more than the individual pieces.” 

Redmann also explained that the playbook includes an appendix “that provides a kind of decision matrix to help you consider selection criteria and benefits. A globalization leader also needs to demonstrate innovative thinking — monitor technology trends, especially around AI and ML, NLU/NLP, chats and other scenarios.”

The final chapter is “Data Analytics for Globalization Strategy,” and was led by Erji Wang of VMware. “We wanted to share a general way that data can facilitate our work as we build a strategy for Globalization and Localization. We used a lot of examples, and we wanted to extract something essential from those examples. We wanted to share our methodology, using data to guide our operational work in service to our strategy.” Wang mentioned that the book includes information on “the Localization Efficiency Framework implemented at VMware. We took data from different aspects together and built something to help us prioritize localization. Others have something similar, to make decisions about the locale priority and estimation/projection of which locale can bring the best ROI.”

Many of the participants mentioned how the chapters did not divide into neat groupings. Wang showed how data analytics need to be developed in conjunction with stakeholders: “We built a partnership with the stakeholders who provide the data and may use the data for the analytics work. They can help us to examine the data, and this can build trust of the analytics work. Early involvement can build trust of the data itself.”

The authors all recognize how much they learned from each other in the course of writing the book. Whelan mentioned how she has already integrated one lesson into her work as a manager: “It’s a very simple thing. I started to ask, when people come to me with issues about the quality of translation, for example, I’ve started to ask what is the business data telling us about this. Already that is shifting the conversation. It’s a simple thing but it’s having an impact already.”

Wang indicated he learned how data is never perfect. “Never fight for getting all the data prepared. Live with the data you have and use it to drive your decisions. You can never have perfect data.”

Biggs described that, “One of the best takeaways for me was in the data analysis chapter. I liked some of the different ways of prioritizing the types of data that you can use in your own business to bolster your strategy. On the other hand, the data chapter has really made me think about what we are looking at in terms of ROI, as businesses change how they are making their revenue. They are changing their entire business models, and we need to look at whether our old ROI metrics really work.”

Bourland summed up the general feeling that the knowledge of the team coming together was greater than each individual could provide: “What was interesting as we came together, none of us had written a book, and certainly none of us had collaborated to write a book. We talked about how do we lay out the strategy so that people can build their own roadmap and their own vision with some guidance about how to think about the problem, the stakeholders, the challenges, the tools, the suppliers, all of that. Collaboration allowed us to write a book that covered the topics without trying to cover all possible scenarios. The playbook provides guideposts that allows you to apply those learnings, concepts, and points to your own company. That’s what’s so cool about it — it doesn’t try to give you the answers, it tries to give you the roadmap to get to your own answers.” Francesca describes this as “not providing a recipe, but asking the questions that lead you to the ingredients.” 

Karen Combe, who runs Combe Consulting, spoke about how she would have approached her work differently if the book had been available to her when she took on a leadership role: “As I evolved as a localization manager, I came to see my position and my department’s position as more of a strategic contributor and less of a service provider. We gradually as a team exercised our influence in the company that way. In writing this book, and having people cover different areas that should be strategic, it crystallized the idea that a localization manager should be looking at all parts of their job from the strategic point of view and how to integrate into the strategy of the company and be mission-critical everywhere. If I were going to do it again, I would start out with that mindset instead of gradually growing into it. And I would hope that is one of the benefits to people who read it — that they will see that this is how they should focus their efforts.”

Why did the group choose to make it free, under a Create Commons license? Levitina explained, “We decided that the vision and experiences shared in this playbook would benefit the whole localization community and giving back to the ‘roots’ felt right to us. The idea is really simple — by publishing this book under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license we invite the community to develop this body of work further (as long as they use the same license), to contribute their own knowledge and ideas. That way we can continue learning from each other and become more productive and successful in what we do every day.”

But why did this group of globalization leaders spend all their time on this playbook? Whelan cites several factors. “I did it for a couple of reasons. First, to share what I’ve learned over the last 10 years at TripAdvisor, because I’ve learned a lot, and if I can help somebody else, great. I also did it to learn for myself, because I certainly don’t know everything, and I know from the group of people involved in it that there was a lot I could learn as well. The third reason is I was keen to work closely with the people that were involved in it because they are pretty amazing, and it was a great opportunity.”

Biggs weighed in: “It’s to help keep the industry moving forward. We are seeing a whole crop of new management come into the localization space, and newer companies are looking somewhat differently at how to integrate strategy for global items into the overall business. I want to make sure those up-and-coming people have the tools from those of us who have been in this field for a while and have seen in action what happens internally in companies. I want to pass on some of the core best practices that sometimes get lost, or may not have been integrated by participants in the field.”

Combe talked about the advantage of collaboration. “The interesting thing about writing a book in a collaborative manner is that you have a chance to crystallize your knowledge in a structured way. Initially it seems like a daunting task, but you have eleven other people who are looking at particular parts of it. We were able to pick and choose the parts that we were best able and wanted to talk about. That’s the way it came together. Part of the idea is, I suppose, a legacy, although I don’t know how much any of us really thought about that, but it is the desire to share what you’ve learned and let other people benefit from it, if they can. They may be able to save a few steps on their way to being good localization managers.”

Dufresne de Virel summed up the essence of the task force members’ motivations: “We have been blessed to work in Localization. It’s a fantastic field. We have people with a huge diversity of backgrounds and cultures, and it’s fun. It’s work, but it’s fun. We have all this knowledge that we have accumulated over the years, and we are all learning as we go. All of that knowledge and experience that we have accumulated, it has to be shared. And what better way to share it than to put it in a book.”  

Mimi Hills is the former director of Global Information Experience at VMware and has also led globalization teams at BlackBerry and Sun Microsystems.