Learning from Each Other
The surprising story of an LSP ‘exchange program’

By Cameron Rasmusson

Most people understand the value of a foreign exchange student program.

Practiced by schools around the world, it’s a great opportunity for students to encounter new ideas, languages, and cultures, whether they’re visiting or hosting. The friendships, lessons, and memories forged during these exchanges can last a lifetime.

But what if the concept of an exchange program wasn’t the exclusive domain of students? What if language professionals could learn from each other by visiting another office and spending their workdays with new colleagues?

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For LSPs Kobalt Languages, based out of Spain, and Creative Words, based out of Italy, that simple idea sparked into a fully formed project. And with one employee exchange under their belts, they feel it could cement a new practice that will encourage a greater spirit of collaboration and cooperation between LSPs of all types.

“Since we grew this business all by ourselves, and we lacked the experiences that other LSPs have had, we wanted to know what other companies are doing. How are they doing it?” said Ricard Sierra, CEO of Kobalt Languages. “I mean, are there any areas we can improve? And do we have something to share? And that’s when I thought: ‘Who could I talk into doing an exchange program? There’s got to be someone out there as crazy as I am.’”

“We wanted to find someone who we could share everything we do with, so we could compare our two companies and see where we’re lagging behind,” he added.

First things first, though: Sierra knew that such an arrangement would have to operate in complete good faith. With that in mind, Diego Cresceri, CEO of Creative Words, was the first person he contacted.

“So I sent him a message, and I was fully prepared for him to say, ‘No way. You’re crazy.’ But he agreed within 10 minutes,” Sierra said.

“I actually had a similar idea in the past,” added Cresceri. “But it’s essential that the companies involved trust each other, and I couldn’t find that basis of trust. So I was never able to implement it. And that’s why I accepted the idea in 10 minutes — I believe it’s a great idea, and the starting point is total trust.”

Trust is often hard to establish for companies in the same line of work. In the strictest sense, Kobalt Languages and Creative Words are technically competitors. But both Cresceri and Sierra paid little mind to that notion. They see language work as such an expansive field, encompassing so many specializations, industry intersections, and potential clients, that the benefits of knowledge sharing far outweighed the considerations of competitive business.

“We might fight for the same clients one day, but also there’s more to win if we share experiences and we learn from each other than there is to lose in terms of potential projects,” said Sierra.

“I’ve always hated that idea that we are all competing,” he added. “Come on. There’s like 25,000 LSPs in the world. Are we really competing? I mean, the cake is so big, and we’re getting just crumbs. There’s so much more that we can win out of this than whatever we can lose.”

With both companies in agreement, it was time to make the employee exchange. Selected to orchestrate the program were operations managers Myriam Garcia of Kobalt Languages and Daniela D’Amato of Creative Words.

“The first thing we did was just to jump in a cold with both Diego and Ricard,” said D’Amato. “Then they left us amongst ourselves, and that was it. It was me and Myriam who set up the dates, and then we were just booking flights and hotels straight away.”

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“And soon enough, we had those settled,” added D’Amato. “So we went to Barcelona at the end of March.”

Likewise, Francesca Miglietta of Creative Words and Beatriz Martínez of Kobalt Languages made their respective journeys to see what they could learn as project managers and team leaders.

“It just seemed like a great way to come up with new ideas by discussing things with other people,” said Miglietta. “So this, I think, was the best part for me to see what the Kobalt team is facing. We’re running into the same situations in a way, so it was great to see how they’re approaching these things and follow up by sharing ideas and thoughts.”

Their goal was to travel to the exchange office, immerse themselves in the new company culture, and learn as much as they could. What were the similarities between business workflows? What were the differences? How could one company’s policies and procedures inform and improve the other’s? Those early conversations prior to the exchanges involved much brainstorming regarding the takeaways they wanted to bring back to their respective companies.

“We wanted it to be open, to let them jump in and say, ‘Oh, why do you do this like that?’ Or, ’Have you ever thought of changing methods into this?’” Garcia said. “We believed that the way to do that was to make them part of the company for those three days.”

Right from the jump, key differences became apparent. That’s because, while Kobalt Languages and Creative Word are similar in size, they serve very different clients, which by necessity required structural differences.

“About 70% of our clients are multi-language vendors (MLVs), so we work for other translation companies, and the rest are static customers,” said D’Amato. “For Kobalt, it’s pretty much just static customers. And they work from Spanish into 20-something languages, while we are mainly an SLV, so we work into and from Italian mainly. So we do, for example, have a linguistic team in-house, which they don’t have, because otherwise they would have to have at least 20 translators. … So it was interesting from my side, for example, to see how things work in a company that has such a different client base compared to ours.”

Structural and workflow differences aside, however, it didn’t take long for the exchange employees to find potential workflow tweaks. According to Garcia, she dove into a flurry of notetaking from the moment she arrived.

“We’ve already implemented a number of changes into our workflows that, I think, allow us to be more efficient in a way,” she said.

“And for me, personally, I started in this role some months ago,” she added. “So to have Daniela in the same position was a really good thing. It was wonderful to share some of these ideas and things we struggle with. In fact, we continue to discuss them, because these conversations never really stopped [after the exchange.]”

In effect, what emerged from the arrangement was something of a sister-company relationship. The benefits extended far beyond the nuts and bolts of business management — although that was certainly part of it. But perhaps just as important was the collegial goodwill and friendship that resulted from the experiment.

“Sometimes, all you need is to talk to somebody who understands your challenges,” said D’Amato. “So, I got there, and I felt [Garcia’s] pain over some aspects of her work. And I totally understood, because I went through the same things when I was there. … In so many ways, it was just like meeting old friends you’ve known forever, you know?”

The conversations around drinks and dinner proved just as worthwhile as those around computers. Which, of course, is another benefit of exchange programs: sampling a different city’s food. Everyone involved in the exchange agreed that the dinners alone were worth the effort.

The mutual conclusion among the Creative Words and Kobalt Languages teams was that the first attempted exchange was an unambiguous success. And now thoughts are turning to replicating it. Already, conversations are under way to do another exchange in the near future — and not just among Creative Words and Kobalt Languages. According to Sierra and Cresceri, other business leaders are asking them about how they can pursue something similar.

“There are some companies that have expressed, ‘Oh, we should do the same thing together with our company and your company,’” said Sierra. “I haven’t heard of anyone doing anything similar, at least in our industry.”

“I know about some similar initiatives,” added Cresceri. “But those were more for teaming up to work with a customer or to look for bigger customers. It was never for the sake of sharing and learning from each other.”

And that’s the takeaway both teams are reflecting on: the sharing and the learning. Professionals of all stripes struggle with the tendency to slip into routines, whether they’re effective and efficient or not. Taking a few days to visit colleagues and understand their processes was a reminder that there are many different roads toward a similar destination. And it was an encouraging realization that there’s more to gain through cooperation and openness than through secrecy and closed doors.

“I felt like I was part of a bigger team,” said Miglietta. “And I got to be part of their daily routine, and they did the same when they visited us. Sometimes all you need is an external point of view.”

Cameron Rasmusson is editor-in-chief of MultiLingual Media

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