Leading Life with Learning
Forsheda, Småland, Sweden (population 1,500)
COUNTRIES LIVED IN
Bachelor in Business Administration, Lund University, 1992
FAVORITE PLACES VISITED:
– The beaches of Ystad, Sweden
– The beaches of Maui and Oahu
– Lund Botanic Garden. (I love sunrises and sunsets)
When we implemented machine translated chat in IT Service Desk in France, co-workers from the store and warehouses started to use this service. Machine translation enabled communication.
I play French and Tenor horn and practiced to take this on as a professional career when I was 20. I decided to bring the music as a hobby and I am so happy to have music as a companion in my life
Knoweldge is power, as the old cliché goes. And a love of knowledge for its own sake means that life is never static — the life-long learner is always growing, always changing, always recontextualizing his or her circumstances on the basis of new and relevant information.
If there’s one thing that’s defined Johan Sporre’s life and career, it’s chasing that love of learning wherever it takes him. And it’s taken him to some fascinating places. As engineering manager of Global Language Services (GLS) in Group Digital in Ingka Group, Sporre’s career is less a straight line and more a zig-zag pattern of new roles aligning with new interests. Indeed, that’s what brought him to his current role in language work, bringing IKEA’s instantly recongnizable brand to customers across the world.
Johan hopes that everyone can take inspiration from the doors that education can open — opportunities that often arrive by complete surprise. He spoke to us about that and the many other inspirations that have marked his life and work.
First of all, could you talk a bit about your position with IKEA Retail (Ingka Group)? What is your position there, and what does your day-to-day work look like?
Well, first, let’s talk about the company structure. IKEA is a franchised brand, and Inter IKEA is the franchisor. There are 12 franchisees operating 468 IKEA stores in 63 markets with 219,000 co-workers. Ingka Group is the biggest franchisee with 379 stores, 165,000 coworkers, and it operates in 31 countries.
I am the engineering manager of Global Language Services (GLS) in Group Digital in Ingka Group. Group Digital provides IT solutions to Inter IKEA, Ingka Group, and the other 11 franchisees. GLS is part of a part of Digital Platforms and Architecture — which provides platforms as databases, APIs, data solutions — and manages the language platform. We have a lot of good friends we can ask for advice. I have a fantastic team that makes the work and the tactics real.
A day at work will consist of meeting the team, new consumers, one-on-ones with the team members, and administration. I take time to keep up with new technologies, read about trends, interact with colleagues in the localization community, and fika with coworkers at the office. Fika, by the way, is the Swedish word for a coffee break — this is where you talk about everything and solve issues.
Throughout your career, you’ve demonstrated an uncommon willingness to try new jobs and expand your knowledge and skills. Could you discuss that career trajectory with us? What are the ideas and principles that have guided you as you made those decisions?
Trajectory is something I see as a straight path. My trajectory is more like a number of pivots. My first job after university was in the middle of a financial downturn, which I got after applying for 75 jobs. It was as a sales rep of sales and management training. The organization was value- and performance-driven. We spent a lot of time practicing to sell the training, and we used the technique from the training we sold. The technique worked well and I met a lot of CEOs in small and medium businesses in southern Sweden. It was an amazing opportunity to meet so many prospects and customers who shared their experiences in the conversations.
The rationale for applying for my second job was that I had worked with a lot of managers. I wanted to know what it was like and got the job as a sales manager in logistics. I had written a career plan. I wrote that I wanted to be a manager in five years and CEO in 10. I got hired as a sales manager in a transportation company in four years, and suddenly I was ahead of plan. What I discovered was that the position was not the important thing, it was learning the new business and the organization.
After some years as a manager, I thought I would like to combine the strategic work from my first job and logistics skills in my second, and applied for a job as a supply chain management consultant and got it.
In one of my assignments, I worked together with a team to improve the staff planning of the contact center in one of the major electricity providers in Sweden.
Staff planning in a contact center is a logistic challenge, where the big difference is time. In a logistics operation, you calculate with hours or days. In a contact center, you calculate in hours, minutes, and seconds. The inflow of contacts you can predict at a 15-minute interval under normal circumstances, but when a hurricane hits you, there is no chance. This happened at the beginning of 2005, and it was a major learning opportunity for the entire organization.
At the end of 2005, I decided to resign. Since I started working in 1992, I traveled every week and I felt that I needed to connect with my children. They are only children once. I got the time to fika with them when they came home from school and be there for them, more than I had been before. Looking at this from a career perspective, it might not have been that smart, but for me as a dad and husband, it was fantastic.
I got back into the management consultant business in designing product development processes and management systems for corporations. It was a journey I experienced first as an employee and later on, running our own consultant company with a good friend in data and information security. Another pivot into technology and strategy.
In our consultant company, we worked a lot to find interesting assignments where we could add value with our experiences. In 2013, I got an assignment to improve the staff planning of the IKEA IT Service Desk — another pivot where I could use the staff planning knowledge and combine it with complementary technical understanding.
This was my third step in the IKEA sphere which led to employment in IKEA and where I am today.
On that note, you’ve mentioned feeling like a relative newcomer to the language industry. How was it that you landed in this line of work? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned since you began?
When I started in IKEA in 2014, I joined an amazing team, with many brilliant coworkers, which aimed to improve and make work more efficient in the IT Service Desk. I had the responsibility of staff planning solutions and the global telephony platform. I took a year off from the team to work on the implementation of staff planning solutions for all contact centers in the Ingka Group.
I returned in 2018, and the manager of IT Service Desk told us that he wanted to have a proof of concept with machine translation (MT). Coworkers would write in their language and IT Service Desk agents in English and vice versa. I just thought, this will not work, but how hard can it be? It is just to integrate to any solution in the market, and then we are good to go. I have had to revise that standpoint several times since then.
We did not know anything! We started to explore the MT market and set up the requirement that we needed good support and high quality of the MT to give the co-workers of the IT Service Desk a good working environment and to enable IKEA coworkers the right solution to their issues.
We decided on a partner in MT, made a successful proof of concept, and started to implement MT in production. So many things we learned. And what a partner. They taught us a lot with enormous patience, and I am so grateful for their efforts. With them, we could make incremental changes, which was key, as there were a number of specific words to be used in IT Support. We have about 1,500 IT solutions in IKEA with names that might mean something else in a country. Toro in Spain meant a forklift in logistics. We presented Croatian in cyrillic characters, and when we changed to Latin, the language turned out to be Serbian. A steep learning curve.
In 2019, I was of the opinion that we could solve everything with MT. I got the opportunity to go to LocWorld in San Jose and met with a lot of people. And I also spoke with Pascal Trembay, among others, and realized that we might have solved one use case, but there were others that needed additional knowledge and technology.
I got the responsibility of localization in the customer domain in Group Digital in 2020, and since then, we have implemented localization solutions in IKEA. In the team we have taken on the responsibility to provide localization solutions, knowledge, and best practices to IKEA to make translations faster and easier with a smaller price tag. In the last fiscal year, we translated 120 million words in TMS and 3 billion in MT.
Who are some of the most influential people you’ve encountered on your professional journey? Feel free to mention both direct coworkers/mentors as well as thinkers, writers, or leaders you’ve never met.
We had a charismatic CEO in my first job with a lot of one-liners who has influenced my life:
- “You cannot try, either you do or you don’t.”
- “There are no problems. There are situations, and we find solutions to them.”
- “If you say that you do not have the energy, you either lack the willpower and/or the capability to do so.”
- “Read 15 minutes a day and you will become successful.”
I have read a lot, and I am not sure I have been successful, but I have learned a lot and had a lot of amusing experiences. It is everything from the morning paper, the WorldView newsletter from the Washington Post, daily updates from The Economist, Al Jazeera, to a fiction or nonfiction book in the evening. Some nonfiction books, like Thinking Fast and Slow and Noise by Daniel Kahneman, took me six months to read. While a good David Baldacci will take me two or three days tops.
In one of my customer visits, I met Gunnar, a CEO of a medium-sized business. He shared his view on life:
- “When you are younger than 20, you have all the questions and no answers.”
- “When you are between 20 and 40, you have all the questions, and everyone has one answer.”
- “When you are over 40, you still have all the questions, and you know there are many answers.”
It was probably a dig at me, the then-barely-30-year-old salesman who had answers to most things. As I approach 60, I have realized that there are many shades of both white and black and that the gray in between has many degrees.
My late father and uncle were two entrepreneurs who started a rubber factory together with a friend. None of them had any higher education. My father had six years in school, and he was the innovator of the three founders. He was also an early adopter of using consultants. When he did not know a technology, he hired an expert to learn from.
There are two things I keep in mind from these men. My father used to say “It is better to do it than look for the tools.” I keep this in mind when I get stuck in searching for tools or methods. It is better just to get it done and it might not be perfect but you do it. And my uncle once told me, “There are no right or wrong decisions. There are decisions, and you make them right.”
I have a rule of thumb when making decisions: two-thirds is enough. To gather more information will probably delay the decision, and when we have made the decision, we stick to it. If we need to change we do so.
In 2020 I was asked to facilitate a workshop on growth mindset. When I prepared myself for the workshop by reading the book by Carole Dweck, I found that this way of thinking was in line with how I wanted to lead my life. Facilitating the workshop felt very natural, as I spoke from the heart. A growth mindset is, for me to be open to new approaches, new learning, challenge my own thinking and priorities, and test new things and be open to feedback and improvement.
In San Jose, I met Anne-Marie Colliander Lind and she introduced me to a lot of people in the industry. I appreciate her knowledge, guidance, and friendship. A meeting with her is always a pleasure.
Sabine Ewald is one of my co-workers on the team. She is my partner in crime in introducing MT. We started the MT journey together and she runs the MT in the team. A true team member living the IKEA values, and a good friend.
Patricia Paladini was the first consultant I hired at IKEA. Her energy and competence are fantastic. She has established a good process for localization in Group Digital and has brought a lot of knowledge onboard.
Alessandra Binazzi was the second consultant I hired. After a short introduction, I sent her off to make the pilot implementation of a translation management system (TMS) in Canada. Together with Leon, Elena, and JF, they took the learnings from the pilot implementation and in cooperation with the amazing Localization Specialists made a successful rollout in 23 countries in 11 months. Her operational, tactical, and strategic advice has been and is a contribution to our success.
My first job set its signature, where semantics were important. You always talked in a positive mode, even about competitors, and used the language to sell. My late father gave me a book from 1925: Creative Selling by Arthur MacIntosh. In the book, he writes, “Everybody is selling, as we want to influence others to handle in the way we want them to do.” Yes, we used the language to influence prospects and customers to buy our products. I am convinced that we in our professional and personal lives want to influence others. And that means we are all selling.
Another thing about how we express ourselves is what we learn from parenting. Your kids will never listen to what you tell them “not to do,” because they never hear the “not.” This has taught me to use words like “avoid” or tell them “what to do” and also lead by example. I did not wear a biking helmet, but I started to. I use it every day because I live off what I have in my brain.
You’ve made the interesting point that the translation industry is commoditized similarly to the transportation business 20 years ago. What are the similarities that prompted that conclusion, and where do you see the future heading based on those observations?
Please be aware that this is my personal reflection.
I worked for a transportation and logistics company. We sold these services in a competitive market where quality and delivery were standard. Our customers expected that their goods would reach their customers on time without damages. We competed on price. Everybody in this industry was clear on costs. You knew the labor costs and investments needed to build a new warehouse or buy a trailer and run. It was more about who could provide economies of scale, the right competence, and the will to take a risk in delivering the service. It was the margin of the forwarding agency or the third-party logistics provider that mattered and was the risk mitigation. We had to be very cost-conscious in our organization as the margins were thin, and to land a major contract we needed to deal with the haulage contractor directly to ensure our margin.
We, the buyers, expect to have translations made cheaper with the same quality as before, with AI-generated translations as a base. The LSPs have hard times with long payment terms, talent acquisition and retention, and peaks in requests and demands from shareholders. What I fear is that the linguists are not getting paid enough, in the same way as we in the transportation company pushed the hauler contractor to lower the prices to keep our margin.
Istvan Lengyel wrote a good article in this magazine some months ago on how the payment might vary depending on which part of the job the linguist got.
I think buyers and LSPs have to find a new way to cooperate to keep the craftsmanship of the linguists and all skilled co-workers in the industry. I believe we need a new business model where we work together in an SLA-based cooperative environment built on mutual success and fair compensation for all involved.
On that note, where do you see the future headed with the advent of AI and other emerging technologies?
I believe that a combination of new technologies will change the way we work with languages. By languages, I include written, spoken, Braille, sign, or any way of communication. There are two aspects of languages for me, the linguistic and the data part. When we consider languages as data, we can do many things. By adding metadata to it we can better trace issues, make replacements faster, understand the creation of the elements, and go across languages.
There are so many opportunities in languages as data and by the end of the day we need humans and people working with languages. We have to embrace the new technology, upskill ourselves in data, and accept that our ways of working will change. Think of data as adding a new language or learning more about grammar. The work will be more rewarding where we can focus on the things that make a difference.
There is a lot of hype about generative AI. Generative AI alone will not make it — it is the combination of all new and old technologies that will make the difference. If I look at a TMS, it contains a number of capabilities, like project management, workflows, editing, and review capabilities, and a database of segments and terminology. Project management can be handled in, for instance, Jira, workflows in Sharepoint, the translation memory, or terminology in a database with metadata. The low- or no-code platforms might add integration capabilities.
There are alternatives in new technologies that make it possible for many teams to be more data-focused rather than being centered around the TMS. By extracting data from the TMS, refining it, adding metadata, using it for training language models, and making it available in the enterprise, we will further democratize translation technology. The “traditional” TMS will not be the central part, but a part of the solution where it is difficult to find a better alternative.
You believe that professionals can make a real difference on some of the most defining challenges of our time — for instance, climate change. How can we all strive to have a positive impact on that and other modern issues?
The summer has been painful for many, with high temperatures being reached across the globe like we have never experienced before; some parts of the world have suffered from floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and drought. It is the innovations and developments that we humans have pioneered in the last two hundred years that have caused this climate change and resulted in the rise of these disastrous events.
Wildfires destroy properties, people’s homes, and lives. Floods cause loss of land and in turn, farming is harmed. Lives are lost. Drinking water is contaminated.
High humidity creates a risk of mosquitos and the spread of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis among survivors.
Drought results in a lack of fresh water and similarly harms farming. This lack of water makes people drink polluted water that causes diseases such as diarrhea. The lack of harvests will cause famine.
High temperatures make it hard for people to go outside, to perform work, and increases electricity consumption as more people use air conditioners. This higher need for electricity in the hottest periods of the year means that more power needs to be produced with more pollution created from coal-energy power plants.
With all of this said, yes, I do believe that when everybody contributes, we will make a difference, and we need to start with ourselves. People with passion make a difference. I do what I can in my daily life. I turn off the light when I leave the room, and all of them are LED. I walk or bike to the commuter train to the office. When I go shopping at the supermarket, I take my bike. I work on eating less red meat and eating more vegetables. When I travel I prefer to take the train. I wash my hands in cold water. All these little decisions add up to make a big difference.
If you have the opportunity to choose, use this opportunity and make a difference. There is also a difference between respect and acceptance of the situation. You do not need to accept the situation, but you can respect it and the people talking about it. And act accordingly to do something about it.
In our community, AI and LLMs are all the hype. The challenge here lies in the CO2 footprint with the energy consumption needed to train models for ChatGPT 4.0 being exponentially higher than the earlier versions. If this trend continues and other digital services consume more energy then we will increase our CO2 footprint. We can address this by using dedicated models for translations, using those that require less energy, and reducing the impact to climate.
The majority of Ingka Group’s profits are invested back into the business so that the group can become even more affordable, accessible, and people- and planet-positive. A part of the profits are paid as dividends to the INGKA Foundation making it possible for the foundation to achieve its charitable purpose by providing funding for the IKEA Foundation. Since its origin in 1982, the IKEA Foundation has paid out more than €1.8 billion to partners. Between 2021 and 2026 the board of the IKEA Foundation has made an additional €1 billion available to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This means that in addition to its budget of €200 million annually for its regular grantmaking, the foundation has the responsibility to grant an additional €200 million more on average per year to support tackling the climate crisis. With this budget, it supports approximately 140 organizations such as Medicine sans Frontiers, UNHCR, and LetsDiggit.
Last year I applied to be an ambassador for the IKEA Foundation and my application was accepted. Our introduction to the ambassadorship took place for a week in Athens because one of the projects IKEA Foundation supported — The Home Project, which provides shelters for lone refugee children arriving in Greece — was based there.
This week together with co-workers from Ingka Group and Inter IKEA was fantastic. We learned about the organizations receiving grants from the IKEA Foundation, and we visited one of the shelters managed by The Home Project. The 14 shelters are abandoned houses that have been refurbished by the organization. The shelter we visited felt like coming into a family, with kids from all over the world, with so many experiences, all based there. The kids we met were between 13 and 18 years old, and their stores were fantastic. Heating them made me even more humble about what willpower and good support can do.
What are some of the things you enjoy doing outside of work, and how do those hobbies shape and influence your professional mindset?
When I am not working, I enjoy being together with my wife. We work in the garden of our house or our summerhouse. Our grown-up kids pop in at home, and we cook or bake together. “It goes much faster when you do things together,” as my wife Cecilia always says. And it is more fun. I love reading or listening to music, preferably live.
Today, for instance, I read three books in parallel:
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
- The Power of Language by Viorica Marian
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
What these three books have in common is how languages are used. The languages enable us to create stories, share our imagination, describe things that do not exist, and make them tangible. Learning more languages enables us to think in different ways and to understand what the other person is really telling us, as well as how we need to formulate ourselves. We can use MT and generative AI, but if I do not know how my expressions are perceived, then the communication falls, and I will be misunderstood.
My reading impacts my way of thinking and gives me new perspectives as well as insights. I bring these into work, in technology, solutions, or leadership.
I take time to solve crossword puzzles in Swedish, my native language. In January, I restarted playing with the Malmö Brass Band, playing the second tenor horn. When I was nine years old, I started playing trumpet. Later on, I shifted to tenor horn and French horn, playing in brass bands or wind orchestras. Playing in an orchestra is fantastic. Every instrument counts in the performance of a piece, and you have to be 100% focused. If you think of something else, you’re lost. We practice for the Swedish Brass Bandship in November. A lot of training is needed. We all want to do our best and reach a good result.
The beach by our summerhouse in Ystad is comforting. It gives me peace and time to reflect. It is in one of these moments of silence when my brain goes a bit slower and can recharge. It is where I get energy, being together with the family, my wife, or just by myself.
Subscribe to stay updated between magazine issues.