You have a critical, but tricky, procedure that must be followed throughout your global operation. You have vendors in China, plants in Portland and Valdosta, offices in Seoul, Stuttgart and Cairo. So far, you have relied on emails and memos, but there are clear differences in the way they are applied in different locations. Is it language? Is it local preference? Are the memos just unclear? Whatever the reason, you need to solve it. Conflicting procedures are almost worse than no procedures at all.
How can you get everyone on the same page – quickly?
The Global Communications Challenge
The process for communication across distance, culture and language has been virtually unchanged for centuries. To be sure, we have improved it with technology. We now send emails instead of messengers. We are using webinars instead of travelling to meetings. But the basic process is qualitatively the same:
There are at least 5 distinct intellectual steps in the process of transferring expert knowledge to a different language and culture. Each step demands the engagement of a motivated, knowledgeable expert to move the information forward to the next stage. If there is any lack of knowledge, a lack of attention, or confusion, the message may not get to the destination intact.
To an engineer or systems designer, a system like this is a cause for deep concern. Each step is a potential ‘single point of failure’ that can jeopardize or halt knowledge transfer. Worse, if something goes wrong at one of these steps, no one may spot the problem until the error is seen in the performance at the other end. The error, plus the delay, can cost a lot of time and money. Too often, the only practical remedy is to get on an airplane to go and sort it out.
The problem gets worse for a global, multicultural, multi-lingual enterprise. Global companies don’ t have one message transfer process – they may have thousands per week. Each has the same inherent weaknesses. When they are considered collectively, it is virtually certain that an costly percentage of the communications will fail. In fact, it is amazing that so many messages actually get through. In a rapidly globalizing world, the prognosis seems dire and the solutions are all costly. Yet, what choice does a global enterprise have? is there no better way?
Not as long as the process involves the traditional steps (with their single points of failure). Internet technology can help around the edges, but it can’t make people conceptualize more clearly, it can’t do foolproof translation in context and it can’t help people to interpret foreign instructions to fit their work. It can mainly move the (possibly broken) messages more quickly. It can also reduce the time and cost to repair the damage. Webinars and conference calls can at least minimize the airplane fares.
A Robust Communication System
There is an alternative that is both better and affordable. I have been pioneering practical applications of this idea for several years. Like everything else that we do, it starts with the idea that video is the key. Suppose we take the message supply chain and, instead of relying on written text, we emphasize video. We’re not talking about TV or professional quality video. We’re talking about the informal video that might be recorded with your smartphone and uploaded to YouTube.
Let’s suppose that, instead of being asked to write a manual or procedure, the subject expert is asked to demonstrate and explain the procedure. Let’s further suppose that someone knowledgeable attends the demonstration session with the intent of asking questions to clarify the expert’s explanation. This video is recorded with one of the low-cost video capture technologies that are springing up everywhere. Finally, let’s suppose that the recording, warts and all, is uploaded and shared from a web server. If those simple things can be arranged, we can explore a new approach to multi-lingual and cross-cultural communication. The following diagram illustrates the concept.
The communication will pass through steps that are similar to the traditional approach, but also different. It starts with the video of the expert’s demonstration or presentation. The capture can be done with screen casting software for computer tasks, PowerPoint screen casts for concept presentations, digital camcorders for physical action, or any combination of the three. The video clips are transcribed, the narration is edited and voiced over to create a validated, professional English dialog. The English scripts are then translated, and re-voiced in the target language.
Even though the text is translated to the target language, the video is constant and identical across every language version that is ultimately produced. If information is visible in the video, it is immune to translation error. If there is a translation mistake in the text or narration, the viewer will likely spot the discrepancy and ask for clarification. The video acts as a safety net for the accuracy of the overall communication.
The use of video may carry another benefit. In the current text translation process, it is hard for the source of the information to verify the accuracy of the translation. Most Americans can’t read or understand Chinese, so we cannot tell if our words were translated accurately. We can only judge by the behavior that those translated words generate at the destination. If people react the way we expect, we assume the message got through.
With video, we can view the message at every step of the process. As long as the video is intact, we know what our audience is seeing. If the video is impaired or swapped, we can tell that the message has been garbled. This is a powerful quality protection.
From these observations, one would expect that video will begin to assume a central role in global communication. However, there are still several forces that seem to hold back widespread use of video in everyday communications. In our experience, three factors are especially common:
- People are intimidated by the folklore that ‘video is hard to make’. That used to be true. Smartphones, and YouTube have shown that things have changed.
- Video files are too big to ship. YouTube shows that concern is outdated. As more countries invest in broadband, that concern will evaporate.
- Risk and Inertia. The idea behind this article is not complicated. However, it is radically different from accepted practice. In a conservative business climate, it takes courage to try something this different. Fortunately, it is easy to experiment – and scale up if results are promising.
As industrial video comes into wider use, there is a fourth challenge. Most people are uncertain of their ability to demonstrate knowledge in a visual form. This is a challenge and an opportunity for competitive advantage. If an organization can coach its personnel to use visual tools, they can cut their global communications costs and increase speed and accuracy.
It is important to remember that the message doesn’t have to be completely visual to be effective. The goal is to add a visual communication channel that can cross-verify the conventional audio and textual communication. Over the past 15 years, I have recorded hundreds of informal video clips. Sometimes the message was totally self-evident in the visual presentation. More often, the message was a combination of text, audio and visual elements. Nonetheless, the video component always reduced the risk of misinterpretation. The following examples were all generated by ordinary employees that were not video or graphics experts. To gauge the value of the video content, consider playing these movies with the sound off:
|How to load a printer ribbon .. in German. Even if you can’t understand what the instructor is saying, the video says a lot.|
|Software Code Walk through contains lots of valuable visual clues to help the viewer understand the structure of the code.|
In addition to my experience, some of the best ideas and inspirations can be found at YouTube. Try viewing foreign language videos, or play English videos with the sound off. It is often amazing what you can understand:
- This video shows how how to peel a potato in seconds – in Japanese.
- The late Carl Sagan proves that you don’t need special effects to explain something complex – like the 4th Dimension. You just need a tabletop with paper, apples and a clear plastic cube.
- This long screen cast demonstrates how to make a complex graphic with software. The video has no sound, but it still conveys a lot of useful information.
Finally, if anyone is really bitten by the bug of visual explanation, check out books by Edward Tufte. He has published amazing collections that show how to put complex ideas into pictorial forms. Few people will match his insight, but most people will find inspiration and useful ideas. It would take very little effort for an organization to assemble a library of examples and templates to help its staff build better visual explanations.
If the idea of rapid, error-free, multilingual communication seems appealing, please give us a call and let us help you to explore it. What have you got to lose? If you do global business, you are almost certainly suffering losses every day. This is one of those opportunities where the possible outcomes range between ‘lose very small’ and ‘hit the jackpot’. Those are pretty good investment odds.