CSOFT Annual Summit / Translation

Risky Business: Inna Geller on Translation Management

 Inna Geller

Inna Geller is the founder of Geller Translation Solutions, a firm focused on providing translation management consulting services for organizations in highly regulated industries. Prior to founding Geller Translation Solutions, Inna supplied 18 years of senior leadership for the translation/localization function at Medtronic, a Fortune 500 producer of medical devices. This certified Green Belt in Six/Lean Sigma methodology can be seen at many events around the world, where she speaks on topics for a variety of organizations like the American Marketing Association, Life Science Alley, the Society of Technical Communications and others.

Earlier this month, CSOFT hosted our 8th Annual World Operations Summit, a week-long event traditionally hosted at CSOFT’s World Headquarters in the heart of Beijing. During this event, we invite our extended team members from around the world—including linguists, clients and industry experts—for an intensive series of training sessions, presentations, teambuilding and localization-focused discussions.

This year, we were thrilled to have Inna Geller of Geller Translation Solutions join us as a guest speaker. Her presentation on translation risk management was so informative and precise that we asked her if she was willing to do a follow-up interview to expound her risk management expertise for the benefit of our audience. Lucky for you and I, she generously agreed! So check out the interview below to find out what the lovely and talented Inna Geller has to say about translation risk management.

How do you define risk management and what’s really the overall purpose of it?

Inna: Before we define risk management, I think we need to first answer the question, “What is risk?” We can’t manage something if we don’t know what it is. So let me answer that one first.

Risk is the chance of something going wrong. Our everyday environment constitutes risk. When we get up, there is the risk that we might be late for work if we oversleep. We make a cup of coffee, and we take it to the car—there’s a risk that we are going to spill it and get burned or dirty. If we drive a car, we can get in an accident.

These are all risks. Risk management, by extension, is the systematic process of managing those possibilities, controlling the uncertainties in your environment. And when you go about managing them, you do so with the goal of meeting your objectives more efficiently.

So basically risk management is not about getting rid of the risks, but it’s finding a way to work with the risks and mitigate them. Is that what you are saying?

Inna: It is desirable to eliminate risk completely, meaning a person can deliberately choose not to perform an activity, but it is not always possible. As in our previous example, one way to manage the risk of being late to work is to eliminate work from our life. But this could be impractical. How will we pay our rent or mortgage? So we do something to prevent this risk, like set an alarm every night, so we have a better chance to arrive at work on time.

Thus risk management is not only about eliminating risks, but it is about identification, assessment and prioritization of risks, followed by coordinated efforts to minimize, monitor and control the impact of those unfortunate events.

The methods and goals vary widely depending on the context. Risk management methods for a localization project will differ from risk management for public health and safety. In the localization industry, risk management is about creating a systematic problem prevention process and environment that will make it possible for buyers and/or sellers to reduce the negative effect of risks and sometime accept some or all of the consequences of a particular risk.

To develop these problem-prevention methods, I always recommend a brainstorming session with people from different functional groups working on the same project, or interviewing someone who has worked on a different, but similar project. Rather than spending hours trying to decide how to proceed, once you’d start explaining your problems to someone else, or start listening to others sharing their experience, the solution and your next steps can suddenly become obvious. The simple act of discussion triggers ideas. All of that extra brainpower can do some amazing things.

So who in an organization should be in charge of risk management? Does everyone mitigate their own risks? Or would this be something that an organization’s quality manager should be in charge of?

Inna: Large corporations have dedicated risk managers, who are professional and well-trained individuals, who develop and implement the organization’s risk management policy. It is their responsibility to identify the risks inherent in their existing business as well as possible new avenues.

These managers must assess the likelihood and impact of these risks and then prioritize them. Once that is done they devise effective strategies, policies and procedures to minimize the impact of these risks. Therefore a risk manager always balances the cost of mitigating risks with the benefit received for preventing them.

Working for a large corporation, I was a part of the discussions with the appointed risk manager on what would happen if a tornado hits the building, for example. What would happen in the case of a flood or a fire? Or in my case, a delayed translation project. The risk manager develops the procedures so that in the off chance that something happens, everyone knows what they need to do, because you have to continue to be in business, manufacture products, complete projects and deliver them to the customer. Any business environment ought to have a risk management plan that determines the course of actions when disaster occurs.

So you’re saying that it’s good to have a pessimistic person in charge then?

Inna: (Laughs)

Yes, a kind of pessimistic person, a person who always thinks that if something can go wrong it will. Someone who is a skeptic. Yes, that is probably a good personality trait to have.

But should every enterprise or every department have a risk manager? It is desirable but not always practical. As I said before, large corporations usually have a corporate risk manager. In small business it is the business owners and their advisors who play the role of risk managers. And in localization projects, PMs (project mangers) by default become risk managers, so it is critical for them to develop a problem prevention mindset, to develop and integrate these methods in their operating procedures.

Sounds like a fun job.

Inna: (Laughs)

Well it’s looking at the environment through a different prism. You have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

In your experience, are there any risks that are unique to the localization industry, that either a localization buyer or provider ought to be looking out for?

Inna: There are some matters that are specific to localization. For example, there could be a lack of translators for a particular language. All of a sudden, there could be huge demand for a certain product in Estonia and you don’t have enough qualified translators. Or you don’t have enough Estonians who understand the subject matter. But that is an example of a very obvious risk in localization.

A good example from my previous career at a Fortune 500 corporation was that the management of language at the company was decentralized. So there were a number of different groups that managed the localization of documentation for the same product, but they were in different locations. The risk at that time, or the issue—however you want to call it—was that different groups who were localizing documentation for the product would be calling the same product features by different names.

When all was said and done, and the localization and translation of documentation was complete, one group was calling a certain functionality Feature A and another was calling it Feature B or Feature A+. So the main product features that were key to the marketing of the product ended up being translated differently throughout their documentation. And that created major risk, because it might have confused consumers or watered down the company’s branding.

My understanding of the risk inherent in that situation led me to develop an in-house terminology management system. We developed a central terminology repository that would help ensure the consistent use and consistent translation of terms in different languages. It was a system that my former colleague Uwe Muegge used to manage while we were there.

Thank god for people like you and Uwe Muegge. So does risk management in the way that you described it delay turnaround time? It sounds like it’s adding an extra step to the development process.

Inna: The question of whether or not the implementation of risk management into your every day operations will add to your lead-time is inevitable and is frequently asked. It is a major concern of project managers that risk management is something extra they have to do, in addition to having already planned their projects.

The point I want to make is that risk management is a process that must be very closely integrated in your everyday project management planning and execution. The ultimate result of risk management application is that it reduces lead-time, because you are able to avoid the additional time required to rework a fault project.

It seems almost counterintuitive that adding a process actually speeds things up, but I do like the idea that it’s an integrated approach. So when should people start managing risk?

Inna: Each project has four phases: Initiation, Planning, Execution and Closure/Control. It is critical to start asking “what if” questions during the project planning cycle, and to not stop asking them all the way through the Control phase. You need to ask yourself what can go wrong and plan to deal with that uncertainty ahead of time. Eventually this problem prevention attitude will become a sort of second nature.

So who should put more emphasis on risk management, the translation buyer, in their own dedicated localization department, or their language service provider? Or both?

For risk management, you should not discriminate whether you are on the buyer side or client side. If you are on a client side, risk management/problem prevention ought to be a part of your operation procedures—and the same goes for the vendor.

I think the ultimate partnership between client and vendor comes when they plan that process together, discuss potential risks and trust each other enough to say “Can we talk about risks ahead of time?”

So it’s all about honest communication?

Inna: Yes. I think it’s all about honest communication and transparency on both sides.

Let’s take an example of a buyer asking you to translate 50,000 words in 2 business days. Together with the client you’d identify project requirements and the client’s priority: quality, speed, cost. Based on that you’d come up with a number of solutions.

Each solution would have a clear reasoning and potential risks identified. Going with our example, you know that the productivity of one translator is about 2,500 words a day. So rather then accepting the project by saying “Yes, we can do it,” you say, “Yes, we can do it. And here are three different solutions and the lists of risks that go with each approach. Given that one translator can manage 2,500 words per day, this it what we propose: 1) we can do MT (machine translation) with post-editing, and the risks are … 2) we can assign three to four translators working on this project at the same time plus overtime and the risks are … 3) we can assign three translators and one editor and the risks and outcomes are…”, etc.

There are trade-offs, risks and different costs to manage these risks in each solution, and it is your role as a vendor to explain and educate the client on the outcomes. It is a client’s decision on what solution to go with and then own the risks that were clearly stated to them.

So if I’m a translation buyer, and I’m looking for a company that has a firm understanding of risk management, what is something basic I can do or ask to better assess how actively they manage risk on their side?

Inna: As a buyer of localization services, at a minimum I’d ask for the vendor’s process documentation, their quality manual and a documented process on how they deal with customer complaints. I would also ask the vendor to demonstrate to me how they dealt with the problems in the past and if any kind of sustainable improvement came out of their effort.

I would want to see if the vendor keeps any kind of quality metrics internally and how these metrics have been used to improve their systems.

If someone who’s reading this wanted to take a more proactive role in their organization’s risk management, what would the first step be and, from your experience, how long would it take to fully implement an integrated strategy?

Inna: Well, it depends. There are so many variables in this question. It depends on the size of the organization, the attitude and buy-in of quality management among company leadership, and your company’s business priorities.

This is a broad question, but I would say that the first step would be awareness. Are your customers complaining that their expectations have not been met? Listen to your customers; ask them for clarification on how their expectations have not been met. And from there go through the methodology of:

  • Identifying risk candidates
  • Categorizing risks
  • Assessing risks, their impact and your exposure
  • Developing and executing a mitigation plan that deals with root causes of the problems
  • Monitoring the process and your progress, and keep being transparent within your organization and with your clients.

This methodology provides you with a road map on what to do and how to manage risks and prevent problems. Of course there will be some unforeseen issues along the way, but they should be outweighed by the benefits: avoiding major problems, establishing a quality-minded company culture, and managing your projects both proactively and systematically.

If you’re interested in learning more about translation risk management, feel free to connect with Inna Geller on LinkedIn, or e-mail her directly at innageller AT me DOT com. And don’t forget to subscribe to our RSS feed for automatic updates from Simply CSOFT!

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CSOFT International is a translation, localization, and globalization services provider that helps international businesses reach out to customers around the world.

  • Very good article – thanks for sharing this interview!

    • Hi Nancy Matis,
      Thanks for your feedback. T for Translation will continue to bring you compelling content in the future. Keep reading!

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  • marisa

    Fantastic article with applications for all of us involved at any step of the process. I am so intrigued by the scientific way to analyze risk that takes something that could be so overwhelming and scary and convert it into something measurable – and easy to attack and minimize. Thanks for the great insights!

  • Tom Cruise, eat your heart out.

    Thanks for the interview, Inna! It was an absolute pleasure.