Making collaboration and community technologies speak your language is just one example of the still-untapped potential of global social business.
The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012
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Will I see you at the E2 Conference, June 17-19 in Boston? I hope so -- I always learn a lot from those pushing the boundaries of social business, and I have stories to share as well.
The focus of this year's event goes beyond social and Enterprise 2.0, recognizing that it is one component of the broader trends changing the way business gets done. Yet social remains a major element, along with cloud and mobile. I'm convinced the social revolution is just starting, and there is a lot to learn from those who are maximizing its uses.
One of the speakers who is currently pushing for a more truly global implementation of social collaboration within her company is Gloria Burke, director of knowledge and collaboration strategy and governance at Unisys Corporation. Instead of having a separate collaboration network for each country's operations, all are being combined into one global implementation of Microsoft SharePoint and NewsGator Social Sites. To do it right, Unisys is also investing in making translation technology available to allow its professionals around the world to express themselves in their own language and consume content in their own language, with Spanish and Portuguese as the priorities.
"It's really an all-in proposition -- you can't be just a little social," Burke said in an interview. "[Otherwise,] all you're really doing is exchanging content silos for social silos." Each nation's organization will still have its own view of the collaboration system, along with nation-specific news feeds, but the content needs to be managed through a common system, or, Burke explained, "you lose that transparency social was supposed to bring to the enterprise."
I've been interested in the challenges of multilingual collaboration for a long time. More than a decade ago, while writing about multinational military and humanitarian operations, I came across research on the translation of instant-messaging collaboration that I found fascinating. Conducted by the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded R&D organization, it showed that participants in an interactive chat could enter messages in different languages and still communicate productively using machine translation (that is, fully automated translation based on statistical understanding of linguistic structures).
In particular, the research showed how they were able to work around errors caused by the software's imperfect understanding of language. If something came through garbled, a participant could immediately ask for a clarification, allowing the person on the other end of the chat to rephrase a statement in clearer language that the software could handle better. The U.S. Army currently supports technology based on this approach known as Coalition Chat Line Plus.
This sort of technology is also finding its way into business, although so far the Unisys example is an exception to the rule in applying it to internal collaboration. Another of our panelists, Vishal Agnihotri, is the global adoption leader for enterprise and social collaboration at KPMG International. She told me one reason she would be wary of automated translation is that KPMG operates in regulated industries where its communications must be very clear.
More commonly, translation technology is being applied in the context of sales and customer support communities, according to Keith Laska, CEO of SDL Language Technologies, and the third member of the panel. The pattern is that businesses invest in applying the technology to "what is going to help a company generate the most revenue first, moving down towards internal transactions," he said, pointing out that Intel has been able to deflect more than 40% of requests for Spanish language content using machine translation.
Automated translation can be applied to interactive customer chat applications, allowing for the same kind of synchronous error correction used by the military, but it is also starting to be applied to asynchronous social streams. For example, Telligent's collaboration and social customer community platform now offers an integration with the Lionbridge GeoFluent cloud service.
"The idea is you will be able to go into any one of our communities and ask a question in English, and someone in China can see a translated version of that question in their native tongue," Telligent chief technology officer Rob Howard said. As a result, you get access to knowledge that may exist only in the Chinese community, and members of the Chinese community get easier access to content in English and other languages. Scenarios like community-based service and support seem to be the most logical match for the technology because "you may be willing to sacrifice preciseness to get the information," he said.
Previously, the pattern has been to set up separate communities for people who speak different languages, but the disadvantage to that approach is each group gets access to a smaller pool of knowledge. The offering is relatively new, and Telligent is now just in the process of applying it to its own operations. "A significant portion of business has been coming from outside the world of English-speaking customers, particularly in Western Europe, over the last 4-5 years," Howard explained. "We've benefitted from the fact that most of those individuals can also speak English, but we think we'll be able to provide them a better customer service experience if they can ask questions in their own language."
Multilingual collaboration is just one of the frontiers in social business, but it gives you an idea of how many more possibilities remain to be explored. I hope to see you at E2 so we can map them out together.
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