Globalization of Corporate Information Centers

Article excerpt

... it's the issue of resources that is most critical in this urgent push to globalize.

Corporate information centers in large enterprises are quickly moving toward increased global cooperation, creating a new set of challenges and opportunities. As a stark economy leads large companies to evaluate support units for potential savings, many companies are having to deal with a profusion of libraries, information centers, and other pockets of information that are not structured to meet the needs of the organization with maximum efficiency and cooperation. "Globalization" describes the creation of a unified and coordinated information center from what was previously a loose-knit group of independently operating information functions. For many organizations, this is the ultimate result of a strategic assessment. According to functional managers who have embarked on the globalization process, there are many compelling benefits for doing so, but also some substantial challenges.

GLOBALIZATION RACES AHEAD

Large corporations continue to look for economies of scale, and the key content management and deployment functions are no exception, as shown in Outsell's The Changing Roles of Content Deployment Functions, published in 2002 and updated in 2003. Twice as many information center respondents this year as opposed to last year (40 percent in 2003 versus 20 percent in 2002) report that their operation supports the global or enterprise-wide organization. There is also an increase in those who say they provide support for a major company or operating unit within their larger organization (up to 23 percent this year from 18 percent last year), and more are supporting multiple departments (18 percent vs. 12 percent in 2002). Further evidence for a globalization trend lies in the fact that information center respondents said an additional 7 percent of their vendor contracts will become global over the next year, raising that figure to 64 percent.

Intelligence functions (market, business, and competitive intelligence) are experiencing a similar trend. These activities, too, increasingly support the global enterprise (41 percent of this year's respondents over 28 percent last year) or major companies or operating units within their enterprise (23 percent in 2003 vs. 19 percent in 2002).

WHY GLOBALIZE?

Many factors drive the globalization of information centers, but a primary goal in nearly every instance is to take advantage of economies of scale while leveraging limited resources. While other worthy ends, such as standardization of service levels across the globe, equity in staff evaluation and expectations, 24/7 service availability, and brand uniformity, are clearly important, it's the issue of resources that is most critical in this urgent push to globalize.

Organizations embarking on globalizing information centers need to look for highly compelling drivers, since the globalization process is, by all accounts, an energy-intensive and long-term task. The most commonly articulated triggers mentioned by those who are well into globalization are as follows:

* Working in closer concert with other information centers can help mitigate the effects of reduced staffing levels.

* Forming new or broader buying consortia with other content deployment sites can save money for the organization.

* Redundant content purchases and information center tasks can be more easily identified with increased cooperation and networks/systems.

* The user community can be better served through continuity, standardization, pervasive branding/marketing, and ubiquity of information centers services.

What's largely made globalization feasible is the market's increased focus on digital content and electronic deployment. Digital content makes it more practical to serve users who are remote and thus mitigates the need for an on-site information function at an organization's various locations.

CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS

With most information centers under pressure to do more with less, gaining the maximum leverage from global resources-staff, technology, content-is the mantra driving many to coordinate their previously independent information centers. The most pervasive sticking points in the globalization process are lack of technology standards and access across the organization, widely varying user profiles across geographies, difficulties in team building among disparate information professional staff, and dealing with vendors who seem wedded to outdated licensing models.

User Differences

Retaining the "local touch" is an important success factor for the globalization of an information center. Evidence shows that the needs and preferences of local users, as well as retaining local information sources, remain critical success factors. It's important that the voice of the local user doesn't get lost in the push to globalize.

Standardization of services and priorities is a substantial challenge in the face of divergent user profiles across geographical regions. This is not confined to cultural and communications differences, but includes varying user populations from site to site, disparate information gathering and use preferences, as well as more obvious diverse content needs. Unification of services to such dissimilar users is tricky. A sentiment Outsell hears repeatedly is that, in the face of global, local becomes even more important.

At the most basic level, users in different regions can experience far different degrees of access to information sources, as revealed by Outsell's I-AIM Information about Information Markets, published in 2001, and its European I-AIM, published in 2002. For example, sales and marketing professionals in the United States are less likely by 12 percent to have access to a physical library than their European counterparts, while they're more likely (by 18 percent) to have access to a virtual library. With libraries of all types shifting resources to digital content, global distribution,, with equal content for all staff, becomes much more feasible. There remain content licensing, language, and user preference issues to contend with, but the first step is to adopt a content format that facilitates easy distribution.

Further, Europeans are 15 percent more likely than Americans to use the Internet to seek their own information, and they also rely slightly more on their organization's intranet. But Americans are 9 percent quicker to ask colleagues or experts and 12 percent more apt to use a personal collection of sources. While Europeans are 8 percent more prone to use their organizational libraries, Americans are twice as likely to seek information at a commercial bookstore. These preferences and habits make retaining the local perspective on globalizing important.

Finally, the difference in barriers to getting external information, experienced by users from location to location, has a bearing on what kinds of support are offered. Again using the example of American sales and marketing professionals versus their European counterparts, we see some discrepancies in the problems they face. Americans, probably as a result of their traditionally more robust online information options, express substantially bigger challenges than Europeans in knowing what's available to them (16 percent more say this is a problem), and 23 percent more Americans report that lack of sufficient training is a problem in getting information. Even more surprising, given their lower preference for mediation, is that 24 percent more Americans than Europeans say there isn't enough staff support for information tasks. There may well be some leveling of these problems among geographic regions as globalization leads to more uniform source portfolios.

Technology and Networking Challenges

A core challenge that remains, even for those well along the globalization path, is lack of standardization of technology from site to site. Waiting for IT to become standardized is the primary technology sticking point in globalizing information center tasks. While the common problems are variations in operating systems and Internet browser versions, some information center leaders also discovered during their globalization process that different sites around the globe had different Internet access policies and restrictions.

One person we spoke with said, "The solution to this issue is to be patient. Our issues are a blip on IT's radar screen, and we can't control their pace of change. IT is a lumbering elephant."

Others had more optimistic advice. One key to overcoming lack of uniform IT is to rely on Web-based content that is browser-independent. Let commercial content vendors know that a fundamental product decision factor is flexibility with regard to browser versions. Intranet or portal sites developed by the information center need to adopt this same philosophy.

Good lines of communication with IT liaisons also seem to be a key success factor. While the information center may not be able to control IT's pace of change, some organizations' library managers have successfully influenced technology priorities and kept their requirements in front of IT management. With this in mind, though, leaders we spoke to pressed ahead with technology "work arounds" instead of waiting for the elusive standard platform.

Information Center Staff and Team Building Opportunities

Building a cohesive global information center team is another challenge for leaders. Local sites tend to believe, true or not, that "globalization" means "centralization." Site staffs have a vested interest in the local services and relationships already fostered, and they don't want those torn asunder by someone an ocean away who doesn't understand their situation.

Communication is critical. A common theme regarding the success of globalization is to freely communicate the processes and goals, there give staff time to adjust, react, contribute, and buy into the plan. Two primary best practices on globalization and the communications issue make these recommendations:

* Be explicit about the goals. Silence on this issue can seem ominous. To some, "globalization" means site closures, downsizing, concentrating everything in one location, or loss of local decision making, yet these may not be the real drivers of the process at all.

* Don't allow globalization to lead to communication inequities. To the degree possible, ensure that the remote regional managers have the same awareness of corporate goings-on as the regional manager who is at the headquarters location-even if it's just water cooler chat.

Working with Vendors

Mention globalization, and the conversation quickly turns to vendor and contract management issues. Vendor issues are pervasive because leveraging economies of scale on content buying is often the key driver to globalize in the first place.

Admittedly, globalization of content buying pushes vendors to the limits of what they can do for their customers, but the lengths to which buyers must go to get acceptable deals is astounding. Buyers have resorted to "playing hardball" and walking away from the table when they're not being treated well. Content buyers feel that vendors are sorely lacking in creativity when it comes to structuring global deals. While the buyer organization is working to set up a global budget for all content, vendors-even many of the big, global ones-aren't set up to answer this call. If content buyers plan to lay down the law with vendors, they also have to be willing to walk away. The most prominent buyer solution to vendors who dig in their heels is to identify alternative sources that can meet the needs and are more open to creative deals.

SUCCESSFUL GLOBALIZATION

There's a high level of agreement on what leads to successful globalization. Several of the more compelling suggestions Outsell hears are equally applicable to both buyers and vendors who are "thinking global."

* Think locally, act globally: Let local needs roll up to global strategies. Coordinate from the top, but drive by user needs at the local level.

* Think globally, act locally: Regional decisions always need to take into account the resulting impact on the global organization. This applies to hiring, source purchases, and creation of standards.

* Check your goals: Make sure stakeholders agree on what the goals of globalization are.

* Be picky about standard service offerings: Start with a limited number of services offered in a uniform way.

* Be patient: Globalization, by all accounts, is a drawn-out process.

* Meet face to face: Global teaming is so much more effective when the employees have met each other in person.

* Educate each other on cultural differences: Consider formal training on this topic. Acknowledge that there are differences, and work as a team on not taking anything personally.

* Proceed as a team: Teamwork is a critical concept and allows everyone to opt in.

* Communicate: Err on the side of too much rather than too little communication. This includes communication of goals, drivers, processes, expectations, and feedback loops. Communicate equitably-don't get in the rut of communicating mostly with geographically close team members.

* Befriend IT: Form and leverage relationships with the IT department to keep your issues on their radar screen.

* Matrix your function: Strict hierarchies exacerbate the problems of being dispersed across the globe.

Globalization of a large corporate information center is a huge project that is likely to take years. Therefore, the factors that drive this process must be highly compelling to key stakeholders. The new global structure will be most successful if it is built on a foundation of understanding needs at the local level. Outsell hears the process of globalization described as "fun," despite its inherent challenges. Be persistent, flexible, open-minded, and patient-the benefits will be worth the effort.

[Author Affiliation]

Roger Strouse

Guest Columnist Outsell, Inc.

[Author Affiliation]

Roger Strouse [rstrouse@outsellinc.com] is director and lead analyst, Outsell, Inc.

Comments? E-mail Letters to the Editor to marydee@xmission.com.

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