Everything sounds so easy at the presentation for the relaunch: The company’s main product is to become the forerunner of a new modular product strategy. The idea is simple and has been shown to work in other companies: The new product consists of components or modules that were previously sold separately or integrated into other products. Further development of the individual components is of course going to take place. It's a cinch, according to the product manager: Just plug everything together and we're good to go. As always, he sloughs off as insignificant the objection of the head of technical documentation that the components use different terminology.
The situation changes when the development teams want to exchange data between the components and design a shared software interface to control the modules. The extent of the problems with terminology becomes apparent: Menu items with the same name sometimes refer to different functions, variables with the same meaning are expressed differently. Terms that have been around for a very long time prove to be particularly tricky, as they are used for different technical processes and contexts. In short, grains of sand, which previously only caused a loud grating sound in technical documentation and translation management, have turned into an unpredictable sandstorm. Both electronic data exchange and interdepartmental communication grind to a halt. The relaunch project is far from fulfilling the quality requirements for reliable precision and customer friendliness. The mood becomes tense.
Product managers and management now realize that the product standardization they are striving for requires a fundamental change in the way they handle data and information. In the medium term, the organization will also have to be aligned to the new requirements – a special chapter of its own.
Management decides on a small revolution in setting priorities: For every department, the criterium for success is no longer just the delivery of a product on time and within budget, but the creation of modules that can be easily bundled as needed. In addition to technical measures, uniform terminology is one of the core elements in the precedent-setting decision. Terminology is redefined as a lubricating oil that greases the wheels of all product development processes and keeps them running: as input and output, as a means of exchange, as a structuring aid.
Everyone quickly agrees that the introduction of terminology processes is a separate strategic project. The product relaunch, which is urgently being worked on, will act as a pilot project for the terminology management concept. A powerful project team is appointed. In the moderated kick-off meeting with all department heads, the worries and concerns of those involved are heard and taken into account in risk management and the project definition. The most vocal opinions: It takes time to clarify terms, which the developers do not have if they want to meet the delivery date. Flexibility in the development process would be lost. It would no longer be possible to accommodate customer-specific requirements if everything were to be so standardized. Even if there is agreement on terminology, how do you make sure in day-to-day business that everyone, including sales, is adhering to the terminology and that the data sets are consistent?
The terminology project takes 1.5 years before becoming part of normal operations. The project team gradually masters the following key changes:
- Create a new role: terminologists. Terminologists are enablers and owners of company-wide terminology management. They oversee the agreed terminology inventory and the underlying ontology, assist in the systematic development of new terms and moderate terminology teams.
- Introduce terminology tools: The introduction of professional tools is essential to assist in terminology work and content creation. A terminology system and a terminology check tool will gradually be implemented into the existing tool landscape of every user.
- Change habits and responsibilities: Everyone in the development process is now responsible for terms and definitions. This is a profound change of habits that will take more than a few attempts. The key to success is communication about the necessity and benefits of change for the company and for each individual.
- Make change tangible: The sense, purpose and implementation of terminology processes are immediately apparent in the pilot project, the product relaunch, and promote acceptance for the entire terminology project.
- Update inventory data: To avoid Sisyphean work, like having to repeatedly correct terminology errors, database-based systems such as ERP, PIM, CCMS, TMS are updated to the newly defined terminology.
- Integrate processes: Terminology is a sub-process of product development. After completion of the pilot project, the definition of project-relevant terminology is a separate compulsory work package for every order. Terminology management is integrated into the company's quality management system.
The project retrospective is celebrated. The project team and the project committee identify several factors for success that they want to use in future projects.
- Clear, step-by-step objectives for the interdepartmental terminology management project: Agile management of the project allows close interaction with production and continuously leads to usable results. This promotes acceptance.
- Management advocacy: Managers consistently implement the change in priority and support their teams in integrating the new processes.
- Selection and qualification of terminologists: Terminologists are proficient in terminology management methods and processes, are good project managers and skillful communicators who win others over to sustainable terminology work.
- Strategic orientation and operational realization in harmony: Additional external consulting brings new technical and methodological input, drives the project forward and helps to master the complexity swiftly and satisfactory.
- Intelligent and appreciative involvement of employees: Proponents and skeptics are involved in such a way that their needs and knowledge are taken into account. Experts are involved in a systematic way.
- Communication of the need for change: In order to make apparent the benefits of the change and to encourage cooperation, the project team communicates systematically and transparently on different levels and organizes project marketing in all channels.
- Quickly visible benefits: Rapid implementation of the terminology tools has allowed employees to experience benefits even during the product relaunch.
There is still some work to do before all areas are covered terminologically. The path is well prepared for this and the terminologists assume responsibility for further development in normal operations.
In addition to the expected technical (data exchange) and economic (reuse, more efficient communication) benefits, the terminology process as it is practiced also has other advantages:
- The culture of errors is more solution-oriented. Instead of being a disruptive grain of sand, the underlying terminological issues are seen as an opportunity and an occasion to improve product design, systematize the product portfolio and adapt it to future requirements.
- Interdepartmental cooperation is more constructive. Cooperation in the terminology team, where the exchange of individual perspectives and specialist knowledge is critical to success, ensures respectful and more open interdepartmental communication. Word goes around that the next product innovation is being discussed in the terminology team.
- Company terminology strengthens identification with the company. People who contribute to terminology work identify more with the products and the colleagues involved. They thus embrace the changes needed in the company and promote continuous development of the processes.
In retrospect, some wonder why terminology work was not started earlier on. The effort involved is certainly not to be underestimated, as far-reaching changes in the organization and processes are initiated. However, the operational advantages and strategic benefits are all worthwhile. Not only when a radical change in strategy is imminent, as in the situation described above. What occasion could you use to as the opportunity to transform your grains of sand?
Isabelle Fleury is the co-owner of Fleury & Fleury Consultants, a consulting firm for global information management. She assists companies with professional, strategic and systemic consulting in organizational development, change processes and information development.
Terminology work only becomes a success when change management is implemented. The expected technical (data exchange) and economic (reuse, more efficient communication) benefits of terminology management require a change of company-wide processes. A successful change brings further benefits. These include, for example, stronger identification with the company through participation in terminology work.