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Setting up and analyzing a global portal: challenges and directive questions

1 March 2010

An organizational portal is a familiar tool widely used in organizations and in the world of Knowledge Management. But what do you do when the organization is global and employs workers in various states and countries representing various cultures which subsequently speak different languages yet all work under one management?

Turn to the lesser known solution: global portals.

When setting up a global portal, we must consider a few issues, not necessarily considered when setting up an organizational portal.

This article will discuss the questions and various approaches related to subjects such as analysis, launching and implementation.


Defining a vision and objectives

It is very important to define what are the portal's goals and objectives according to the organization as well as how countries and workers can benefit from it. Often, enhancing organizational identity and the sense of belonging serve as central goals; nevertheless, it is better to define more concrete objectives such as saving time/manpower/technological resources, optimizing work processes, etc. Any objective should be defined in regard to a meaningful and substantial need that if not for the portal/sharing would be the cause for an actual gap.

This is the best stage to define a few Winner Applications that will lead to a quantum leap in the organization and an expansion of the organization's "fan base". This definition can include an organizational phonebook, the organizational structure, links to operational systems, computerized work flows that will replace manual work processes, etc. These simple applications are common in small organizations yet in large organizations, and needless to say in global organizations, are extremely necessary yet are rarely found.

I recommend presenting all the above in each meeting and initial communication with others participating in the process.


Language

A global portal coerces us to choose a main language for our portal in which the global information will be written. Usually, this language will be English; however, some organizations might need to define more than one language (we have even encountered organizations that defined five main languages).

These languages are referred to "the portal languages".


What should be considered when choosing portal languages?

  • Majority- what language do most portal users speak?

  • Size of the minority- how big is the population that does not understand the main language? For example, if the language selected is English yet there is a large French-speaking user population, we should choose French as well.

  • Strategic importance in the organization- if a certain country is of strategic precedence for the organization or is vital to the portal's implementation, we should choose this country's language regardless of how many users live there. For example: an organization developing business in China might add Mandarin to the portal (despite the difficulties involved) as a strategic statement regarding the importance of this country and its population.

  • The language issue also has a technological level that might influence the choice of system on which the portal will be based: the system must support all languages used in company facilities, including those not defined as "portal languages" and requires the ability to display data in different languages in the same page, including those written in different directions (right to left/left to right) etc.


Using languages that aren't the "portal languages"

Assuming the portal indeed supports all languages, the local information will be written in the local dialect. Furthermore, each country interested should be allowed to translate the global information into the local dialect in order to facilitate users. Countries that choose to translate the global information into their language should be built a structured work process for translating and updating the information. Remember: this is a matter that involves responsibility and commitment towards the target audience. For example, if the homepage's focused-on subject is updated daily, someone is required to translate this item to the local dialect every day.

Regarding the navigational framework, the organization should define whether it will use the local language or the portal's main language. The country can decide what is most comfortable for its users. One can assume that a country that chose to use its vernacular will prefer a navigational framework in the same language. In any case, this scenario should be at least considered: the language in which the content was written and the language in which the navigational framework is phrased can be two different languages.


Combining local information with global information:

When setting up a local portal, business units want to be recognized and expressed. When setting up a global portal, we face a similar challenge involving identity and expression. Different countries use the global portal, and each has its own culture, customs and local information.

Some of the information portal is indeed similar: letter from management, organization news, organizational history, ethical code, etc. However, some information might be unique to a certain country: employee services, welfare and state laws and regulations.

The similarities and differences should be expressed as early as the analysis stage and should optimally suit the organization's nature and its needs. Change can manifest in one or more of the following aspects: content, design, color, logo, etc.

Here are some examples of the questions we might face during the analysis stage:


  • The homepage: should the in-focus item be global? Should we have a in-focus local item besides or instead of the global item? Should the homepage structure be uniform? What is the correct ratio of local to global information on the homepage? Should we allow local windows so that each country should choose the window that best suits its needs and settings? (we can define the two windows on the right side of the screen as dedicated to state issues, decided by each country. Some might choose weather while others choose welfare news…) In any case, if the local information takes up a substantial portion, make sure to train and allocate functionaries in each country to maintain portal content.

  • The navigation tree: defining the navigational framework and the number of hierarchy levels is essential for any portal's analysis. The global portal, however, requires asking additional questions: should the first level contain a separate analysis for each country or should the central subjects be located on a global level with each country adapting the data to their settings? If the subjects on the first level are global, we must define what is the level of flexibility granted to each country and from what level do we allow them to freely choose subjects. I recommend considering where this uniqueness can be reflected so that each country will view itself as special and as an active participant in the process.

  • Analysis: standard activities performed during the analysis stage, such as interviews with content experts, user meetings and staff meetings become more complex when dealing with a global portal. When we perform an analysis in Israel, it is very easy to hold face-to-face meetings and interviews with key factors, content experts and users. The global portal is targeted at a large audience located overseas and it is vital that this audience feel a sense of partnership. This audience can be communicated via various means: email, telephone calls and teleconferences, video conferences, etc. Use this variety and choose a different channel each time. While sending an email is the quickest and simplest method, an email can be interpreted incorrectly and usually lacks personal connection. Phone calls and video calls are more expensive and more technologically complex and can be problematic due to the time differences between the different countries; nevertheless, they convey direct communication and personal connection.


Launching and implementation:

When we launch a global portal, we must consider that launching in different countries will be gradual. Think and define which countries should therefore be chosen as your portal's first launching location; you can launch in a large country (with many users) to generate a communicational buzz. On the other hand, you might prefer starting out with the most challenging locations and launch in a country opposed to the process or that is expected to present some implementation difficulties; this move can recruit more partners to the process.

The global portal replaces other communication channels. In our day and age, many means of communication are available and it is safe to assume that most countries have a local portal. If our portal is meant to replace the local portal, we can expect some implementation challenges from users and the individual/group responsible for the local portal (this individual/group should possibly be involved in the analysis process in that country).

To ensure cooperation and soften any opposition, countries should be involved; their opinion should be heard, and they should be allowed to retain their unique character.

It is important to coordinate expectation at the beginning of this process and emphasize that the global portal is indeed meant to replace the current local portal.

However, if we choose for some reason not to replace the local portal it is imperative we consider how to link between the local portal and the global portal. For example, we can define a homepage for the organization as a whole that will contain a link to each local portal.

In conclusion, setting up a global is a task that involves many challenges and tasks. Dedicate the first stages of this project to reviewing what is right for your organization. Consult organizations that have already "been there". Don't run ahead to the familiar tasks before laying the foundations.

You better start. I wish you luck!

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