The virtues of e-commerce have been oversold to the point that you might think that if you so much as put up a Web site on the Internet, the international orders will start to roll in. For most companies, establishing a global e-presence takes rather more effort.
For example, Forrester Research has estimated that business users are three times more likely to purchase on the Web if addressed in their own language. And that's even before you start to think about the best way of fulfilling their orders - not to mention how much it will cost to do so and whether you're actually allowed to under the laws of your country and theirs. Then there are fundamental differences in local buying habits. Jaap van der Meer, president and CEO of localisation specialist Alpnet, says, "In Japan, people don't like to use their credit cards on the Internet. Instead they'll order their book or CD online, then collect it and pay for it at their local 7-Eleven store." There's also the risk of inadvertently including content on your site that insults your customers - an innocent thumbs-up icon is offensive in some parts of the world.
The best way to penetrate a market is to make use of local representatives who thoroughly under- stand local conditions. So, while the neatest technological solution might be a centralised one, a solution that allows for significant local input may be the one that shifts products for you.
A photograph is culturally neutral, or so you might think. Andy Nobbs knows otherwise. He's managing director of e-photomail, a dotcom that photographs people at sporting and other events and then allows them to view and buy pictures of themselves over the Web. It's already active in several territories inside and outside Europe. "We hold the technology at our head office but, as well as parachuting in teams of photographers to those territories, we believe we need to have local expert knowledge in the sales and marketing area," he says.
The service is often provided on behalf of companies which give the pictures to people who have attended one of their events, so good contacts and understanding of those markets, as well as of the local photography market generally is particularly important. "Local representation is also important from the point of view of understanding cultural differences - obviously an image that's OK for Sweden might be unacceptable in Saudi Arabia, and there are more subtle differences."
Central versus local
Technologists have appropriated the environmentalists' mantra "think globally, act locally" to signify that central co-ordination, control or at least facilitation can co-exist with a measure of local independence.
As Gregory Darmohray, director of European operations for Webridge, says, "The question is how to roll out a worldwide system, with central control to facilitate security, consistency and integration with legacy systems, but to allow your marketing team in, say, Singapore to manage their own content and collaborate in established ways with their existing distributors."
The need for a central/local balancing act leads some companies to look for a best-of-both-worlds solution where certain content is managed locally while processes and shared content are centralised. With Intentia, Alfa Laval is creating a B2B e-business system that will eventually allow engineers on board ships to order spare parts for delivery to their next port of call. The first step is to create an internal marketplace. That's currently being piloted in several European countries, and will be rolled out to others, including the US, in the coming months.
Robert Claren, global project manager for e-commerce at Alfa Laval, says, "The decision about what to make central and what to localise is one of the most important we've had to make. It makes sense to keep information such as stock levels and delivery times locally, and to centralise a process customer order, since we should always process those the same way and apply the same discounts to our global key accounts. But we need to make detailed product information and configurators local to the owner of the product, since those vary from country to country. Intentia's enterprise portal concept has helped us to integrate central and local technology using Web technology and message brokers."
David Topping, senior vice-president of marketing at Scala Business Solutions, which helps multinational companies create local Web sites, agrees, "If you centralise e-business systems without sorting out the business processes first, you can force yourself down the route of having some activities done centrally - for example, order fulfilment - when they'd be better done locally. Sometimes it makes more sense to say 'we have a strong French subsidiary and we want them talking to our French customers so we'll implement a web site just for that unit.'"
Performance considerations might seem to mitigate in favour of siting servers close to users, but there are ways to achieve fast responses without decentralisation.
EpicRealm, for example, has a global network of more than 50 servers which allows it to provide caching and global load balancing, which means that frequently requested content can be held close to the users who are likely to want it, even if the Web site owner has chosen to centralise it on a single server.
Recognising local infrastructure differences
When designing systems for global use it's important to recognise differences in infrastructure that may affect system performance. Even if everyone is using the same browser to access the same system, disparities in communication speeds and equipment may give users in different countries a very different experience. BP Marine found this was an important factor in a project where it used e-business technology to create a global order-taking, messaging and fulfilment capability pulling together enterprise resource planning systems in different parts of the world. The system, Trident, enables the company to present a uniform face to its customers even when a transaction involves multiple operations within BP.
Ted Green, information director with Commercial Peer Group, for BP Commercial businesses, managed the Trident project for BP Marine. "You have to understand the different bandwidths and processing speeds that apply in different parts of your operation. Since your application will run at the speed of the slowest element, every piece of the jigsaw is equally important."
Sean Doherty endorses this point - he's chief technologist with RCMS, the company that helped BP develop Trident and the component-based framework on which it's based. He says, "Between, say, Singapore and Malaysia you may be facing big differences in communications infrastructures. And if you're deploying your system outside one company you have to realise that dial-up connects are very much more expensive in some countries than they are in others. Not only does that mean people will get upset about slow downloads, but it also means that you will have to offer higher perceived value to make people keep coming back to your site." Doherty adds that multimedia content - often the culprit when it comes to slow downloads - often doesn't get translated anyway because of the relatively high costs of what may amount to a redesign.
Turning a single-language, single-country Web site into a global one can involve significant recoding, as the courseleader.com story shows. It also proves that it can make sense to swallow the cost of doing so. Some companies even choose to start again more or less from scratch, but with the right technology that doesn't have to mean a huge delay, particularly not if you get the work done by a specialist company with a suitable development framework.
Gregory Darmohray says that Webridge implemented a global site for automated control manufacturer Honeywell IAC in about 65 days. "We have a bunch of foundation sites and applications that make it quick to create a site, incorporating software elements that a company already has into our framework."
Rather than adapt an American system, Harley-Davidson got Sterling Commerce to build it a new B2B e-business system for pan-Europeanbusiness using component-based techniques. The system was built and piloted in six months.
Even if you decide to control a globalisation project in-house, you can still outsource some aspects. Take translation, for example, where keeping multiple versions up-to-date is often more challenging than creating the initial content. Bowne Global Solutions provides localisation services plus workflow technology, together with translation services, to ensure that multiple versions of a site are kept abreast of changes.
Ken Behan, vice-president of worldwide sales, explains, "If a change is made on the English version of your site, the copy can be automatically forwarded to us and we then translate the other versions using in-country translators." Companies that used to take three months to get all their versions updated can now get the lag down to three days or less, Bowne claims. Alpnet, too, has an ASP-based repository and workflow system to help manage updates of multi-language material.
Another area that can be outsourced is research about regulatory and tax environments. ClearCross has an ASP-based service that can provide an e-business with instant information about the cost of shipping an item to any given country, including the duties that are likely to be incurred. It also informs users of any restrictions on shipments to that country, either because of a general embargo or because of legal limitations on specific product types. ClearCross maintains a large in-house team to ensure its content is kept abreast of regulatory and tax changes.
An alternative to globalisation - at least as a short-term measure - can be to partner with someone who can provide you with a Web presence in a target country. Alan Knights, head of the e-commerce practice at consultancy CWB, says that his company is often asked to suggest possible partners who can help a financial services client establish a presence in a new market. If, for example, a US company wants to offer stocks to the UK market, they might choose to do it, at least initially, via an existing UK Web site. "They can either use the partner's own local brand, or if they've got a brand that's very well-known they might get the partner to put their logo on the site." This, Knights suggests, can be a low-risk way to establish a presence. "But as always you have to be clear about your business objectives, risks and constraints. Partnering could be a good solution in the short-term, but in the longer run you might make bigger revenues by doing it yourself."
The whole business
Setting up business in a foreign country is not to be undertaken lightly. William Schwartz, partner at US law firm Morrison & Foerster, says, "If you're actively targeting the US you could become subject to its laws." It's not entirely clear what constitutes "actively targeting" here, Schwartz adds. Just having a Web site that US users can visit probably wouldn't count, but including a statement that you're willing to ship to the US might. "If there is a targeted effort and you ship a defective product, the US laws might apply. And if there's a group of unhappy customers, a UK business could become subject to a US class action." Trademark issues are another knotty area - if your trademark appears on your Web site, and you're actively targeting the US, you might need to ensure you're authorised to use the trademark there.
All of which goes to show that surprisingly little of issues arising from decisions to globalise your Web presence is actually about IT. Klaus Besier, CEO of FirePond which recently helped Ford Europe create an Internet marketing capability for the Ford Transit, says, "An IT executive pitching globalisation is probably not going to be successful. Especially for B2B, e-business is best regarded as another channel to support what the business is already doing or planning to do." But that, of course, shouldn't mean slavishly automating the status quo.
Tim Rea, CEO of Aqueduct, predicts, "The winners will be those that design their global e-business according to common-sense principles and apply the lessons to their existing operations. The losers will be those who simply roll out their e-business initiatives to match existing physical operations."
Tips for globalising a Web presence
Courseleader.com translates demand
Some dotcoms are in the vanguard of Web site globalisation, seeing it as an essential, rather than nice-to-have tool for growing their business. Training portal operator courseleader.com started in late 1999 as UK-centric but has recently been revisiting its Web site design in preparation for a planned international expansion.
The site lists training courses offered by third parties and much of the course-related material comes from these third parties and is therefore already in the appropriate language. However, text information that appears above and below tables of courses is the responsibility of courseleader.com.
Roger Cohen, technical director of one of courseleader.com's sister companies HomePage, has been closely involved with the site's development from the outset. "When we were a single-language site, this text was hard-coded into the programs, but when we globalised we had to take it all out and put it in a table." In a piece of text like "15 results match your query" the "15" could appear at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the sentence depending on which language you're working in. So in an instance like that the table has to contain two separate chunks of text, he says.
The business was always envisaged as international but Cohen explains that a deliberate decision was made to hardcode the text in the first instance. "We needed to get our site up and running very quickly and if we'd made it multilingual it could have delayed our launch by several months."
Although some code had to be thrown away he doesn't regret it. "We learned a lot from our experience and have greatly improved the site this time around."
Apart from making the site multilingual, other tasks have included adding multi-currency capabilities - although Cohen points out that the techniques here are fairly well established. Courseleader.com also plans to acquire companies in some of its target markets to help it address cultural differences and negotiate with local training suppliers.
Dulux paints a simplified picture
Separating the design of a Web site from the logic brings economies in implementing and maintaining a global Web presence. It can safeguard the uniformity of the face that a company presents to the outside world while allowing its specific propositions to be adapted to the needs of a local market. Dulux Trade, a division of ICI Paints, has created an extranet-based facility to help professional specifiers and decorators choose the right paint for a job without having to refer to the heavy product specification tomes.
The system is based on Rubicon Software's DFinity Web engine, written in Borland Delphi 5, and designed to allow users to maintain content independently of design.
The Dulux system includes a facility that allows you to see what a particular type of building - a house or pub say - would look like if painted in the colour scheme of your choice. Technical specifications of the paint are also provided. Once a choice has been made the system puts the customer in touch with a suitable merchant.
Dulux Trade's e-business manager Steve Snaith explains that paint details differ from country to country, with different colours being sold in different markets. The buildings on which the paint colours can be tried out may also vary a little between different parts of the world. However the general presentation has to be uniform. "We have global customers with staff who move from country to country so it's important to give a similar feel to the sites, even though the content is very local," says Snaith.
About a dozen countries have implemented the system now, and Snaith says that the set-up can typically be rolled out to a new country in just a couple of weeks.
"The Rubicon technology allows local content to be maintained in the form of a spreadsheet, and the tool is easy to operate, so with some training, a secretary can create and update product details. That means that, even though the spreadsheets are usually held locally, we can get them all updated quickly, for example if we want to change a product claim."
Lost in translation
With thanks to I¤aki Hern ndez Lasa, Language
Project Analyst, Bowne Global Solutions
US e-business globalisation software and services provider Idiom offers a free online "How to" guide to globalisation at www.idiominc.com. This useful site provides FAQs, case studies and world market analysis.
This was first published in October 2000