07 September 2014

Customer-centred is the way to go

For 50 years or more, technical communication theory has focused on reader-centred writing, or, in the case of documents intended for the client's customers, customer-centred writing. The basic concept was developed by technical communication departments and disseminated and promoted by professional associations. In the USA, the movement was led by the Society for Technical Communication which was especially strong and influential during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

For 25 years or more, small but growing groups of translators have promoted 'transcreation', translation by emulation, reader-centred translation/adaptation, and the like. Many of these groups have striven to develop work methods and business strategies combining target-audience focused translation and reader-centred writing, or, again, in the case of documents intended for the client's customers, customer-centred translation/adaptation. Much of this thinking is summarised in 101 Things a translator needs to know.

On 5 September, noted FT columnist Gillian Tett wrote a piece entitled Where new ideas take root exploring the concepts behind, and the implications of, Syngenta CEO Mike Mack's decision to reorganise the group according to an organisation chart reflecting the viewpoint of the group's customers rather than that of its C-suite and scientists. The idea hinged on the realisation that Syngenta customers (i.e. farmers) do not ring up their agribusiness consultant and say: “I need fungicide” but rather “I want to grow better rice.”

Showing considerable sensitivity for her topic, Tett goes on to make a point that translators, interpreters and terminologists can fully appreciate:
As anthropologists and psychologists alike have often pointed out, human beings are hardwired to classify the world around them into distinctive mental and social boxes. This classification system tends to become so deeply ingrained that on a day-to-day basis we rarely question it. Hence the fact that most scientists think it is entirely normal and logical for agribusiness companies to mark a sharp distinction between “seeds” and “crop protection”; this is how business has recently been done.
Tett also points out that:
In the banking world, some entities such as JPMorgan have been trying to organise their operations according to client needs, rather than product specialities.
In the educational world, schools that work with the international baccalaureate programme are increasingly trying to promote a child-focused approach to learning, instead of one driven by traditional educational specialities.
In some corners of the American medical world, such as Cleveland Clinic, experiments are under way to reorganise hospitals according to diseases and medical problems, not doctor skills.
Customer-centred translators and terminologists know that there are times when the challenge is not so much to find a set of target-language terms matching the terminology used to classify and describe the client's key source-language concepts but to propose quite different target-language terms that reflect more accurately the viewpoint of the client's customers. (Note, I'm not claiming that this is common or that, once recognised, the translator is necessarily in a position to convince the client to accept this customer-focused thinking. Paradigm shifts are tough and the switch from company-focused corporate thinking to genuinely and profoundly customer-centred thinking is no exception.)

In the 239th issue of his Tool Box Journal, translation technology guru Jost Zetzsche -- also author of the Translator's Tool Box ebook -- wrote about a discussion he'd had with terminologist Barbara Inge Karsch about some of the differences between terminologists and translators:
One point we explored was how terminologists carry out a deep-level QA of the internal integrity of the product they are controlling and forming the terminology for. Non-bridgeable gaps in the terminology point to inherent flaws in the product's design. This is no news for a well-trained terminologist, but it was to me. And only later did I realize that translation does very much the same. Here's how I attempted to articulate this recently in Twitter-speak:
Translation of a product is like a puzzle. If there are puzzle pieces missing or you have to force pieces together, the product is faulty.
Gillian Tett concludes with two points that will be instantly understood by traslators and terminologists and that apply as much to her topic as the the broader one broached here:
... changing taxonomies is time-consuming and likely to provoke considerable resistance, not least because this process tends to end up threatening hierarchies or status and power.

But while it is tough to restructure an entire organisation, anyone can play a “what if” game – and try turning their classification systems upside down in their minds. The classification systems we inherit in the classroom or corporate life may be powerful but they can be changed. And that is a thought-provoking lesson to ponder as the western world returns to school (or work) this month; taxonomies can sometimes produce the seeds of change.
I've provided a rough chronology of developments and I believe that they are related to one another. Where might all this lead? For the moment, it leads at least to a number of questions:
How, precisely, are customer-centred thinking, management, organisation charts, communication and translation related?
What does this teach us?
What are the broad practical applications and implications?

If you have any thoughts on the matter, please comment or contact me directly.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Steve.

    From a copywriter's perspective, I would echo what you've said and add this thought:

    Communication is the responsibility of the sender.

    If your reader doesn't understand your words, that's not their fault, it's yours.


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