Culture and Enterprise Software Localization

In two of my previous posts, I touched on the topic of Culture. In An Introduction to Enterprise Software Localization I mentioned as an example the need to take care with the use of icons in the software. And in Bootstrapping Your European Enterprise Software Business, while discussing local employment regulations, I talked about the need to consider different cultural approaches to hiring and firing.

These are just two very specific examples of what I call the Cultural Challenge when expanding your business globally. But given the wider debate around diversity that is happening right now, aspects of the cultural challenge apply equally in your home country. In the context of an Enterprise Software company there are two components of this challenge that must be tackled:

  • Ensuring that the user experience is natural and appropriate for any individual interacting with the solution.
  • Conducting business in a way that is sensitive to all participants

User Experience

Software companies spend a lot of time ensuring that the user experience is as good as it could be but tend to focus on topics such as the workflows, the layout of the screen, navigation, etc. This is almost exclusively done in the context of the vendor’s home language and culture. The (probably unconscious) assumption is made that if it is a good experience in my home language, then translating into any other language will retain that good experience. But here are some examples where that is not the case:

  • Some languages are more verbose than others, so optimising a screen layout in one can lead to a very messy layout in another. A field label size of 10 characters might work well in English, but the equivalent German word might be twice the length and so either it must be abbreviated (always a source of confusion) or the label extended, changing the overall look and feel.
  • A lot of work has been done trying to develop ‘universal’ icons that are acceptable in any cultural setting. There are two dangers in this. First, the icon can be so generic that it does not have a strong meaning in any setting. And second, believing that the resulting icon is truly universal, without thinking, you may stumble across a culture where it is not acceptable. It is more work, but the answer is to make any icon easily configurable as part of the globalisation capabilities of the software application. This has the side benefit of making it easier for a particular customer to configure the solution to its own branding.
  • Dealing with Right-to-Left (RTL) languages such as Hebrew and Arabic poses particular challenges. In general, icons that represent motion or time should be mirrored, while those that do not, stay the same. But an icon representing time in a circular direction should not be mirrored, as clocks move in the same direction everywhere. Similarly, media playback buttons should not be mirrored as they derive from the operation of a tape machine. So – no straightforward rules!

Doing Business

Doing business across multiple cultures is a skill that every global manager must acquire in order to be successful. But there are no rules – you must rely on awareness and experience. Many books have been written on this topic and models proposed. Here are just a few examples based on my own experience of dealing with colleagues in a global company and with international customers

  • I was once facilitating a workshop for a global consumer goods company in Rome. We were hosted by the Italians but had representatives from around the world including from their head office in the US. By lunchtime on the first day we were a bit behind schedule at which point one of the Americans suggested getting some sandwiches and having a working lunch. The look of incomprehension on the Italian (and Spanish) faces was something to behold. In that culture, mealtimes are sacrosanct and an opportunity to socialise with colleagues from across the site. So we had our long break for lunch, but by the end of the day were back on track time-wise because it was the norm to work late into the evening and I seemed to remember finally ate dinner at about midnight.
  • As I mentioned before, attitudes to hiring and firing vary greatly around the world. ‘At will’ employment is still very common in the US whereby employees can be let go at any time for no reason. Contrast that with the strong employment protection laws in Europe with significant notice periods and compensation for loss of employment, or the far Eastern culture of a job for life.
  • When managing across cultures you must take into account the different approaches to decision making, communicating, timekeeping etc. This is a huge topic and I would recommend reading the work of Erin Meyer and in particular her book ‘The Culture Map’ to anyone involved in doing business across national boundaries.


Culture plays a huge part in the ultimate success of any global business from both the technical and people perspectives. In future posts I will return to examine both in more detail. In the meantime, if you have read this far I would be very interested to hear your stories of cultural challenges.

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