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Jul 29, 2004: Yet More Thoughts on Global Information Architecture

Trying to capture some more thoughts about global IA design in one place before I plunge back into enterprise IA (fall seminars coming up, book finally underway). Most come from a recent discussion with Chris Tubb, who was kind enough to walk me through a number of global IA issues that he's encountered while working on the information architecture of Orange's intranet.

  • One surprise for me is how much comfort levels with information sharing vary among cultures, some of which value secrecy far more than others. For 2000 example, let's say your company has business units in South Africa and South Korea of comparable dimensions. But while the South Koreans want to provide as much relevant content as they can, perhaps the South Africans are much more protective of their information. You could certainly design an architecture that accommodates both comfort levels, but not without significant customization. So say goodbye to simple templates, or perhaps to the templated approach altogether.
  • Chris also pointed out that users from different locales focus on different aspects of a business. For example, while English-speaking employees might be interested in their company's products, Francophones might pay more attention to what their managers are saying and doing. This may be a result of differences in our linguistic programming; for example, English vocabulary is very noun and adjective-heavy, while Russian derives much of its semantic richness from its verbs. Locale-dependent emphasis on different types of content may be another reason we can't easily rely on templates when designing global information architectures.
  • Chris also challenged the value of many idealized approaches to global IA design. For example, relying on a master language that is somehow divorced from a specific locale is generally unrealistic. This dovetails with my experience; companies typically get started somewhere, and that somewhere's content drives the rest of the locales' content. The content provided by a US-based corporation will likely be most relevant to the US locale. Most companies won't invest in the labor to make that language generic and remove all references to localized product lines, sales and marketing materials, operations, HR, legal stuff, and other issues that only pertain to how the company operates in the US. The result is a hugely imbalanced globalization effort; in this example, a large US subsite and small, weak sisters for other locales.
  • Chris basically recommended a pragmatic approach to global IA design. We can't assume that business decision-makers will make balanced, unbiased locale selections, much less understand the impact of those decisions on the architectures designed for those locales. We can't assume that locales can be easily templated. And variation in cultures, languages, and business models make it exceedingly difficult for us to arrive at a clear model that determines what content each locale should provide, and what generic source it should come from. Instead, we have to rely on non-ideal business factors such as which locales are most profitable, what language is already predominates, and which locales are most willing to join an IA globalization effort when making our design decisions.

That's quite a different picture than an idealized design process, where critical guidelines, processes, and models would already be in place to inform global IA design, including:

  • A model for determining what constitutes a locale
  • A logical process for selecting appropriate locales
  • Definition of different locale types
  • A model for identifying which content is relevant to an umbrella site, to all locales, to regions of locales, and to individual locales
  • An understanding of which content is sufficiently broad and generic to be treated as a "master," thereby easing the translation process

If Chris' experience is typical, none of these goodies may be available to inform global IA design. Instead, we must fall back on our old friend, the 80/20 Rule: we pick a small set of locales that require minimal translation, are reasonably easy to design, are owned by people who want to cooperate with our efforts, and provide the business with most bang for its buck.

I'd love to hear from people who've been able to take on IA globalization projects with a more idealized "clean slate" approach.

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Comment: ITIL (Jul 30, 2004)

I have to say, that the picture of the guy with the pen pointing at the whiteboard scares me, and i apologise in advance if that is the owner of the blog! :S lol


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Comment: Shiv (Aug 2, 2004)

While leading the design effort for a global enterprise wide intranet, I discovered that it was important to give each country office tools, templates and process documents to help them get started on their intranet redesign. As we were rolling out a new content management system, they also appreciated the free training that we gave them. Rarely can offices devote the same dollars to an intranet initiative and as a result they all crave tools and templates.

While most content types were shared across countries, each office didn't want us (the HQ team) to have anything to do with what content they chose to publish and how. Establishing a top-down information architecture template structure enabled us to standardize some pieces of the intranet while giving the offices flexibility to choose what content to publish and how. This worked primarily because we conducted extensive user/stakeholder research, included representatives from each region in the design process and supported them during their office intranet launches.

Comment: Liv Labate (Aug 2, 2004)

Great posting Lou, I think the dilemma you and Chris are addressing is the good old top-down vs. bottom-up approaches, in the context of Global IA. I am currently doing research on this but have no real answers yet; my opinion is that the bottom-up "80/20 rule" you described makes more financial sense in the short term, while a top-down "research-intensive" solution could provide better long-term benefits though requiring larger upfront investment.

Clearly, the solution needs to be somewhere in the middle-ground. An important aspect of the bottom-up approach though, is that it gets people more involved in the process of building the locale's IA, and Global IA being so culture-dependent/influenced, makes it an interesting strategy to follow.

I like your points about templates too. I feel the largest challenge to Global IA (after planning and compromising), is coming up with a structure that is flexible enough to accommodate all the cultural idiosyncrasies while still manageable and not financially insensible.

Comment: Lou (Aug 5, 2004)

Great feedback Shiv and Livia! Still digesting...

(And for those of you just tuning in, I should mention that we've been blogging a lot about this topic here on Bloug recently:

http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000246.html
http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000249.html )

Comment: Lou (Aug 17, 2004)

Peter van Dijck just picked up this thread on his blog:

http://poorbuthappy.com/ease/archives/2004/08/17/2010/international-information-architecture

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