From time immemorial, people have kept secrets in order to gain or maintain advantage over others. The secret of manufacturing silk in ancient China, the construction of the atom bomb, and the recipe for Coca Cola are just some examples. Translation agencies also have their secrets: the very first users of Trados when it had only just appeared on the market hid the very fact that they were using it, so as not to give away their competitive advantage.
Have things now changed?
There are no secrets
Things have changed, a lot of things. The era of information overload has arrived.
Now practically all knowledge is universally accessible. By studying academic articles, scanning through textbooks, getting consultations on professional forums and taking online courses you can become anything you want: cook, designer, programmer or project manager. It’s just a question of having the drive, wanting to find the relevant information and knowing how to compartmentalize it.
For example, without knowing anything about the technologies used for management in the modern localization and translation industry, you can enter the search term “translation management system” into Google and in an hour or two gain a superficial understanding of what they are.
There are around 200 million companies in the world, most of which are successful. In the translation and localization industry there are between 50 and 100 thousand companies. Around 1,000 of them are significant players at the global or local level; they could be described as very successful. In this sense, the number of successful companies is incredibly high, while the number of people working at them is many times higher still. In this huge crowd it just isn’t possible to conceal any secrets of success in the corporate world that no one else knows about.
Employees at modern translation agencies happily share their gems with colleagues in webinars, at conferences and on corporate blogs. The head of a successful LSP is unlikely to be worried about discussing their own working methods with colleagues at rival companies, while industry consultants will quickly clarify for you anything that you don’t know.
Of course, companies often hide their own inventions. Apple and Samsung try not to show anyone their new phone models before the official launch, while Google never reveals its search algorithms. But these methods of concealment work in markets that are almost entirely shared between a handful of big players.
The translation industry is unusually fragmented: research shows that the 100 biggest translation agencies occupy just 15% of the market. So there may be some management secrets, but only in the biggest agencies that work with hundreds of languages (MLVs). Still, it’s not like they are kept under lock and key: they are all recounted in lectures at business schools. At the level of small and medium-sized translation companies, there have been no secrets for a long time: you can find any information you need whenever you want.
If someone from a small translation agency with a few dozen workers goes quiet when you ask them about what technologies they use, their methods of managing the business or their staff selection system, it looks ridiculous. Do they really think people want to get information out of them or steal their ideas?
But if there are no secrets, then why do some thrive while others go under? Why, at a time when all the recipes for success have long been written down in books, recounted at conferences and presented in diagrams and slides, are the majority of agencies stagnating?
It’s not about secrets
It all comes down to the fact that while there is greater access to information, people are no better equipped to apply it.
Here’s an example: to live a full and healthy life, you need to give up cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, get plenty of sleep, a balanced diet, do sports and take regular physicals. This no secret, it is a common truth that everyone knows. And yet how many people follow it? The most strong-willed individuals might observe three quarters of these simple rules. Most will come up with some little phrase to get out of it — “I don’t have time,” “I have a lot of other stuff to do,” etc.
It’s the same thing in the corporate world. The theory of effective business management is pretty much clear to everyone. It would surely only be the very greenest of managers who would not have heard of setting priorities, delegating duties and developing business strategies.
But as Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It only takes something unforeseen to happen and your strategical plans go out the window: “This week I have a ton of projects, but I can get on with that stuff tomorrow.”
Really, how can you focus on studying and implementing a marketing strategy, building a sales department or installing a translation business management system, when right here, right now, it’s all coming apart at the seams: you have to send files to one client, take payment from another and urgently find translators for a project from another. I mean, you can give yourself a couple of weeks to do all that reorganizing, can’t you? And then another couple of weeks go by...
Whole lifetimes are spent in such procrastination — it’s the same with companies as it is with people. They just can’t find the willpower to focus on what’s important.
If you want your agency to grow and be successful, concentrate on its future rather than on immediate problems. This is the main “secret.” And everyone knows it, too.
Just work on the most important things right now and don’t put them off till tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes.