All Information Is Local

FRAMINGHAM (04/10/2000) - IT systems can connect every corner of the globe, but IT managers are learning they have to pay attention to regional differences.

Donald Foy, director of online operations at Manheim Auctions Inc., didn't know that in the U.K., auctions for personalized license plates thrive. Once purchased, the clever plates can by sold by their owners rather than by the government.

That was just the first hurdle that Manheim faced as its Web site went global.

Based in Atlanta, Manheim Auctions is the world's largest reseller of used cars and a pioneer in using Web technologies to auction vehicles online through "cyberlots." When Manheim expanded into the U.K. and Australia, it found that its new partners had lines of business that the original auction site didn't support. Its inventory database also had to accommodate different naming conventions (an American car's hood is an English car's bonnet, for example) and measurement standards (kilometers, not miles).

Even Manheim's corporate logo had to change. It originally depicted a globe that showed only North and South America. However, its Australian acquisition, Melbourne-based Fowles Auction Group, certainly didn't see itself as relegated to the world's nether regions. Foy recognizes that without Fowles' input, his team would have missed that important point. "We have to be sensitive to their business and culture," he explains.

As companies implement global information technology systems, they're learning that everything from e-commerce to enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications - meant to be used in uniform ways - now have to adapt to regional idiosyncrasies.

E-commerce applications are, by default, accessible to almost anyone in the world who has Internet access. Their extensive reach doesn't, however, automatically translate into global business. Victoria Bracewell-Short, who leads the globalization practice at e-commerce consultancy iXL Enterprises Inc. in Atlanta, says clients often ask her, "Isn't this just a translation or content management issue?" But companies that treat it as such can run into problems. Asking for information as basic as a name, a mailing address or an e-mail address during initial registration can raise hackles in countries where citizens are nervous about giving out personal data.

"We [Americans] take it for granted that when we log on a site, it recognizes us and displays our preferences," says Bracewell-Short. But in Germany, she points out, there are much more stringent regulations governing how e-commerce sites gather customer data. For example, using cookies to collect customer preference data without telling the user is illegal there, so companies that hope to build online relationships with customers must adapt their technology plans accordingly.

Making sure a site doesn't break any laws isn't the only challenge. Bandwidth, connection speeds and browser usage make the global playing field anything but level. But e-commerce sites with global aspirations can take two tacks.

One option is to build one site for all users. If that audience is located only in the U.S., Finland and Sweden, for example, the weakest technology link isn't particularly weak and a single site could work.

However, if the audience includes the U.S., Greece, and Turkey, companies will need to consider building multiple regional sites that can accommodate weaknesses in telecommunications infrastructure and browser penetration.

You're Speaking My Language

General Motors Corp. in Detroit recently created GM BuyPower, a portal through which consumers can check out GM vehicles, find local dealers, view those dealers' inventories and set up financing. With its sights set on reaching 29 countries by the end of this year, the portal had to adapt its presentation of information as well as the business processes for each country.

BuyPower is a three-tier application running on Sun Solaris machines, models 450 and higher. An Oracle8 database contains the product and inventory information. BuyPower uses Netscape Enterprise for its Web server. Between the database and Web server sits Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Art Technology Group Inc.'s Dynamo 4.5 product suite.

Dynamo personalizes the information from the database so GM customers see only the products available in their markets, in the correct language. "We have processes for bringing content and inventory information in, country by country," explains Ron Shelby, GM's general director of e-commerce applications.

To manage international content creation, GM has created a centralized production center in Raleigh, N.C. With TeamSite 4.0 content management software from Interwoven Inc. in Sunnyvale, California, content can be created locally and then edited and posted to the Web site through a centrally managed process. "In a digital world, the need for standard processes becomes imperative," explains Lisa Baird, director of strategic marketing at GM. "We are running a worldwide brand tailored to each country."

By using an application server, BuyPower can adapt to the quirks of each region. The application server - the middle tier - does the grunt work for an application by processing requests based on the rules governing that user's region, without changing the layout or presentation of the information.

Separating this function from the database and the presentation layer has two positive effects. First, a single source of data is more consistent and easier to maintain. The presentation of information can be modified in an infinite number of ways while it's being processed according to common business logic.

Although BuyPower remains a single application, it can provide a different look and feel, as well as different information, to customers in various locales.

Second, by separating the business logic from the other two components, applications can adapt to greater complexity in business processes.

Inchcape Shipping Services Ltd., which built its business on managing local regulations for handling international cargo, built a three-tier application to handle its extensive documentation needs.

Inchcape is the world's largest independent shipping agency. It manages the logistics and documentation of cargo for its customers as their ships move from port to port. From its North American headquarters in Mobile, Alabama, Senior Vice President of Global Business Information Systems Jim Ward and his team managed the development of World Trading System (WTS), which supports all the company's business processes and documentation needs.

The application runs on the Multitier Distributed Application Services Suite application server from Inprise Corp. in Scotts Valley, California. WTS contains six modules: customer service, export documentation, import documentation, logistics, liner finance and an electronic data interchange interface to customs. By separating these modules, WTS can adapt to an enormous range of requirements, from the rules for importing shoes into the British Virgin Islands to a customer's preferred mode of signing off on an inventory report.

Including the modules in the application server layer allows them to work together more automatically. For example, if a customer service complaint arises about damaged equipment, WTS automates the problem resolution process, from taking the complaint to issuing the invoice to doing the necessary accounting.

Localizing ERP Systems

If WTS represents the pinnacle of localization for a global IT system, then ERP applications sit at the opposite end of the spectrum.

ERP systems exist to standardize business processes. For a company that wants accurate, up-to-date inventory information on a global basis, the worst thing to do would be to decentralize the technology that tracks it. But ERP systems aren't immune to differences in language and business practices across borders.

For a company like The Gillette Co. in Boston, consistency of product - and therefore consistency of operations - is of paramount importance. Gillette installed applications from SAP AG and PeopleSoft Inc. because they automatically create reports in different languages. "We select vendors who can satisfy global needs," explains CIO Pat Zilvitis. Although development work is done in Boston, deployment and screen labeling is handled locally to overcome language barriers.

Other companies approach globalization strategies differently, allowing for more decentralized control where factories produce products for local customers. Nypro Inc., a plastics molding company based in Clinton, Massachusetts, operates in 12 countries and uses its global presence as a selling point. To meet the needs of global customers, Nypro runs an ERP system from Chicago-based System Software Associates Inc. called eBPCS.

Building plants in China and providing them with networked ERP systems is the latest project for Jay Leader, Nypro's director of application development. He points out that it's no more feasible for him to modify code written in Chinese than it is to have Chinese employees operate systems in English.

The success of implementing these global applications in different environments often depends on that area's level of technological sophistication. "You can't dump a big, brawny ERP system into a less [technically] educated environment," says Leader.

He says he believes that Internet-based applications, with their capacity to personalize what each users sees, represent the best hope for localization of content, because one system can personalize content and data sources for each user. For ERP, localization is more difficult because the systems aren't meant to be flexible. Nypro, however, puts control over ERP data extraction and manipulation in local hands.

"That's as good as I can do," Leader says.

Shand is a freelance writer in Somerville, Mass., who specializes in emerging trends for business and technology.

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