Language and TechComm, comments on ‘Over de economische betekenis van taal’

On Monday 12 November, the Taalunie presented their report “Over de economische betekenis van taal” (“About the economic value of language”). In this report, the Taalunie analyses the place, economic impact and future of the language sector in the Dutch language region.

The language sector in the Dutch language region

The report continues where similar studies left off but casts a wider net. On the one hand, it not only looks at Europe but also at the language sector in the inter-continental Dutch language region. On the other hand, they broaden the definition of “language industry” and give a voice to people in other language professions, such as “speech therapists, (text) writers, journalists and others”.

Within this widened scope, the survey reveals some interesting results. For example, it seems the language sector is an integral part of the economy in the Dutch language region. You can find us everywhere! And where you’ll find language, you will also find Dutch: “Almost all respondents offer their services and products in Dutch as well”, the report remarks. The language industry is doing well for itself and its view on the economy remains positive. At the same time, the sector is not investing in innovation. The report claims this is due to a duality in the language sector’s view on technology: “Technological developments, such as machine translations, are not only seen as opportunities, but also as threats”. As a final conclusion, the report mentions that different regions deploy their language professionals in different domains: In the Netherlands they work more often in education, in Belgium, you’ll find them employed more as translators.

After the presentation, there was a short debate about the report’s theme and importance. Particular emphasis was placed on the solutions the language sector offers, alongside a discussion about language education. As said, it was a short debate and as such, a number of important themes were not addressed.

Language and Flow

Language is to Flow what metal is to the construction industry: an essential building block. Language is a key medium in achieving our goal, which is the transfer of knowledge. This is done through instructions, process descriptions, safety information…

The way we manage content is rapidly changing, even in smaller organizations.

The way we manage language or content is rapidly changing, even in smaller organizations. You could compare this to how energy management used to be viewed: Ever-present, barely noticed and just business as usual. It was far less complex than it is now and there was more administrative staff available to take on the responsibility.

But today, things are different. Companies have much more to document, keep up to date and translate. Companies contact Flow because they notice they are getting overwhelmed – and that includes smaller companies. They deal with a flood of work that is often far too expensive. I believe this is mainly due to two reasons: The pressures of the market and of new technologies.

Language = explicit knowledge,
Knowledge = market advantage

Companies and organisations are feeling the pressure of the market. Just last week, a small but high-tech company in the Netherlands asked me the following, seemingly simple question: “How can we manage our content more efficiently? Right now, we are not consciously managing it. This puts us at a market disadvantage while we are evolving from a product company to a services/project-company (where knowledge is even more important).”

That is in itself a very simple but a very broad issue, because everyone in a company uses language and writes content. How do you start handling this? And how do you ensure new employees quickly learn the ropes? And what if knowledge disappears when an employee retires?

Smart use of Smart ICT-tools

Companies are also feeling pressure from the latest technologies, like augmented reality, collaboration platforms like Office 365, distribution of content on all manner of appliances like smartphones, tablets, smart glasses etc. It forces companies to think about how to match this with their current content processes (if they even have those). Insights in completely unrelated domains, like business intelligence, big data or structured environments, can help in that regard. And of course we shouldn’t forget the overwhelming choice between all those functionally overlapping tools.

New tools require smart use.

Those tools are automated solutions for company librarians, documentation departments, administrative staff, company press etc. They require smart use as you will have to adapt your way of writing so your language product is better suited for re-use, quick modifications or optimized translations.

Smart use of practical knowledge, through language

Both evolutions have brought us to a point when knowledge-intensive organizations are looking for better content and more efficient content management for their technical communication – and of course language plays an important part in this.

We help our clients to intelligently manage their content.

As technical communication experts, we help our clients to intelligently manage their content. This has an impact on the whole chain: How you cooperate, what you write, present, manage, translate and how. On the one hand, we help them automate processes (XML, single sourcing, re-use etc.) and on the other hand, we help them efficiently manage all those language-based (and less language-based) expressions of knowledge transfer. The economic impact of all of this should not be underestimated.

The solution is a combination of language, image (video, photo, illustration, animation, augmented reality) and technology (collaboration platforms such as SharePoint, Office 365, XML for single sourcing and re-use). And all of this is optimized by a smart use of templates, metadata and DITA, for which we also provide advice.

How can an organized language sector help?

If the debate inspired by the report had lasted longer, I would have liked to hear everyone’s perspective on how to tackle these challenges. I am convinced that each of us, with our own experiences in the language industry, can bring interesting perspectives and solutions to the table.

Some debate suggestions that stem from my professional background:

  • Spreading knowledge about the activities, domains and goals of language professionals and language companies
  • Weighing in on policy:
    • Education: Knowledge sharing is important, but language skills are equally important, especially in technical education.
    • Language policy: As language is such an important resource to us, maybe we should be allowed to weigh in on language policy. This could deal with spelling but also aspects of language in other sectors, such as government communication, judicial communication, etc.
  • Stimulate independent research:
    • On the relationship between language and image
    • On specific language aspects in domains such as artificial intelligence
  • Develop norms and standards:
    • Quality standards
    • Information models for specific sectors (much like DITA as a standard for technical documentation)

(Wouter Verkerken)