Interview with Didier Hélin
By: GALA - Lionbridge Technologies, Inc.
11 September 2008
Last month, GALA interviewed Didier Hélin, the VP of Worldwide Vendor and Supply Chain Management at Lionbridge, to learn about how one of our industry's largest language service providers handles procurement and supplier management.
How large is the vendor and supply chain management team at Lionbridge? How is it structured?
I manage a 50 person team dedicated to procurement. My team has a presence in over 30 offices in 26 countries. Our role is to identify, recruit, qualify and establish commercial relationships with partners. We assess demand and staff projects to be executed. We also serve as internal consultants to our offices and by extension to our customers.
Monitoring and analyzing costs, quality, and trends in demand and supply are central to our activities.
Give us a sense of the volume of words and language pairs that Lionbridge works with. How many suppliers do you work with to support these volumes?
Last year, Lionbridge served clients in over 80 source and 150 target languages (to the tune of over 500 unique language pairs). We outsourced hundreds of millions of “new” words to partners around the world.
Needless to say, dynamic and proactive procurement and supplier management is critical to what we do. We constantly update a database which currently contains over 20,000 highly qualified agencies and freelancers.
This ecosystem and the related need to manage a large number of language assets is one of the reasons that we developed Logoport – the industry’s first truly Web-architected language management system.
Our scale allows us to mobilize to find the right resources for our customers, even for those markets furthest on the “long tail” of languages.
Tell us a little bit about resources for hot markets. Which markets are the hottest right now?
Markets are “hot” for different reasons: high demand from customers, low supply of qualified resources, basic demographics, and world events.
More specifically, the demand for languages is often consistent with global market growth – Russia, Brazil, Eastern Europe, India, China are all on the rise. We have been serving these markets for years, so Lionbridge is well equipped to face the sharp increase in demand for these languages.
We also see high demand in very specific domains and markets, like mobile telecom in parts of Africa and Asia, for example.
Core markets – like “FIGS” and Japanese, for example will remain “hot” because of their scale. For our customers, these markets are just a given. We produce millions of word per month in these languages for hundreds of customers, with the help of hundreds of freelancers and agencies. These core markets have reached “industrial” levels with many well-established freelancers and small agencies that compete with one another. Even though these are mature markets, very reliable suppliers are not necessarily plentiful. And scalability is an issue for most of them.
Growth is an industry-wide challenge, affecting different providers in different ways depending on their market and business model. It is not for the faint of heart!
Has the supplier base developed along the same trajectory?
Yes, more or less. In some developing markets there have been leaps and bounds in terms of levels of maturity, for example with issues related to terminology consensus, adoption of Translation Memory (TM) tools or even Internet connectivity (however, connectivity is improving very quickly even in remote areas). And, of course, there are permanent challenges unique to each market, such as the complexity of the language. In some markets, we are seeing community-based translation “leapfrogging” traditional language provider models. This adds a new variable to the equation of sourcing the right resource for the right job.
We have developed something called the Language Matrix – tangible criteria to show how challenging (and interesting!) it is to localize into different languages.
Could you elaborate on this Language Matrix?
A lot of times, especially with clients new to localization, there is a perception that there is an unlimited supply of qualified resources, no matter what the language. We developed the Language Matrix to better inform both our sales and operations teams and our customers.
The Language Matrix is composed of proprietary research on the strengths and weaknesses of different markets covering over 250 languages and approximately 5000 data points with information such as Internet penetration; current restrictions on working with particular markets (like Iran, for US companies); numbers of literate speakers; whether there is a specific authority that regulates the language (like the Académie Française); whether TM tools support the language; complexity of the language script; whether the needed translation could be performed via a “relay” language. This data is especially important for small markets that are less familiar to most of our customers.
Developing this matrix has helped bridge the gap between our sales and operations teams and our customers’ expectations. And, as markets evolve, so does our Language Matrix!
How does Lionbridge select suppliers for particular projects? Do you use auctions? Is it just about price?
We select freelancers and agencies based on a combination of service offerings and business needs. We have a large existing base data with about 10 million data points on our partners, including their Localization Quality Index (LQI). This is our proprietary quality system; we don’t divulge the details. These data points allow us to pick the best resource for a project and to improve our overall supply base.
Is price important? Absolutely! But it is not the only factor. There are cases when auctions make sense, depending on the market. A lot of people can’t stand the notion of auctions, but sometimes they are appropriate. In other cases, they don’t make sense at all.
Being the “big guy,” does Lionbridge get accused of squeezing suppliers? Sometimes there is the perception that, “If you don’t do this, someone else will.”
We all know that margins in this industry are razor thin. Rory Cowan, our CEO and President, often reminds us that “we are no different from any other business.” Like any other business, we have to deal with supply and demand, currency fluctuations, customer requirements and expectations, and, yes, we select our suppliers the way our customers select us. That’s not unique.
What’s relatively unique, and often frustrating, is the lack of quality standards. Creating standards is not an easy task. Still, defining and agreeing on quality standards is crucial to increase efficiency for all – Lionbridge, its partners and its customers. So, driving standardization is a major focus for us.
What advantages does Lionbridge offer to its suppliers?
Whether you are a freelancer or an agency, working with Lionbridge gives you the opportunity to gain experience with the latest products and projects from the largest customer base in the industry – from new companies to the 10 largest in the world! Working with Lionbridge is also about access to cutting-edge technologies and processes, with Logoport, Freeway, and more to come!
Partners that work with us have the potential to grow with us – to increase volumes and grow together.
The model of working with freelancers or agencies or a combination of the two really depends on the market we are serving. For some engagements, looking beyond our traditional supplier base to communities defined by subject matter expertise and affinities may make the most sense of all. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Each market requires its own solution, and even within the same market, different engagements may require different models.
How do you see supplier management in our industry as it relates to other industries?
I think that there is a lot that we can learn from other industries. When I think about how to do my job better, I look to other industries such as automotive. I much prefer the Honda/Toyota model over the Ford/GM model… like Honda or Toyota, we see our suppliers as partners. With them we form a close-knit network that continuously learns, improves, and hopefully, prospers! The virtuous cycle of continuous feedback and continuous improvement up and down the supply chain is critical to our joint success.
We may be a big company within the context of our industry, but we remain approachable and keep communications informal and agile for all of our suppliers.
Many of us at Lionbridge started in very small companies. This definitely impacts the way we work today. We have the same level of respect for a freelancer or a small Single Language Vendor (SLV) as we do for a larger vendor. We do know the life of the small supplier – the advantages, the tough parts, their strengths and weaknesses.
As a customer, we know that putting unreasonable strain on suppliers do not get the best product. That said, Lionbridge is on the front line with some of the largest and (rightly so) most demanding customers. We have to continuously challenge ourselves. It’s a balancing act.
Didier Hélin has worked in the localization industry for twenty years in various positions ranging from translator to operations manager. He has worked in his current role within Lionbridge for the past two years.