05 Internal and external audit (SWOT/TOWS)

12 May

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortBefore we go on, remember the mission, i.e. the mission for the translation ‘profession’, not for a commercial group, or a professional practice, or an individual translator.  That will come later, based on the general principles, framework and strategic plan developed for the ‘profession’ as a whole.

The translation profession’s mission is to differentiate itself from the translation ‘industry’ (agencies, brokers, intermediaries and paraprofessional translators), and establish world-wide recognition as Certified Practising/Professional Translators (CPTs), working independently or in professional practices, providing reliable, high-quality language translation services and associated professional advice.

The development of a strategic plan must be based on a foundation of knowledge about ourselves and our commercial environment.  The less knowledge we have, the less reliable will be the strategies.  Indeed, one of the factors that is having a negative impact on the fortunes of translators (particularly new graduate entrants), is a lack of knowledge about how to build a ‘successful professional practice’, their ‘market’ and their ‘clients’, because the intermediaries have been very successful in inserting themselves between the translator and the end client. Some will argue that they filled the vacuum left by translators as demand exploded.

This problem has been  exacerbated by the rise of the Internet and blind auction sites like ProZ, where the translator does not get any market feedback or a feel for  the prices offered by his or her ‘competitors’ (known as valued colleagues in the profession), whereas the intermediaries do.

In short, the intermediaries have successfully established a product chain they tightly control with a structure they have put in place for exactly that purpose.  In other words, a structure that serves their purposes at the expense of the translators.  Look at any tightly controlled product chain you like, and then look at the prosperity of the party at the end of the chain who supplies the product, or does the work (in the case of a service).  It is rarely a pretty picture, which is why independent professionals (other than most translators it seems), will do anything they can to avoid getting locked into such a supply chain.

I obviously don’t have the time or the resources to conduct an in-depth audit and analysis of both the market for translation services and its players, or the strength and weaknesses of the ‘profession’ and its members, but I think we know enough to draw the conclusions we need to develop a strategic plan.

Internal and external audits (SWOT or TOWS) are the technical steps in the process of developing a strategic plan, and they are generally followed by weighting the results of this process.  These are then put into a matrix to identify the most serious risks and the best opportunities, together with some complicated mathematics to define the level of confidence for a course of action.  However, in the absence of a structured, comprehensive and detailed analysis, this is clearly beyond the scope of this exercise for the time being.  So let’s try and do the best we can for the moment, and perhaps tighten things up as we go along.

Let’s start with the external audit, i.e. the Threats and Opportunities in our external environment such as the market for language services, the competition from intermediaries and para-professionals, regulations and technical constraints, etc., before we deal with the Weaknesses and Strengths of our profession as a whole.  I’ll start with the external Threats that I am aware of (please let me know if I have missed any threats that are crucial to this dissertation):

External threats:

  • Surely the most serious threat to the translation ‘profession’, is the increasing dominance of the market for translation services by agencies, brokers and assorted middlemen, carpetbaggers and opportunists (i.e. intermediaries);
  • The dominance in the market by the intermediaries has resulted in a significant imbalance of market power in their favour, which is exploited to erode the position and power of the profession to force down the fees paid to the translators who are doing the work (the primary cost factor of an intermediary).  They would be silly if they didn’t!;
  • Largely as a consequence of the overwhelming market power of the intermediaries and the way they operate to secure and maintain their market dominance, they are able to manipulate the supply-side of the equation and encourage entry into the ‘profession’ of para-professional translators, fraudsters, etc., thus further encouraging the perception on the part of potential clients that translators are a minor cog in their big wheel;
  • Also as a consequence of this proliferation of LSPs and para-professionals, the end clients are finding it more-and-more difficult to distinguish the ‘profession’ from the rest, and will (often) mistakenly assume that relying on an ‘agency’ to sort the grain from the chaff, is the only way to manage their requirements and associated risks.
    The intermediaries, of course, have no interest in correcting this assumption on the part of a potential client, indeed they will no doubt actively promote it, warning the potential client about the risks of contracting (the wrong) translators directly, or seeking a second opinion from other, ‘less professional’ agencies;
  • The longer this situation is allowed to exist, the more pervasive it will become; and even though there is likely to be a shake-out at some stage; the more entrenched the system will become;
  • The perception, and to some extent the reality, of MT, and the impact it is having on translation services in a broad sense.  The most pernicious effect is the implicit and often explicit suggestion that the role of translators is rapidly diminishing and may ultimately become redundant.  More about this under ‘opportunities; and last but not least,
  • The duplicitous role played by governments, to whom some of my more naive colleagues sometimes turn for help.  Governments are often the main beneficiaries of the declining fortunes of our profession!  In Australia, the government long ago set up a company (owned by both the Commonwealth and the state governments) ‘to set minimum standards for persons wishing to enter the profession’ (a requirement for doing government-related work).  A barrier to entry into the profession that should be welcomed by everyone, but for the real, underlying objective.  The real objective is manipulation the supply-side of the equation for a positive outcome for the owners of the company, to wit, the various governments mentioned.  The predictable outcome has been to provide a large (and a cheap) pool of translators and interpreters for the government agencies to draw on when needed (many with very rudimentary training, education or skills).  This, in addition to channelling the hiring of particularly interpreters for government-related services through agencies using a tendering process, has resulted in a remuneration structure for the persons providing the services, that is little better than that of the lollipop lady at the school crossing.I note that the British government has enthusiastically copied the system last year, resulting in predictable chaos in the provision of interpreting services to courts and other government agencies in that country.  I have little or no doubt that they received pertinent advice from Australia.  Anyone acting in this manner in the private sector, would, of course, be subjected to severe penalties if not jail time.

So much for the at least the major threats that I can think of at the moment.  No doubt there are others, and I will be happy to add any that are relevant.
Next week I will deal with the opportunities for the profession, and after that the Weaknesses and Strengths that we have and must reduce and exploit respectively, if we want to improve our lot.

For more details about my professional profile, go to: www.doubledutch.com.au

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