To increase their profits, companies have been opening up foreign markets for centuries. The Internet makes this easier than ever, but it also offers some pitfalls. While the core area of foreign business used to be sales, companies in the digitalized world have to provide international online marketing, website localization, and community management for different language markets. Properly planned internationalization can save work and harness synergies.
The term internationalization is complex: politics, education, and business operate internationally. Internationalization is often used in context or as a synonym for globalization. In the economic sphere, internationalization means the expansion of business activities beyond national borders – for example, licensing, franchising, or opening a subsidiary. Reasons for this can be the development of new markets, outsourcing of services for cost reasons, or procurement motives of resources or knowledge.
Internationalization in information and communication technology (ICT)
In the digital era, the term internationalization has acquired a special meaning: Software development refers to the most universal programming of software, app, or website. The coded abbreviation i18n is often used – the English “internationalization” has 18 letters between the first letter I and the last letter n. Internationalization is intended to ensure adaptation to other languages and cultures as early as the programming stage.
Languages differ in special characters, number formats, different text lengths, and grammatical peculiarities. For this reason, all texts should be programmed in Unicode to avoid adaptation problems later. It must be possible to translate characters without having to change the program. Especially in the user interface (UI), you should make sure that the text fields are large enough or variable for longer translations.
Internationalization is a major challenge for digital companies. Start-Ups or SMEs should not be put off by this – rarely does it work smoothly in practice. Companies cannot take into account all technological requirements or legal regulations, as these change frequently. Products do not remain in the state of the prototype – they are adapted to customer requirements and sales results. Furthermore, internationalization becomes possible or even desirable only after a successful operation in the home market.
International communication – without intercultural competence is not possible
In the internationalization of a company, people of different nationalities work together. This can lead to intercultural misunderstandings. These are often caused by language difficulties and different value horizons. If the opening up of foreign markets is to be successful, three points are important:
1. Knowledge of the language
Fluent command of the foreign language is important, but not enough. Language is not just language – in addition to the purely semantic level, the pragmatic level – the contextual level of linguistic utterances – is of decisive importance. How does the greeting or written address work? Which gestures and speech formulas are necessary for a meeting, which is rude? How do I present my request in such a way that I reach my goal without being taken advantage of or alienating my partners? Which topics are taboo in a meeting?
2. Know legal regulations
Before expanding into a foreign market, first, ask yourself the question: Are my business interests sufficiently protected by the political and legal system? In countries with increased internet censorship and authoritarian regimes such as Turkey, Russia, and China, check whether your own business contains conflict potential. Legal regulations on data protection, copyright, patents, and electronic commerce are largely harmonized in the EU, but in third countries such as the USA, China, or Russia there are sometimes considerable differences. Remember: inform yourself in advance to avoid surprises. Ignorance does not, as is well known, protect against punishment.
3. Consider cultural particularities
There are hard facts when expanding abroad: how easy or widespread is access to high-speed Internet in the target market? What are the users’ preferred end devices? Which are the most used payment systems? But the soft facts are almost even more important: What are the customer expectations of the target country? How important is religion? What is the understanding of gender roles – traditional or liberal? Are there cultural prohibitions that affect my business? Products, services, and corporate structures must be adapted to these conditions.
Strategic internationalization through collaboration
Internationalization is a risk that cannot be fully calculated. But it also offers enormous opportunities through synergetic effects if you know how to use the different cultural perspectives for your own benefit. In addition to a fundamental basic strategy, an open error culture is necessary, which quickly and easily identifies and analyzes problem areas. Do not dwell on questions of guilt, but document the weak points in a knowledge database. That way you can avoid them next time. This can be done as an orderly collaboration through collaboration.
Sustainable knowledge management in the company offers a practical basis for the uniform training of new employees at home and abroad. It also prevents errors caused by communication problems. Often, documentation from job printing is postponed into the indefinite future. This is a mistake that costs time and money in the long run. Modern software programs for collaboration prevent additional planning efforts through integrated documentation. Collaboration means working together on a project in real-time, with the project being transparent and manageable for all participants.
For collaborative work to function in a company, a democratic corporate culture with flat hierarchies and mutual respect is required. Collaborative knowledge management has the advantage that 1. Different perspectives better align business operations with the target market (flexibility of value creation) 2. Employees are motivated to actively participate at all levels (quality of value creation). Support and reward proactive performance accordingly.
Intercultural communication and integrated knowledge management are key to the success of digital business models abroad. To achieve this, you have to immerse yourself in the unknown: Let the foreign culture fascinate you instead of irritating you! The more insider knowledge you have about the foreign target market, the better you understand it. As a non-native, you can seldom do this quietly, so you should fall back on local structures and employees. With positive basic trust in the cooperation, the transfer of responsibility is successful. Because: What you are not good at yourself, let others do better!