Learning from the Oneida
The other day, I listened to Wisconsin Public Radio and heard a gentleman from the Oneida nation talking about his people’s history. The Oneida are a prominent Native American tribe in Wisconsin. I was hardly paying attention until he described how their elders approach their decision-making. They regard themselves as stewards of the earth. Thus, they always try to keep one eye on the effect any decision would have for their descendants seven generations into the future. “Mind: blown!” is an appropriate reaction.
What a long-term outlook! What a responsibility! And what a difference to our normal focus on progress, quarterly earnings, and disruptive technologies. It is easy to see that disruptiveness is the last thing these elders would be looking for. A long-term perspective almost forces a cautious and conservative approach. The veneration of elders as well as a focus on stability in some Asian countries seems to mirror this Native American philosophy.
Seven-generation sustainability is at odds with our glorification of youth and corporate tenets. Failure is not a good option if you make a decision for the benefit of people two hundred years down the road. In contrast, modern business philosophy seems to embrace failure as a condition for success. Some brash youngsters certainly have had huge successes after serial bankruptcies. But older bystanders watch this with mixed feelings. The late Computer Science professor Sheldon Klein often lamented that students do not take the time to study the development and history of their field. Yes, some geniuses may thus stumble on shortcuts to new ideas. But the unfortunate side effect for the majority is that they keep repeating the same mistakes. Always in new guises (a.k.a. programming languages or frameworks), but fundamentally the same.
So, as I was listening to the Oneida historian, I started thinking about The Geo Group. I asked myself how we fare in comparison. Of course, the company aims at general profitability, or else it would falter. For a first-generation company, a seven-generation outlook would certainly be preposterous. In our rapidly changing world, even a five-year plan seems out of reach. Yet, the company has some features that seem more Oneida than West Coast.
The Geo Group is a family company
It is privately held and largely consists of networks of relatives, friends, and long-term acquaintances. Some new hires may raise their eyebrows when they discover these hidden substructures in the company. However, the familial backbone has beneficial effects for all staff: people join with the expectation that they are in for the long haul. The Geo Group does not have a hire-and-fire mentality. When people leave, retire, or are let go (it does happen), it is always somewhat traumatic. Sometimes we experience grief and ask how we can possibly go on without a given person. But, like a family in times of adversity, the company invariably holds together and realizes that life goes on. It may even come out stronger after redistributing responsibilities. Everybody at The Geo Group realizes that we do not close shop after a bad quarter or a bad year. Too many lives depend on the survival of the company, and the owners are keenly aware of that fact.
The Geo Group is not interested in quick profit
A translation company basing their success on quarterly earnings is probably in the wrong business. Everybody in the industry will likely agree. Sales cycles in translation are incredibly long. From initial client contact to actual buying decisions, months or even years may go by. This industry is not for the impatient. It takes a long time to develop trust. It requires lots of discussion to develop best practices for a specific client situation. And internal decision processes in most client organizations tend to be slow. So, The Geo Group hires for the long term and also strives to treat subcontractors well, so they stay with us for many years.
As a result, clients can have a reasonable expectation to work with the same set of people for a long time. This applies to internal staff such as sales, project managers, or technical staff. And it equally applies to subcontractors. All participants learn the client’s products. They get used to company-specific style. And specific translators can gain the trust of client reviewers. Our clients are not immune to change either. Thus, The Geo Group sometimes is an important constant in their translation and localization process.
The Geo Group values long-term relationships with clients
We thus tend to give away resources and knowledge that other companies would consider competitive secrets. Our desktop publishers visit clients to show them how to set up FrameMaker projects for efficient translation. Our localizers meet with programmers or web masters and make suggestions for easy import/export of translatable text. And our sales people tirelessly educate clients on translation in general. Yes, our clients could take those suggestions and run. They could set up super-efficient workflows, and then move on to the cheapest translation provider. And some do just that. But most appreciate the collaboration. They understand that the future may bring further situations where freely shared expertise is useful.
So, we have to admit that our business practice is a far cry from Oneida stewardship. Yet, it is clear that the Native American philosophy is a valuable guiding principle. It is something to strive for even if it may seem unattainable. As a family business, The Geo Group deviates from the widespread focus on short-term profitability. It does so enough to distinguish itself from “new tech” startups who do not understand that customer service means more than making a sale. We cannot promise to benefit the seventh generation following us. Most likely, translation companies like ours do not even exist then anymore anyway. But we can assure our clients that we will be by their side for many years to come.
Written by Philipp Strazny of The Geo Group Corporation.