SOPs That Work for Your International Business

19 Jan 2024


Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Your business can’t live—well—without them. SOPs provide your people with indispensable guidelines for operation, standardization, safety, and regulatory compliance. 

Creating effective SOPs and keeping them current is always a challenge—and when your business’s locations span the globe, the challenge is compounded.

When formulating your international SOPs, some of the main areas to consider are:

  • What’s the best format and distribution method to use across international and cultural boundaries, and what other adjustments, such as to photos and graphics, need to be made?
  • What are the regulatory differences that need to be integrated with your materials for each location?
  • Which method of translation is best for putting your SOPs into the languages used by overseas staff?

Format and Distribution Challenges With Global SOPs

Formatting and distribution are overlapping terms in the realm of SOPs. Some formats will lend themselves better to certain methods of dissemination than others, and better serve your company’s international configuration.

Digital Distribution of SOPs

Distribution via internal websites is a trend that makes sense for international corporations because content can be adapted relatively simply to each country’s language and culture.

One international company whose SOPs were written by The Writers for Hire (TWFH) shares its global standards with employees via an internal SharePoint “website.”

The site enables users to view content in their own language. Images, such as photos of employees, don’t favor one culture over another.

One formatting option for such an SOP intranet 'website' is to give each standard (Uniforms, Driver Qualifications, Opening and Closing Routines) its own tab.

Each tab leads to a table of contents for subtopics, and each subtopic leads to standards for that topic.

A supervisor may wish to pull up an entire set of standards related to their area of responsibility, so this is a key capability to look for when choosing a company to facilitate your intranet.

“Modern” SharePoint has improved its navigation options as well as its branding and customization capabilities by using “hubs” rather than a traditional navigation system. Microsoft says, “This type of structure is far more flexible and adaptive to the changing needs of your organization.”

Using one of many cloud-based document management systems to hold your SOP content is another digital distribution option. Individual pages (in PDF or another format) are shelved in your “library” of SOP content. Each page can address an individual topic such as “Jobsite Safety Procedures” or “Equipment Maintenance.”

“Physical” Distribution of SOPs

Some companies still choose to send out their standards via email for printing at each location. The biggest problem with this method is version control; paper copies will almost certainly become obsolete as procedures change.

Emailing updates to be added to these paper copies is a sketchy and inefficient method of keeping standards current. You don’t want employees using outdated or even illegal or dangerous procedures.

Language Challenges—Translation for Your International SOPs

Should you use human or machine translation to ensure your SOPs work well around the world?

There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. There’s also the possibility of using a combination of the two.

 With skilled human translation:

  • Your translators either work independently or are hired through a service.
  • You can expect the highest degree of accuracy. This, of course, is essential when it comes to the SOPs that guide your business. The language you choose is normally the translator’s “mother tongue,” so their knowledge will be much deeper and more nuanced than the programmed content used for machine translation.
  • You will usually pay more. The cost is prohibitive for some businesses, depending on the number of languages needed and the length of their SOP content.
  • You may need to wait longer. With other jobs on your translator’s or agency’s calendar, yours may need to stand in line. Even if a translator gets to work right away, it will take them some time to translate a large quantity of written work.
  • If your company needs its SOPs translated into several languages or more, the human process will almost definitely be slower and more expensive than machine translation.

With machine translation:

  • Translation will be done through programmed systems that try to simulate the way human brains work.
  • It’s easy to find online, and they work fast.
  • It’s cheaper. You will either be using a free program or a paid machine translation service that delivers translated content or attaches to your cloud-based intranet site to translate its pages into your employees’ native languages as needed.
  • It may work better for translating between some languages than others.
  • There is always some degree of inaccuracy in the translations, due to programs’ inability to understand inflections, expressions, and what is and isn’t acceptable in a particular culture. Programs only “know” what has been fed into them—and they’re not imaginative.
  • Inaccuracies will need to be cleared up, either by native speakers or an automated method. A method that TWFH has used is to have programmers write a custom script that runs “in the background” during translation. The script contains a dictionary of words that should NOT be translated. This works well for countries and locales that have good internet connection speeds but may not work where connection is slow.

Using both methods together is the trend at present.

Although machine translation is becoming better and better, there is usually still a need to review machine-translated SOP content, correcting it for local expressions, appropriateness, and spelling.

Many types of machine translation software are available online. They will typically do the vast bulk of your translation work, and some types include features designed to prevent or fix mistranslation.

Read this article for a good overview of the state of machine translation and the features of seven popular, top-performing brands.

Regulatory Challenges With Worldwide SOPs

Ensuring compliance with all applicable regulations is a major reason SOPs are essential to your business.

But laws, ordinances, and accepted practices vary from country to country and from one locality to another.

New regulations are sometimes passed, making it necessary to adjust your SOPs accordingly. Because of all these factors, regulations are one area where efficient version control is a must.

“Food safety is one of the areas that can be most difficult,” says TWFH’s Kathleen Rinchiuso, who has been involved in producing SOPs for a large international company.

“For instance, what temperature can a restaurant hold food at? And Europe has banned a lot of dyes that the U.S. hasn’t banned,” she notes. “And even locally, there are different food handling regulations.”

Standards for the handling and transportation of chemicals varies overseas, and companies that produce or use them in their products must deal with those variations when formulating SOPs.

Types of work uniforms, too, may be a cultural issue, and subjects as innocuous in western countries as tattoos and jewelry may be controversial in other regions of the world, Rinchiuso notes.

Rinchiuso recounts that TWFH established contacts in all of its large SOP client’s “biggest markets,” and then used a survey system to garner feedback about proposed standards from subject matter experts (SMEs) in each of the client’s overseas locations:

“SMEs know their local standards best, so we asked, as part of the survey, whether they needed small or big changes.”

To request large changes, the SMEs could explain their reasoning in text boxes. Once all the data was gathered, company standards were established, with final decisions resting with the company’s head of project. Quarterly reviews continue to allow for the discussion of regulatory issues.

Shelley Harrison Carpenter 
Shelley’s love of words began in first grade, composing poems for her dear teacher and mentor, Mrs. Blanchard. Her writing career began with several years as a county newspaper reporter, where she developed a love for interviewing all sorts of people. Besides feature writing, her news beats included city government, education, and nonprofits of every stripe. As a determined “adult student,” Shelley graduated summa cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2010 where she also wrote profiles of outstanding adult students for a “Web Weekly” newsletter and edited a grant proposal for a campus office. After college, she wrote English instructional materials, website copy, product copy, and blogs before joining two construction and development ezines as a staff writer, happy to be conducting interviews for each assignment. Several years of intervening employment in corporate merchandising and HR deepened Shelley’s understanding of the workings of larger companies and the written content they require. She now loves being part of the writing teams at The Writers for Hire. When not at a keyboard, she can be seen jogging in her Southern neighborhood or found holed up with a biography, a vegetarian cookbook, or a vintage TV show.

Related Content

  • 0 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *