September 2016
By Dr. Daniela Straub and Klaus-Dirk Schmitz

Image: © Aleksandr Belugin/

Klaus-Dirk Schmitz is professor of Terminology Studies at TH Köln (University of Applied Sciences) in Germany. His teaching and research activities focus on terminology theory and terminology management as wel as on software localization and software tools for translators. He has authored many books and articles on these topics.



Dr. Daniela Straub graduated in Psychology and has been working for tekom consultancy projects since 2003. For tekom she conducts empirical studies, organizes and leads the tekom benchmarking workshops and is involved in the development of the tekom further education guideline and certification system.




Tight budgets and a growing number of languages impede terminology work

How many companies practice terminology management? Who is concerned with terminology work? How do professionals from the business environment rate the benefits, and how high are the potential savings? A new tekom study provides insights into the current state of terminology work in organizations.

Terminology is of utmost importance during knowledge transfer and in information processes. Within the organization, terminology ensures the consistent use of terms across departments and helps to optimize the efficiency and quality of the translation process. When communicating with external stakeholders – other organizations, suppliers, service providers and customers – terminology plays a crucial role in exhibiting a unified corporate identity and a consistent customer experience.

Published in 2010, a study by tekom on behalf of the DIN Consumer Council (German Institute for Standardization) showed the importance of terminology from the customer perspective. According to this study, poor translations and false terminology were the primary causes for issues in understanding and for errors in technical documentation.

The second edition of the tekom study on successful terminology management was published in April 2016 and analyzed data from 800 participants, who responded to an online survey conducted in 2015 on the current status of terminology work in organizations. Of the respondents, 24 percent were managers and 74 percent staff members. The majority (72 percent) worked in industrial organizations, 17 percent in software companies and 11 percent in other organizations.

Who handles terminology?

Within the organization, many departments develop, convey and use terminology, even though it might not be specifically named as such. Terminology work is most prevalent in departments that create new knowledge, actively formulate information and put knowledge into words, as well as those that deal with the translation of information into other languages and its localization for other cultures.

Empirical data shows that terminology is created almost anywhere in an organization: New terms and names are “born” primarily in the following departments: research and development, design, marketing, technical documentation, training and localization/translation. The sheer number of departments that create terminology, as well as the lifecycle of the respective products or services, make terminology management across the organization a very complex process that must be planned and implemented well. Figure 1 shows which departments develop what kind of information products and during which phase of the product lifecycle they are applied.

Figure 1: Information products in the product lifecycle and their source
Source: Schmitz/Straub 2016


One product, many documents

The complexity of the information development process is aggravated by two factors: Almost all information products must be localized or translated for different markets, and information is no longer distributed via a single medium. Consequently, a variety of information products exist in different languages and for different media, for one single product. Figure 2 shows the complexity of information development in the context of product lifecycle and translation/localization.

Figure 2: Relationship between information development, product lifecycle and translation/localization.
Source: Schmitz/Straub 2016


The study reveals that, on average, 4.8 organizational departments are involved in assigning terms. An average of eleven different information products are created in the organization, which are then translated into an average of twelve different languages. In comparison, the average number of languages for translation was only ten in 2010. Considering the total volume of a company’s information products, at least 45 percent are translated into more than ten languages today.

Tackling complexity and tight budgets

The results of the study provide information regarding the sources of information, their transformation from raw information to copy-edited content and their translation/localization. These numbers not only verify the complexity of the creation of terminology, but also its complex use within the organization. When terms are assigned and used inconsistently, this leads to problems in understanding:

  • Of those surveyed, 89.5 percent often or constantly experience that different organizational areas or employees use different terms for the same thing
  • 74.6 percent of respondents often or constantly find that different terms are used for the same thing in different documents
  • 51.9 percent of employees often or constantly cannot understand terms immediately
  • 57.2 percent of employees must often or constantly ask what the correct terms are

Terminology management across the organization can help to avoid these problems to a large extent. However, there may be additional challenges for terminology management due to the very common collaboration with service providers in almost all organizations. Results of the tekom Key Industry Figures of 2014 show: Service providers are used most often for the translation or localization of technical documents (almost 70 percent). The use of service providers for creating technical documentation is also quite frequent (32 percent).

The layout of technical documentation (13.1 percent), consulting in this area (11 percent) as well as the creation of graphics (20 percent) are some of the other tasks that are also performed by service providers. Only one fifth of all organizations do not use service providers. Industrial organizations with over 1000 employees have a particularly high ratio of service providers as compared to small and medium-sized organizations. Due to the outsourcing of information-related tasks to service providers, the goal of a consistent use of terminology cannot be achieved without systematic terminology management across the organization.

Moreover, information development and translation projects must often be processed within very short timeframes, as market launch times are getting increasingly shorter. Considering the enormous volume of translations, it is crucial to save time and money. This inevitably happens at the expense of quality.

Domestic translation service providers often find it difficult to afford and implement the golden rule that a translator should only translate into his native language. One approach to solve this is to offshore the services, e.g. when English-language translation tasks are sent to India. The translation of a document is often distributed over several translators to meet the close timeframes, thus increasing the frequency of stylistic and terminological inconsistencies in the document.


Terminology management – an emerging field

More and more organizations have found that the solution for the highlighted problems is to set up consistent terminology management. Currently, only approximately 19 percent state that terminology management is not an issue in their organization. A total of 21 percent are in the process of introducing and developing terminology processes, and 25 percent have already actively implemented terminology work in the organizational processes. This trend is also reflected in the figures that indicate how long organizations have used a defined terminology:

  • One year or less: about 19 percent
  • Between 1 and 2.5 years: 21 percent
  • Between 2.5 and 5 years: about 25 percent
  • Between 5 and 10 years: around 20 percent
  • Longer than 10 years: 16 percent

Terminology management in organizations is still an emerging field; about 40 percent of organizations with a defined terminology have started in recent years. This is also reflected in the number of terminology entries in the respective databases, which have increased continuously during the years of active terminology work. On average, organizations working on terminology for less than a year have 1009 entries, those working for 1 – 2.5 years have an average of 3893 entries, those between 2.5 - 5 years have 5261 entries, those between 5 – 10 years have 5196 entries, and companies with more than 10 years have an average of 5417 entries.

Along with the terms in all respective languages, terminology databases contain definitions (in 78 percent of organizations), subject field information (78 percent) and status values such as preferred, permitted, not permitted (deprecated), locked etc. (71 percent). Grammatical information (gender, part of speech, number etc.) is created by only half of the surveyed organizations (51 percent). Other information on the documentation of the terminology entries includes figures (40 percent) and details about the department, project, product line and customer (33 percent).


Reasons for terminology work

According to the tekom study on terminology management in organizations, the main reasons leading to the setup of a terminology solution were:

  • Necessity of complying with legal requirements
  • Branding for international markets
  • Shortened product development cycles
  • Increasing number of functions per product, thus increasing the number of terms required
  • Heterogeneous target groups for new terminology
  • Increasing scope of information
  • Increasing number of documents and information products
  • Publication of contents in different media
  • Shorter timeframes for information development and translation projects
  • Significant growth in the number of target languages for translation
  • Increase in the volume of translation
  • Simultaneous translation of a document by various translators

Cost savings and quality improvements

Even though these arguments are quite revealing, the discussion within the organizations continues to focus on the costs and benefits of terminology work.
When asked about a subjective assessment of the potential of terminology work with respect to cost savings, employees in surveyed organizations considered these as follows:

  • Very high: 3.3 percent
  • High: 11.5 percent
  • Rather high: 17.6 percent
  • Rather low: 31.5 percent
  • Low: 12.1 percent
  • Very low: 7.4 percent
  • Cannot assess: 16.7 percent

Thus, cost saving is seen as rather positive by only 32.4 percent (sum of the first three values). The assessment of the potential for quality improvement looks different; a majority of the respondents rate it as positive (57.9 percent):

  • Very high: 6.9 percent
  • High: 20.2 percent
  • Rather high: 29.9 percent
  • Rather low: 20.6 percent
  • Low: 6.3 percent
  • Very low: 4.1 percent

Even if the survey results do not deal with hard figures, it illustrates the subjective assessment that terminology work in organizations is generally connected more to improvement in quality than cost savings.

However, comparing the statements of survey respondents from organizations that have already implemented terminology management with the statements of respondents without terminology management reveals a completely different picture: In organizations with terminology management, 48.5 percent of the respondents see a very high, high or rather high potential for cost savings. In contrast, in organizations without terminology management, this figure is just 19.3 percent. This suggests that experience with terminology work and certain conditions such as a high number of languages influence the assessment of potential cost savings. The difference is even clearer with respect to the potential for quality improvements: 73.4 percent of respondents from organizations with terminology management assess the potential for improving quality to be very high, high or rather high. Only 43.9 percent of the respondents from organizations without terminology work share this assessment.

ven though these results are based on subjective assessments, the tekom study clearly shows how terminology work is presently assessed in organizations and how its practice can influence the strategic importance of terminology work in these organizations. Although it is not easy to substantiate the benefits of terminology work based on hard numbers, there are some opportunities to record and present these benefits through key data. Possible key parameters can be the number of queries from translators or the match rates in the translation memory system. Key data can verify that matches in the translation memory system can be increased through terminology work and that queries from translators can help reduce the number of translation edits as well as translation time. Terminology management can also be leveraged to improve the quality of translation.


Leveraging synergies

The positive aspects of a company-wide terminology management are also achieved by many organizations through synergies with other supporting systems. Thus, 82 percent of organizations with terminology management systems also use translation memory systems, 33 percent use systems for controlled or standardized language, and around 20 percent use text control systems.

The results of the current study in comparison with the results of the first study from 2010 show that organizations have experienced a learning curve in recent years: Quality is not just a cost driver, but rather, quality optimizations can help save costs. This is particularly true for terminology management: A defined terminology helps during the creation of content in the source language as well as during the localization or translation of content for the target markets.

In conclusion, the significance of terminology work has increased in organizations along with the recognition of the necessity of terminology management across the organization for internal and external communication.