Imagine a large shipment of costly equipment ready to be shipped to a customer who is anxious to get it. Now imagine that the manuals for this equipment are incomplete or require translation into a language not previously used by your company. You can’t ship without documentation and you can’t invoice without shipping. This is not an imaginary problem, it is a very real and common situation whether you are selling equipment, software, or even services. It is a content management issue.
Documentation Is Integral to Product Design and Manufacturing…or Should Be
Documentation is not ancillary to manufacturing or coding, it is central to it. No product, software or service can go out the door without some required documentation. Yet many companies still do documentation using processes that are outdated and difficult to manage:
- Writing in formats like Word
- Reviewing and editing via email attachments
- Limiting publishing to formats like print or PDF
- Using workflows that can’t integrate with product development and marketing
The list goes on. These processes slow the document creation process. Add in the need to translate to multiple languages and you multiply the problem by as many languages as your markets require. It’s no wonder something basic like a product manual can halt or hold up shipping and do a number on cash flow.
Content Creation and Management Tools Have Changed
Content management (as opposed to ‘document’ management- which organizes legacy information) is a discipline that is often misunderstood in the management suites of many companies. They are likely to understand the scope of the problem without being aware of the options for solving it, or that there even are options. After all, it is extremely likely that they spend a lot of their time working in applications like PowerPoint, Word, and Excel, all of which contribute to the problems described above. It is an issue of familiarity and a lack of understanding about how content management works.
Content Management is Based On A Different Way of Creating Documentation
IBM has 60 million pieces of content and publishes in 40 languages. Even a small company creates hundreds, if not thousands, of chunks of content. This represents an enormous investment in work, time, and money. That content is a major asset that needs to be managed. Content management systems work by changing the entire model for creating, storing, publishing and delivering that content. They start with an authoring environment, not unlike the editors used in Office applications. However, the way content is structured is entirely different. Writers and other content creators need to think in terms of ‘topics’ rather than documents that are written as a whole. Each topic is created individually and then treated as a data file by the content management system. These chunks of content can be assembled into things like product manuals or help desk applications by linking them together with maps.
Open Standards and File Formats Are Critical
Best practices demand that the file format for these content chunks be an open, machine-readable format rather than a proprietary format like .ppt, .pdf or .docx. The preferred format is XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which easily transfers across various uses. Once this format and working methodology are adopted, your content can be managed from a central database, greatly increasing production speed, eliminating version issues, and enabling rapid publishing to nearly any media format. Your business information is now as manageable as your financial information.
Project Managers Can Integrate Content Management Into Their Product Planning
This gives project planners the ability to manage the documentation process in the same workflow as a manufacturing or development process, eliminating or minimizing bottlenecks that can create the problems outlined at the beginning of this article. The system described here was developed by IBM to solve their content management issues and released as an open-standard in 2005. It is known as DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. When combined with a Component Content Management System (CCMS) it becomes a powerful means of creating and managing all of your critical business documentation.
It’s Time To Start Rethinking Everything About How You Do Documentation
If your management team and your technical documentation teams are not up to speed on open standard content management innovations, it’s time to start learning. DITA CCMS environments have a learning curve but the benefits are substantial and material, both in time saved and to your bottom line. Even if your migration strategy is based on all new documentation being created and managed in a DITA CCMS, with legacy content being managed with existing methods, you’ll see the benefits. You’ll have the ability to tie new documentation creation to product development timelines, eliminating shipping issues issued based on incomplete documentation. Combine this benefit with the numerous benefits of an advanced content management process and you’ll be in good shape for the future.