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Are your people using legacy workflows to create critical business-related content? The way to answer that is to look at the tools they use to write and edit. Typically, many use Word, others live in PowerPoint, a lot of tech writers use FrameMaker, or your group may have adopted Google Docs. While the desired result for each of these may vary, the commonality is that they help us communicate with others. And for a long time they did help the process. However, there are now options that do a much better job of helping people create, share, and manage content. The difference lies in the way we work, our ‘workflow’. The key to understanding this is the concept of ‘structured content workflows’, a new paradigm for content creation and management.

The old workflow was largely individualistic in that a writer would outline and then fill in the sections until a complete document was made. They would pass this draft along to co-workers for edits, review and approvals, generally by attaching it to an email or putting a copy into a collaborative workspace. After the edits, the doc would be returned and the original would be replaced by the updated version. At any given point in time, someone would ‘own’ the latest version as it moved around.

Where is It? Which version is the current version?

The problem with this process is the moving around of the doc. Each move creates another copy of the original containing whatever changes had been made up to that point. It could be difficult for anyone to quickly understand where the doc was, its status, which was the ‘correct’ version, and what exactly was in the document. Multiply this process by hundreds or even thousands of pages of documents spread across an organization and you have a problem. Information in this workflow cannot be managed with any degree of granularity, nor can it be managed from a centralized source. Search options are very limited and the opportunities for errors and omissions are multiplied each time a copy is created. Frankly, it is a messy process at best and the opportunities for confusion and errors are manifold.

Google Docs: A First Step Towards Better Structure

Google Docs provides a first step towards a more organized workflow because the docs exist in a database and access to that database is shared with collaborators. This eliminates a lot of the copying errors and some of the confusion. However, the way people work in Google Docs is not materially different than Office. In fact, it is a basic copy of Office, with the significant difference being the central database—and that is an important distinction. But it is only a first step because it attempts to combine the old workflow with a new set of collaboration tools. The next step is to adopt a new mindset around creating content that can be worked with like data. In fact, this new workflow turns document elements into data and it is data that is highly structured.

Component Content Management

How do you turn narrative documents into searchable, manageable data? You start by rethinking the creation process. All documentation contains content ‘components’ that have very specific functions. Some explain concepts, some show how to do things, and others provide reference material.

In a legacy workflow like that used in creating docs in Word, documents are created as lengthy collections of different sections like Introductions, Parts Lists, Legal Statements, Task or How-to lists, etc., all authored in one long workflow. This model limits your ability to repurpose pieces of content found within those lengthy documents.

The new workflow starts by building each of these topics as separate components that have defined roles. A writer is assigned a specific project like a Product Manual, then determines what topics are required and creates each individually in an authoring environment that tags each with metadata. That metadata tells the system what is in each topic, who authored it, dates, subject, product name, etc. Each topic is a ‘component’ in the database. Once a full set of components is created, things get interesting.

Rather than copying and pasting these components together, the writer creates what is known as a map. This map resembles a table of contents containing links to the set of components the end use case requires. The map’s organization determines the order that the content will appear in the final publishing output. Maps can be easily created by adding and rearranging components for different uses like a Repair Guide. That new map may share components with other documents like the Product Manual mentioned earlier. The Parts List for a product may, for example, be required in both the Product Manual and the Repair Guide.

The fundamental difference from older workflow models like long Word docs is that the map determines the document structure and points the database to the required content. The mapping model makes reuse even more effective. Component topics can be reused in a new map to create documents that share those topics with other documents. There is no copying. Instead the Product Manual and Repair Guide map each contain a link to the same Parts List component. If a change like an update is required, it is made at the component level and is automatically reflected in any use of that content.

XML and an Open Standards-based Architecture Separates Formatting Requirements From The Creation Process

Using open file formats like XML and open standard platforms like DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) means your content can be published to virtually any digital media without manually formatting each doc (like adding styles in Word). The Component Content Management System (CCMS) inserts XML classifications that tell the various publishing tools how to display the content depending on the nature of the end use. Web, mobile, PDF, Knowledge Base, presentation slides…each format ‘understands’ the instructions in the files and follows those instructions to format the final output.

Single Sourcing Drives Review Processes

Single sourcing is what makes this paradigm change possible. The workflow among contributors and editors is much more manageable. Roles can be assigned, comments inserted inline, edits tracked, and a record of all these things is centrally accessible and always current. If a certain type of content is required, a search can be done and any existing content can be found and reused or adapted, even if its creator is in a different department, division, or location. And those content components don’t move around—they always reside in the database. That’s what is meant by single sourcing.

Aligning The Documentation Process With Your Product Development Process

This overview of the structured content workflow only touches the surface of its advantages. Documentation can now be managed in the same way that new product development is managed. Because we create content components, we can align the documentation process with the development process. When a new product attribute is designed, the explanations for its use and purpose are written at the same time. At the end of the development process, the documentation has been written and refined through testing/editing and, like the product itself, assembled for distribution.

Eliminate Unnecessary Translation

If translation is required, each document component is sent out for translation as it is completed or updated. A record is kept of which components have been translated previously, eliminating time-consuming (and costly) comparisons required to avoid duplication of translations. With the old workflow, the entire document would be sent and then parsed with older versions to determine where changes were made—a time-consuming process. With a single source that has extensive metadata, a translation manager can search for only those components that have been changed since the last translation.

The Organizational Value of Understanding Workflows

Changing the way we perform fundamental tasks like writing documentation can be difficult to swallow, especially across large and complex organizations. Understanding the inherent value in these new workflows can help your organization move towards acceptance of what is becoming the new standard for content creation and management.

Summing Up:

  • Ready access to all of your valuable knowledge across an enterprise
  • Reuse saves time and eliminates duplication of effort
  • Aligning doc creation and product development means shipping earlier (no lag while waiting for documentation)
  • Eliminate redundant localization and decrease time to update translations
  • Content is now useful as data and easily re-purposed for functions like marketing, HR, internal guidelines, etc.
  • XML/DITA eliminates costly manual formatting when publishing to multiple media types
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