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Single source of truth (SSOT) describes a state of being for company knowledge. In this state, all company knowledge is stored and managed centrally. The knowledge is arranged and delineated in a way that avoids all overlaps and duplication.

In this post, we’ll explain what SSOT means, how to “get” an SSOT, what other people mean when they talk about a single source or single-sourcing, and the characteristics of a great system for SSOT.

It’s Like Zen

A SSOT is not a thing, it’s a state of being.

You can think of a single source of truth as zen.

A visualization of breathing to simulate a meditative state common with the practice of zen. Zen is analogous to a single source of truth.

Zen is an enhanced state of being. It is tough to achieve because it requires a process of practiced focus and effort. However, the process is valuable, even if the practitioner never becomes a guru.

In the same way, a single source of truth requires a process known as normalization. This process is also valuable even if the result isn’t a perfect SSOT environment.

We’ll take a look at normalization and why it’s a valuable effort.

What is Normalization?

Normalization is spring cleaning for company knowledge. It consists of three primary steps:

  1. Componentize content
  2. Eliminate redundancy
  3. Reuse (reference or link) all content instead of copying/pasting

Componentize Content

The first step is the one that might sound the most foreign. Componentizing content means that we break down the content into “building blocks” of knowledge.

Agraphic showing the difference between content that is written linearly and content that is componentized

Typical content management systems allow content creators to write content linearly. Writing in this linear manner means that ideas intertwine and overlap. This blog post is a perfect example. It addresses several topics, but if someone asked about any one of the topics covered, a single paragraph wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

Componentization of content means writing so that the content is independent of the surrounding context. Building blocks don’t depend on surrounding building blocks to “work.” Builders can rearrange and build fluidly.

Content should work like building blocks, and it can work this way if organizations componentize their content.

Componentization is essential in a single source of truth. If you look ahead to steps two and three (eliminate redundancy and reuse content via referencing and links), you can see that if content is not componentized, the other two steps are simply impossible. (Learn more about components and what a component content management system even is.)

Eliminate Redundancy

Once an organization replaces linear documents with self-contained components of content, eliminating duplicates is possible.A graphic that shows how components should be reduced by eliminating all duplicates

The exact matches are easy to identify and eliminate, but similar components take effort to evaluate. With similar components, it is vital to determine if the differences are necessary. A necessary difference, however small, justifies the additional component.

However, many (if not most) of the differences between similar components are superficial. Often, two writers will communicate the same idea using different words. When the idea and the intent of the components are the same, those components should be consolidated.

Reuse Content (Not Copy and Paste)

After an organization has componentized and consolidated its content, there will be gaps in places where duplicates were eliminated.

That is a good thing.

The third and final step of normalization is to fill those gaps by reusing components.

In the context of a single source of truth, to reuse means to link or reference, not copy and paste.

To copy and paste is to undo all the progress made in step 2 (eliminating redundancy).

The linking strategy is an essential discussion that an organization should have, mapping the linking plan out in a visual way that everyone can see is beneficial. There are many “right ways” to do this, but there are also wrong ways.

A poor linking strategy will collapse under the weight of its interdependence. Content management will become undone, and the organization will be back where it started.

A clear linking strategy is crucial to maintaining a system that avoids duplicate content.

So, we know that a single source of truth is an elevated state of being for your company knowledge and that this state is one that promotes consistency (we’ll return to this), but what if we can’t attain a perfect single source of truth?

Not everyone who meditates achieves zen, and not all who normalize their content achieve a perfect single source of truth.

In practice, a componentized topic written in a technical document should work in any setting, be it a pop-up in a walkthrough app, the FAQ at the bottom of a website, or the response for a customer-facing chatbot.

Unfortunately, we often construct documentation in a way that prevents this seamless reuse. Instead, it requires that we tweak or even re-write for the different output/publishing scenarios.

Is a Single Source of Truth Possible?

A perfect SSOT ecosystem is entirely self-contained, every point of data exists once, and there is a fully developed linking strategy.

Is it possible? Yes.

Is it realistic? Not for most organizations.

So what should those organizations do?

A Single-Source System

When we talk about a single source in the modern workplace, we are rarely actually talking about that zen-like state. Countless articles appear in business journals talking about a single-source system. These articles describe a system that enables the benefits of that zen-like state—even if the company hasn’t normalized their content to perfection.

A single-source system maintains many of the SSOT characteristics. It is a system that:

  • Is component-based (not page, document, or file-based)
  • Enables reuse via linking across departments or the entire company
  • Manages company knowledge centrally

single source systemThese three characteristics are crucial. Often, content systems will claim to be single-source systems, but they don’t enable componentization of content or even proper reuse management. These systems fall short of providing the bare minimum required to claim this status. They aren’t single-source systems.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the third characteristic. “Manages company knowledge centrally” is simple to articulate and simple in theory, but somehow, this effort falls apart in practice.

Despite the adoption of a single-source system, companies regularly find content silos popping up, continuing to cause knowledge gaps throughout the organization, and then they find themselves right back where they started.

Why are silos so difficult to eradicate?

Centralizing company knowledge is difficult to maintain because content naturally collects at its creation point. Too many systems allow creators to construct content in an editor and then upload the content to the system.

This workflow isn’t sustainable. And it is why many single-source systems fail. They enable good practice, but they don’t limit the harmful practice. What works better is a system where content is created in the same system in which it is managed.

A Great Single-Source System Centralizes the Process

A great single-source system doesn’t just centralize the management of content; it also centralizes the process by which that content is developed.

Most content demands at least four lifecycle stages:

  • Plan
  • Write
  • Edit
  • Publish

A great single-source system allows users from across the organization to work on the same content within the same system.lightbulb representing the planning phase of content development

Content strategists can plan based on what content already exists within the system. Rather than duplicating or re-writing, they can strategically reuse existing material.

Planning and reusing within the system improves accuracy and dramatically reduces the amount of time spent creating new materials.

pencil and paper representing the writing phase of content developmentIf this single-source system includes a content editor, authors can focus on writing new components of content to fill in the gaps of knowledge. These new components can then be reused going forward.

Thanks to reuse, reviewing and editing content takes less time. Reviewing is one of the tasks that can often undermine a single-source system.glasses icon which represents the review phase of content development

The system must enable collaborative reviews directly within the system so that content is not scattered and disorganized through outdated review cycles like printed PDFs or emails. A great single-source system should keep everyone working from the same material to avoid questions about the version history of the content.

Paper airplane representing the publishing of contentFinally, a great single-source system enables publishing straight from the system. To maintain the content’s integrity, the system must be able to publish to multiple channels without the source content leaving the system.

Multi-channel publishing is the ability to turn a single deliverable into multiple, unique outputs without manually formatting the outputs.

Let’s look at this from start to finish. A great single-source system should allow you to have an idea and then create, review, edit, and publish that idea from the same system. The publishing should be push-button simple without manually adjusting the formatting for different output formats.

These are the hallmarks of a great single-source system:

  • All content exists in one place.
  • All content development and review occurs in that one place.
  • All publishing occurs from that one place.

When you work from a single-source system, you write once and publish everywhere.

What now?

Understanding a single source of truth is a crucial first step. It arms you with the knowledge to make an informed decision for your organization.

But how do you select a system to help you reach your goals?

There are many great tools out there, but we believe that easyDITA is the best tool on the market for true start-to-finish content development.

If you’d like to learn more or see easyDITA in action, request a free trial or demo. We are excited to show you how easyDITA can make your company’s knowledge the foundation for your company’s growth.

A better way to manage technical documents

John Baker

John loves big ideas and answering questions. As the Content Marketing Manager for easyDITA, his interests come together through the creation of videos, white papers, articles and other resources aimed to empower others with knowledge about structured content.

Outside of work, you can find John spending time with his wife and three kids, reading most of an old book, breathing too much lacquer in his wood-shop, or cheering for Tottenham Hotspur FC.
John Baker

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