Some time has passed since I attended this year's Intelligent Content Conference (ICC2013) in San Francisco. At this year's gathering, I delivered a featured presentation as part of the closing plenary session called "Professional Publishing: Intelligent eBooks for Working Professionals" (the slides are embedded below). This proved to be an interesting topic because it touched upon the very practical question of how to create genuinely useful eBooks for working professionals. It was also an interesting topic because it opened the door to a discussion about what professionals really do and therefore what they really need from the information reference tools that figure so prominently in their day-to-day work. And delivering the presentation proved to be an interesting challenge because it would seek to tackle all this, and incorporate a demonstration of a working solution, in thirty minutes or less.
In setting the stage for this presentation, we start by shining a light on a specialized community of professionals who spend almost every minute of every day interacting with voluminous documents and doing so at a level of detail and precision that borders on the unbelievable. These professionals provide help to institutional customers who need to align their business practices with an increasingly byzantine array of regulations and laws. When working with customers, these specialists have become accustomed to lugging large boxes filled with tomes so that they can consult various acts, regulations and cases. And to make matters worse, these specialists also find themselves spending a lot of time corresponding with colleagues within their firm and across their industry to establish responses to challenges as they arise. It is ultimately a story about a community of professionals who have clearly reached the limit of what can be done when working with hardcopy documents.
It should be noted that there are numerous professions that are struggling with the challenges of handling complex collections of reference material. Tax professionals and lawyers are two obvious communities with a vested interest in whatever help technology can provide. But they are not alone. Healthcare professionals, aircraft operators and mechanics, and an ever-expanding array of government regulators all live with these challenges. Actually the list continues more or less without end.
As usual, I also managed to invoke a broader context for the presentation by putting forward the fundamental question of what is a professional in the first place? And again as usual, I pulled up a rather baffling historical reference. In this case it was a quotation from a piece by Sidney and Beatrice Webb from the New Statesman in April of 1917 - which is about as good a definition of a profession as you will find anywhere:
“A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.”
In order to add a sense of foreboding to the presentation, I warned the audience that we would be returning to the concept of a profession later in the session.
The Pathway to a Solution
As the centerpiece of the presentation, I introduced several of the key information handling requirements that working professionals have. Among the most important of these is the fact that professionals do not work alone. The organizations within which professionals operate, at the team, firm or association levels, play a vital role in creating, managing and evolving the knowledge base that the professionals work with and to which they are held accountable. Whatever solution is ultimately adopted for providing a digital alternative to the portable library it will need to align with, and facilitate the activities of, these nest organizational units within which professionals operate.
It was at this point in the presentation that I introduced a colleague, André Dubé of Professional eBooks, who has been battering away at these challenges for some time. I have known André for over ten years, and in our regular encounters we had repeatedly observed that we were tackling the very same problem - just from different directions. Many of my past projects could rightly be positioned as trying to put into place the content management and information publishing solutions to help professionals within organizations structure and use their knowledge resources. André was at the same time working with major publishers who were seeking to revolutionize how they publish professional reference information as a service to these communities. In both cases, the centerpiece of any credible solution was the introduction of a genuinely capable eBook environment.
Such an eBook environment would be able to work with sometimes painfully large texts and therefore it would provide powerful search and navigation tools. Such an eBook environment would also connect the users into nested communities, or circles, of fellow practitioners with the highest level of this hierarchy being occupied by the profession itself. It is at this highest level that the professional body of knowledge is created, passed on, controlled, and evolved all through the contributions of working professionals.
One of the key elements to emerge in these discussions, and in the project experiences feeding into them, was the fact that the professional publishing lifecycle does not fit into the relatively rudimentary publishing models that have been put into place by Amazon and Apple for addressing mainstream retail publishing. Another side to a credible solution for professional publishing would therefore be the ability to integrate into, and to evolve with, the information handling practices that operate within different professional disciplines.
Back to the Big Picture
As I usually do, I went out of my way to underline why it is so important that we get the solution for professional publishing right. In a turn that many no doubt found bewildering, and that was made all the more bewildering by the haste with which it was delivered in so short a presentation window, I drew a line to the recent financial meltdown. One of the root causes behind the meltdown, and one that get little if any attention, was the absolute breakdown in professional practice within a variety of inter-dependent professions: accountants, auditors, risk analysts, lawyers, financial advisers, regulators, and the list goes on, again almost without end and even including stockbrokers and business executives. A professional publishing solution would, if implemented well, make the professional body of knowledge, including essential codes of practice, immediately and continuously available to working professionals. Going further, an ambitious solution to professional publishing would even make it all but impossible for errant professionals to claim, as they did with such alcarity in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, ignorance.
A professional publishing solution can ultimately make sure that practicing professionals have access to all of the information needed to do their jobs well and to be held to a very high standard of accountability. This may explain why the adoption of solutions to this problem has received only exploratory interest up until now within many professions. But a marked change in public expectations, however, has made accountability fashionable once again, as it was during the days of Sidney and Beatrice Webb who we quoted earlier. And going beyond the shifting sands of fashion, we can observe that the growing specialization of the economy, and of society, will make the effective operation and accountability of professions a central element upon which we will either realize success or collectively participate in ongoing failure.
This is why getting a solution to professional publishing is important. And this is why the effective deployment of content, and of content technologies, is so vitally important. And ultimately this explains why I have declared an all-out war on the various sources of under-performance (of which there are many) in how organizations and communities plan, create, manage and leverage content. This is what I mean when I say that it is time that we set about "Breaking Bad Content".