In the wake of a very informative gathering of content professionals at Intelligent Content 2011, I have enumerated 16 specific trends and topics that came up during the course of the event. How I came to 16 entries is probably best left unexplained. It is quite possible that some of these only came up in my mind but even so I consider them to have been prompted by the presentations and discussions that occurred in Palm Springs, where an unusual amount of rain fell and where the desert became unusually green.
Tapping the Knowledge
For an increasing number of organizations, the push is on to reach the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) so that their knowledge can be tapped directly and efficiently. Many documentation processes struggle through contorted processes, sometimes reverting to paper copies and manual re-entry, in order to get the inputs of SMEs. Compelling options now exist for engaging SMEs in ways that allow them to contribute content, or provide revisions to it, using familiar tools such as MS Word and online collaboration tools (such as structured Wikis - see the expeDITA Content Collaboration Tool Project).
New Look Tech Docs
The “iPad aesthetic”, if we can call it that, is cascading through the world of technical publishing. The net effect is that Tech Docs today need to measure up to a new standard. Put even more bluntly, the technical publications we produce, whether for print or online interaction, need to look better than they have in the past. This takes many forms, not least of which is the expectation that documentation will be richly supported by video, audio and animation. For those things that are to be disseminated in hard copy, print quality expectations have become, perhaps ironically, more important. So on top of everything else, technical publishers have to up their game on even those things that they have always done.
Content in the Middle
As Rahel Bailie pointed out, the content between the angle brackets is of primary importance. This was echoed wherein familiar themes received renewed attention – the understanding of the audience, ever enriched through analytics, the words that are chosen, and the types of discussions that are fostered. Editorial skills, it turns out, seem to be growing more important – not less. While the emphasis may be shifting away from the fineries of punctuation, the role of editors in ensuring the accuracy and usefulness of the messages is being reinforced in a world where users have lots of ways to express their displeasure. IBM described some A/B testing that graphically illustrated the benefits of edited content versus alternatives with these benefits translating into serious amounts of money.
The Social Dimension
As was driven home by Scott Abel (The Content Wrangler), social media elevates the level of engagement of users – and this is as important for users of tech docs as anyone else. This is even true for aircraft mechanics (a documentation environment normally associated with musty traditionalism) who in the past have only be permitted to collaborate through a mixture of painfully formal feedback forms and completely informal, and uncontrolled, forms of exchange that include post-its, highlighters, and water-cooler chats. The more eyes on content, and the more feedback, the better and social media provides us with ways to facilitate this process in a way that can be monitored and measured. In even the most stringently controlled environments, this represents an important step forward in the documentation process. On a more prosaic level, social media activity helps makes the information more accessible – with discussions becoming a living form of index. Social media activity also helps to highlight where investments should go – as in what content is being used and discussed and what is being ignored (rightly or wrongly).
Although it has been on the horizon for a long time now, the reality seems to have arrived – the mobile device has emerged as the catalyst for change across the entire publishing spectrum. One collateral impact of the explosive growth in mobile devices is the fact that publishing processes now need to support “absolute personalization” – reflecting the exact context of users including where they happen to be at a given moment. The diversity in mobile devices, in form factor, operating systems and App behaviour demands that publishers produce outputs that work as well as possible on each and every platform scenario. All this probably explains why content owners are starting to think more seriously about intelligent content – content that can be managed efficiently and dynamically delivered to an unlimited range of targets using high-precision automation. What is becoming inescapably clear is that without intelligent content, and intelligent content processes, publishers simply cannot respond to the market chances happening around them.
From Pubs to Apps
With the mandate to go mobile, publishers need to explore all the ways available to them for delivering mobile content. On one end of the spectrum is making sure that there is a mobile-optimized expression of your online content. Another avenue is being provided by eBooks and by the various ways in which they can be enhanced – dependent upon the behaviour of different eReader devices and applications. The hoped for stabilization of ePub standard support amongst eReader devices and applications should make this a very practical venue for many of the publications that institutions produce. Then there are Mobile Apps that are developed expressly for providing the most carefully managed interactive experience. App development clearly offers the surest way to optimize the users experience although this also comes with the greatest demand for investment and maintenance effort. As was observed, many ventures into Apps for publishing do not go very far beyond the behaviour of already existing eReader Apps and in these cases the rationale for the investment comes quickly into question. For a number of scenarios, including several discussed at the event, the mobile App is substantially superior to all alternatives – providing a highly-tuned experience that provides a unique blend of persistent portability and online interactivity.
With the growing pressure on organizations to shorten product cycles and continuously adapt their published documentation, it is not surprising that there is a growing recognition that we need for all of our tools to work together. This is one of the reasons why open content standards are never far from any discussion of intelligent content. This is also why we are seeing increasing effort from the vendor community to pull all the pieces together so that organizations can move quickly to a more integrated, and more intelligent, posture. With the emergence of the mobile device as the must-have target for publishing processes, new pieces have been added to the integration laundry list. One observation that can be made, especially when some people express frustration about needing to wait for the vendors to solve all the integration challenges, is that if it was easy we would have solved all the problems years ago. But it is not easy. Not easy at all.
The work involved in producing integrated environments falls, invariably, on the vendor community with this made up of technology vendors, solution integrators, and consultants. The technology vendors fall into two groups: niche product providers and the larger providers of integrated offerings. Niche product providers should feel a compulsion to align their offerings with key open standards so that their products can be integrated with the products of other vendors. The larger vendors who are working on increasingly integrated solution offerings should also feel a similar compulsion to align with open standards so that their customers can invest with the confidence that they can extend and adapt their investments as circumstances demand. The larger vendors have a special role to play in that they are in a position to demonstrate the type of streamlined end-to-end functionality that the investment in intelligent content should make possible. There are also solution integrators and consultants that organizations can engage in order to leverage prior experience. As in all rapidly changing marketplaces, there is the challenge of finding integrators and consultants that have actually been down the path of implementation before and ideally several times before. Integrators and consultants will often claim such experience and some will even undertake some reading to support their claims, but organizations would be well advised to approach the vendor community using a formal procurement process in order to verify that the support they engage genuinely reflects the knowledge that the vendor community can potentially provide.
It would seem obvious that if an organization is going to invest in the intelligence of their content assets that they would take the additional step of making sure that people can find those assets. In fact, it is becoming increasingly understood that making content intelligent in large part means investing in the conceptual integrity and granular application of high quality metadata within the content. The task of making the context of content explicit, which is the central role of metadata, is receiving heightened attention and with it the core building blocks that enable high quality metadata – namely the development and deployment of taxonomies and thesauri. These resources make it possible to categorize content in a way that is coherent across sometimes wildly diverse communities and to then facilitate the discovery of published resources within even more wildly diversified communities. Attending to the language being used by users, as measured in search behaviour and social media interactions, has been flagged as an important step in planning and preparing taxonomies and thesauri as well as the content assets themselves. This is really an extrapolation of the core principle of communication – attend to your audience and their needs, and then communicate accordingly to achieve your ends.
As Alexander Pope once said, presciently, “See mystery to mathematics fly”, and we are indeed seeing this phenomenon more and more as content analytics continues to evolve and become ever more central to the business of content. The design of content metrics, and the integration of these metrics with business parameters, is the order of the day. As tools improve and as they are integrated more tightly with management and editorial processes, we are seeing fundamental changes happening in the environments in which content evolves and content creators operate. At the highest level, there is an increasing awareness that content strategies must be grounded on firm empirical grounds and must put into place processes and mechanisms that can react as feedback dictates. The near centrality of metrics in all aspects of the content business is now a fact of life. This is daunting in many ways for those who design and create content but it also offers the opportunity for immediate feedback and this can be a good thing when compared to the manual being sent into the world without any sense of how it is being used or indeed if it is being used at all.
There was a heartening amount of discussion of business fundamentals at the event. It is heartening in that it illustrated the fact that content strategists and managers are actively engaging business executives in discussions about how investments in intelligent content, and intelligent content processes, can pay off. These discussions led to expressions of interest in business case examples – and in learning about how people in similar circumstances championed their planned investments. This has been a long-standing desire. What is new however is the fact that with the above-mentioned emergence of content analytics it is increasingly possible to frame business case justifications in terms other than cost reduction. It is in fact critical that investments in content intelligence be grounded primarily in making concrete contributions to improved business performance. The ability to design and implement fine-grained measurements can help the champions of change to demonstrate how investments in content intelligence will increase sales, improve customer loyalty, and streamline sustainment activities. What we can say confidently today, and they we have only been able to say under our breath in the past, is that, in this brave new world of the digital enterprise, content means business.
Engaging UX Design
One of the more positive trends of late is one that sees people with a strong UX design background becoming involved in, or even taking the lead role on, what would historically be traditional content management projects. Derek Olson’s presentation at Intelligent Content 2011, like his presentation at Intelligent Content 2009, illustrated the point perfectly (see Foraker Labs). A strong UX design sense ensures that the project focus falls squarely on the users, their context and their needs. Meshing this design sense with a grounded appreciation for the underlying content disciplines, whether that entails the engagement of taxonomists or XML processing experts, ensures that the user experiences being sought can in fact be satisfied on a sustainable basis. It is the fusion of engaging UX design with strong content processes that hits the mark. We are reminded that ultimately a strong user experience is the visible result of a total system working effectively.
Many people could be heard talking about the merits of bringing together people from a range of backgrounds – UX, design, marketing, content strategy, software development, XML technologies including DITA, content management, publishing, management / business, mobile Apps and others. It is what Rachel Lovinger (in a series of posts about the conference including a Wrap-up Summary) has aptly called a “marriage of disciplines”. Just as a diverse mix of content and technology components must come together to make an intelligent content solution, so the implementation team will need to assemble a similar range of diverse backgrounds and roles. One of the really valuable things about the Intelligent Content Conference is that it helps build exactly these types of disciplinary bridges. I could be heard declaring that it was “good therapy” for me, as solution architect who is regularly responsible for the upheavals impacting content creators and users, to spend time with people specializing in other parts of the content business.
Content Strategists Unite
Although it is a moniker that has been in circulation for a decade, one of the more visible trends was the fact that so many people at the conference are formally titled as Content Strategists. As I have been touched upon previously (see About Content Strategy), content strategy has been emerging as a keystone discipline that is being called upon to mediate amongst the many demands being placed on content owners and their content assets. Also as I have touched upon previously, there is a lot being fit under that one title. Ideally a senior content strategist would be able to provide overarching guidance based on experience in management, business, content processes, open content standards and intelligent content technologies. The truth is that there will not be many people who can legitimately cover this full range of expectations. In a more likely scenario the Content Strategist, who approaches the integration challenge from the content side, will be paired with a Content Solution Architect, who approaches the integration challenge from the technology side.
A Hunger for Learning
There was quite a bit of discussion at Intelligent Content 2011 about the pressing need for more substantive learning opportunities to be made available to people entering into the brave new world of intelligent content. As is touched upon above in the reflections on integration matters and disciplinary convergence, there is a set of knowledge areas wherein people should be able to advance their competence. Specifically, people would ideally be able to able to develop a tactile knowledge of content strategy, content management solutions, publishing processes, open standards, as well as emergent content development and deployment methodologies. Unfortunately, not only does such an integrated learning opportunity not exist but there are a limited number of educational offerings associated with any of the constituent components. This is true whether we are looking at what is commercially available or we are turning our eyes towards those institutions of higher education who currently offer programs in professional or technical communication. Events like Intelligent Content 2011 are certainly a step in the right direction but more is needed – much more.
An Emerging Community
Following on the general agreement that it would be a good thing to facilitate the ongoing marriage of disciplines surrounding intelligent content, peoples’ minds naturally turned to the merits of forming a community of practitioners. Within this community, these exchanges could continue. Although this was endorsed as meritorious, it should be recalled that there have been, and continue to be, a large number of communities formed around similar, if not identical, ends. OASIS, AIIM, Mike2.0, JBoye, DITAUsers, CIDM, CMPros, TIMAF, STC, the Content Wrangler community, and the list goes on. Within any one community there is always the danger of “community fatigue” and this can also be spawned by an over-abundance of communities. Nevertheless the impulse to connect with other practitioners remains a very good one. The success of the Intelligent Content 2011 conference does reinforce the merits behind this impulse. One question that lingers is what has been missing to date from this panoply of content communities? Another is what could be done that would address this gap?
- The Fusion of Business Analysis and Technical Communications
- The Road to Intelligent Content
- The Business of Intelligent Content
- Intelligent Content and the ePublishing Revolution
- Intelligent Content and the Future of Technical Communications
- About Content Strategy
- Intelligent Aerospace Content Strategies
- Intelligent Content 2010
- Seven Steps to Intelligent Content
- The Challenge of Managing Intelligent Content
- The Emergence of Intelligent Content
- Content in the Wild
- Connecting with Content
- Structured Information Systems
- Managing Information
- On the Management of Content
- The Truth about Content
- The Trials and Tribulations of Content Management