Content Strategy and the Web Matrix
The Fate of Books

Book Review: The Content Pool by Alan J. Porter

Swimming Pool

I have just finished reading The Content Pool by my colleague Alan J. Porter and published by XML Press. As has been observed by others, it is a highly readable book that takes the reader through a series of discussions about the hidden asset that flows through the veins of every organization - its content

On a number of occasions over the last couple of years Alan and I have found ourselves on stage at various conferences usually on a panel assembled to discuss the business considerations that should be borne in mind when planning new approaches to creating, managing and publishing content. On these occasions, Alan can always be counted upon to bring observations and recommendations that repeatedly strike me as well-founded and imminently reasonable. On more than a few occasions I have found myself thinking "Hmmm...I hadn't thought of that" or "Oooh...I like that point...I am going to use that one." In reading Alan's book, The Content Pool, I did find similar phrases bubbling up at regular intervals.

The book itself starts with a simple enough question: What does your company do? It is a simple question that is frequently much harder to answer than you would think. But it is a question that needs to be asked, and answers need to be regularly attempted, if your company hopes to stay in business. And it opens a topic that is more than a little germane to the follow-on question: What content should you be producing and how should you be getting it to your customers?

Just as he does in our conference panels, Alan repeatedly steers the conversation back to these types of basic, and often hard, questions. How does your content help your customers? How are the content needs of your customers changing? How can you produce this content in a way that will save your organization money? How can you leverage your content assets to be better at what you do? How can you use content to make money? When it is tempting to become enamoured with this or that new technology or to become an evangelist for this or that ascendant standard, these questions are a useful, and in some cases essential, corrective.

The Content Pool

The book opens a series of windows onto topics that organizations do need to think about if they ever hope to get better at planning, creating, managing and delivering high-value content. And many of the perspectives provided really do address content as content - the words and media resources that people will use to get things done (things like buy a product, install a product, solve a problem with a product, come up with a never-before-imagined use for a product...). This is highly valuable and especially for those of us who make it our business to dig into the content technologies and standards that will hopefully make things better for everyone. Our only hope for making content technologies progressively better is to be re-introduced, at regular intervals, to thinking about content as content and to asking these fundamental business questions.

In fact, I would be inclined to encourage everyone working on content technologies and standards to read Alan's book. If nothing else it will equip them with some key concepts that will help them to sell what they have to offer to business executives who are much less interested in how the content technologies work than they are in what difference they will make to their business both today and in the future.  

And there is another reason that I enjoyed Alan's book. The short vignettes and recollections that Alan includes in the book underscore an important fact. Alan is a practitioner who has been working in the content industry for a long time. Most of the roles and activities (indeed probably all of them) that are touched on in the book are roles and activities that Alan has performed over the years. These include being a technical communicator, a manager of technical communication departments, an implementer of new content technologies and strategies, a participant on standards bodies, and a consultant helping many different organizations. He is therefore speaking from real experience. And much of this experience was earned in the trenches of aerospace technical documentation where many of the concepts that are getting more and more attention these days (single-sourcing, topic orientation, intelligent graphics, automated publishing, multi-channel delivery...) were often given their first trials on a production scale. The vignettes and recollections help to make the book as easily readable as it is but they also plant valuable seeds. 

So I do recommend this book to my colleagues in the industry and I do so for the reasons I have traced out above. For those who are looking at their organization's content for the first time, this book will help you to consider all of the bases that you will need to cover. For those who have been around the industry for a long time, this book helps to bring some very basic, and often forgotten, considerations back into view. 

Nearing the end of the book, Alan tackles the Technology Question (a topic near and dear to my heart, naturally). He offers a pithy summary of a view of technology in general and content technologies in particular:

"People, Culture, Sociology, Process, and Solutions first - Systems last."

In being someone who specializes in content technologies, and does so somewhat obsessively, I can offer up a qualified agreement with this sentiment. I agree but I do have caveats that I would insist upon. Most important among these is the observation that "technologies are not neutral" and one of the real challenges in introducing new technologies, and perhaps especially new content technologies, is that they unleash new possibilities. And these new possibilities change things. This is why, in my own experience and as has been observed by others, managing the introduction of new technologies is so difficult to get right. And this is why I think it is problematic to only consider systems (the technology) last. Or perhaps I should say that once you get around to introducing new technologies into your domain you should be ready to revisit many of your previous assumptions about people, culture, sociology, process and solutions. Introducing new technologies into an organization quickly puts forces in motion that we need to recognize as highly complex, and I mean this in a relatively formal way (as in complexity theory).

How we cross the line between the business of content and the technology we deploy is one of the key challenges that every organization will face. It is an area where, as an industry, we could definitely improve. And we are not alone in this - the management of technology is one of the core challenges facing the world. It is also one of our greatest sources of hope if we can get the interaction between strategy and technology-enabled execution right. Although he does not delve into this rabbit-hole, and probably wisely, I am reasonably confident that Alan would agree with me on this one.  

Finally, my copy of The Content Pool is a special edition produced for distribution at the Intelligent Content 2012 conference (where Alan and I in fact found ourselves together on a panel). In being a special edition it includes a supplemental chapter on The Business Case for Innovation. I find this notable as I think it highlights something that is possible to do if you have intelligent content resources - and that is produce highly targetted renditions of your information products. Richard Hamilton at the XML Press is practicing what many of his authors are preaching in that he produces the books from XML and, consequently, can produce event-specific versions relatively easily. I am hoping to see more event specific books as a way to have genuinely useful content to take away from the events. Certainly I think this is infinitely better than getting another printed copy of the event proceedings.


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Marcia Riefer Johnston

Thoughtful, enticing review, Joe. I saw Alan's book at the conference, and I'm wishing now that it had jumped into my bag. Shoot, I almost bought it based on the cover alone.

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