A Short Primer on Intelligent Content
January 25, 2014
The time of year has arrived that usually prompts me to think about the relatively obscure topic of “intelligent content”. It is prompted in part by the prolonged effects of a Canadian winter. It is also prompted in each of the last six years by the approach of the Intelligent Content Conference (@ICCSJ2014). With an eye on that approaching event, and given that the range of speakers and attendees at ICC will be wider than ever, I thought I would assemble a short primer on Intelligent Content. In doing so, I will tap into articles and posts that I have written on the topic over the last few years.
Perhaps the best place to start would be an article entitled A Practical Introduction to Intelligent Content that appeared in the April 2013 edition of TCWorld Magazine.
This was an interesting undertaking because they specifically asked me (OK, yes, they pleaded with me) to approach the subject in a way that would not assume any prior acquaintance with the acronyms we are so endeared with using. And with TCWorld being associated with Tekom, the exceptionally energetic and well-run European Association for Technical Communication, I created an image in my mind of a reader who was a German business person with absolutely no patience for technology hype. This was quite helpful because it inclined me to approach the topic of intelligent content by means of a business scenario. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether I succeeded in this undertaking or not.
At one point in this article, I offered a simplified definition of intelligent content and it is one that I have been warming to ever since. Certainly it is less daunting than some of the other definitions I have offered in the past. Here it is:
In very simple terms, intelligent content is content that has been prepared using open standards so as to be both portable and processable. In being portable, intelligent content can move between organizations and platforms. Portable content, for example, can be shared across a joint venture and be integrated from many sources to produce a single, authoritative representation of a product. In being processable, intelligent content can be processed by software applications that support a wide range of activities. Processable content can be analyzed, searched, filtered, rendered and reconfigured in an unlimited number of ways. Intelligent content, in being both portable and processable, can be used to address the types of demands that are becoming commonplace today.
And then from the closing of the article:
Intelligent content is not something mystical or futuristic. Intelligent content is simply a grounded approach to making content resources portable and processable so that organizations can integrate and automate their activities efficiently and effectively. It is really a call to bring automation and engineering discipline into the business of content so that documentation processes can play a full and constructive role in the marketplace of tomorrow.
This closing did place an emphasis on an important fact - that intelligent content is very much informed by the escalating need to apply technology effectively to the business of content. I also make an explicit association between the effective deployment of technology and the application of engineering discipline to the design of content and to the design of the processes that will operate on that content. This brings us to the notion of Content Engineering which will be the subject of my talk at ICC San Jose 2014 (10:45 February 27, 2014) and which is the subject of my contribution to the forthcoming book The Language of Content Strategy. I also contributed a short essay to the ICC2014 conference site on the topic of Content Engineering and Content Strategy (I have included a copy of this essay in a comment below).
There was one part of the article which was added pretty much because there needed to be at least one piece of artwork to enliven my usual wall of text. In this, I did not really choose one that fit with my grounded approach to the topic. Even though it didn’t fit all that well into the context of that article, in that it was probably a bit too abstract, it remains an illustration that merits a little discussion. It does open the doorway to exploring other aspects of intelligent content and even some dark corners.
This diagram does foreground what I had offered as the core definition of intelligent content – content that has been enriched using open standards so that it is optimally portable and processable. This diagram also highlights some other things. It does distill, into an abstract representation, the factors in play within the business scenario I was using to contextualize the concept of intelligent content: A global business environment where change is the order of the day; Knowledge assets that are fully documented and broadly inter-disciplinary; and, Technology that is moving ever more quickly towards being both open and extensible -- meaning that technology investments are now something that can, and must, change with the marketplace.
This diagram achieves one more thing, I would submit, in that it identifies familiar areas of enterprise investment, Knowledge Management, Business Systems, and Content Management, where Intelligent Content is in fact an essential ingredient to investment success. KM is largely a management endeavour that seeks to leverage knowledge assets for business gain. The chief stumbling block for KM has been that its engagement of technology has been manifestly unsuccessful, careening between addled over-investment and naïve technology avoidance. Intelligent Content is the missing ingredient that can give KM initiatives some practical traction. Something similar can be said of Business Systems (I see that an acronym will not help here) where technology has historically underperformed when deployed to achieve business goals. With increasingly open and extensible technology available to organizations, Intelligent Content has a growing role to play in this mainstream activity as it can be used to connect business objectives and requirements to sustainable and evolving technology implementations. Finally we see Content Management (CM) which is best understood as the application of technology to knowledge assets in a way that minimizes costs and maximizes benefits. CM investments have historically struggled to achieve business relevance in part because they have not, until more recently, really focused on managing content assets instead of larger information resources and document artifacts. Again Intelligent Content introduces an ingredient that can make investments in CM infrastructure much more effective.
This brings us to a perspective on Intelligent Content that is often missed as specific discussions focus on localized applications of intelligent content in say marketing or customer support. The real weight behind Intelligent Content, which is something that this diagram communicates ominously, is the fact that it can be used as a key tool for integrating business, knowledge and technology resources in ways that make a strategic difference to how well an enterprise performs. This is what I sometimes call “Strategic Content Management” but that is a material for another day.
The strategic nature of Intelligent Content was something I sought to bring out in my whitepaper on The Emergence of Intelligent Content which I wrote as “pre-conference reading” for the first Intelligent Content Conference (ICC 2009). In its conclusion, this whitepaper tries to make the strategic nature of Intelligent Content more tangible with an illustration:
When a single topic of content can find itself simultaneously guiding application behaviour within an enterprise system and informing a field service technician equipped with a hand-held device, then it is clear that intelligent content has arrived. When this same content has been authorized by a duly designated executive who reviewed and approved that content in the form of formal document, then we get the sense that something quite new is happening. And when we note that the approval of this document occurred within a collaborative online environment wherein key business processes are accessed and traversed using an interactive visualization that selectively exposes the underlying content details and metrics, we catch a glimpse of the magnitude of the changes occurring under our feet. The domain of people and business transactions, through the auspices of intelligent content, is beginning to directly inform, guide and control the domain of technology and this opens the door to new levels of organizational agility. As Dorothy noted to her little dog Toto, we get the feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Another reference that people interested in Intelligent Content might want to check out is an article that Ann Rockley and I co-authored for the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) Bulletin. “An Intelligent Content Strategy for the Enterprise” (ASIS&T Bulletin Dec 2010 / Jan 2011) was an interesting collaboration because Ann and I come to Intelligent Content from quite different backgrounds and therefore we approach the topic from different angles. The article also provides two cases studies, one from each of us, which illustrate intelligent content in action within very different environments.
I would also point readers to some of the posts that I have used to explore different dimensions of Intelligent Content. As several of these posts were expressly written for, or about, past Intelligent Content conferences, they may serve as a useful warm-up for the event itself. And I am very much looking forward to continuing the discussion...
- The Emergence of Intelligent Content (Sets out the key concepts and considerations)
- The Truth about Content (Establishes some foundational concepts)
- The Challenge of Managing Intelligent Content
- Seven Steps to Intelligent Content
- Intelligent Content 2010 (Reflections on ICC 2010)
- Intelligent Aerospace Content Strategies
- Intelligent Content and the Future of Technical Communications
- Intelligent Content and the ePublishing Resolution
- The Business of Intelligent Content
- Intelligent Content in the Green Desert (Reflections on ICC 2011)
- The Road to Intelligent Content (Further reflections on ICC2011)
- Professional Publishing (Reflections on my talk at ICC2013)
Content Engineering and Content Strategy
Short Essay posted to the Intelligent Content Conference 2014 site.
Content Engineering and Content Strategy share one very important aspect: both depend upon a direct line-of-sight onto the business goals set for an organization. They both approach the question of how content, and the attendant content processes, can be leveraged for maximum benefit. And as the respective names suggest, they approach the question from two different angles.
Content Strategy focuses on what content an organization should create and why. Considerations of what content and why rightly become a quest to understand the world of the stakeholders, with this including management and customers, and what it is they need to be able to do with that content.
From the other side, that of technology and process, Content Engineering focuses on the how. Considerations of how content will be created, delivered and used also introduce requirements for the content itself and how it will be structured and profiled so that it can support the full range of uses to which it will be put. The two areas of practice converge, then, on the content itself. They are, in a manner of speaking, two sides of the same coin.
So this raises a question. How useful will a content strategy be, or how sustainable, if it is not realized through a working solution that reflects the best practices in content engineering? The stark answer to that question is “not very.”
What happens to a content strategy that bristles with great ideas about content driving new levels of customer engagement and referral, and that may even spark measurable spikes in product sales, but that depends on throngs of content professionals and small armies of application developers, all toiling long and hard to keep it going? It collapses and usually quite quickly. And this point will be driven home the first time the sponsoring organization needs to improve the bottom-line and the blade of cost-cutting sweeps through.
The point of all this is that Content Strategy does not subsume questions of implementation and this side of the content question falls to Content Engineering. They are two very different practices and, as a matter of good governance, it is in fact important that they remain distinct and separate.
It is also important that they also converge on the singular topic of how the content should be created so that it can satisfy all the content uses that have been envisioned. So it is that we can see how the two practices of Content Strategy and Content Engineering can be fostered and aligned. We can also see how they can interact in a productive give-and-take that leads to practical solution implementations and that this is really the only sustainable way forward. We can see in fact that the two practices need each other and that together they can make for a formidable force that organizations need to take seriously.
Posted by: Joe Gollner | January 25, 2014 at 12:12 PM