Each year, I select an idea and proceed to pummel it relentlessly in a series of presentations, posts, and tweets. Last year it was the idea of Integrated Content. In 2016, it was the idea of Content 4.0.
This inquiry was prompted by a number of concurrent discussions that have been exploring the relationship between the work of technical communicators and the emergent concept of Industry 4.0, also referred to at times as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). As I would, I took up the challenge and carried it further than was probably wise. Nonetheless, I am hoping there is merit in summarizing this inquiry so that we can consider for a while what the implications will be for those who work in the business of communication.
The obligatory starting point would be to set out the four stages of industrial evolution. From this we can then look at other concepts (Web, Content, Information, and Technology) and see whether similar evolutionary stages can be discerned. We can also explore whether or not there are forms of interaction or influence between what is inescapably happening in the industrial sphere and these other concepts.
Accepting for the moment that history itself never plays by, or exhibits, anything analogous to stages or levels, and that it is dangerous to think about things in terms of forward momentum (aka progress), we do find that there is value in reviewing how things have changed and how these changes have impacted collateral activities, such as the way in which people communicate technical information.
With all that taken as a given, let's look at the evolution stages of Industry:
- Industry 1.0 - The introduction of steam power to manufacturing in the initial "industrial revolution" (late 18th and early 19th century). Also associated with the application of emerging concepts such as the division of labour, made famous by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776).
- Industry 2.0 - The introduction, in the early 20th century, of electricity and innovations such as the assembly line. Henry Ford stands as the inevitable, and well-deserved, example. Also fruitfully associated with Frederick W. Taylor's Scientific Management (1911) and the pursuit of ever-improving efficiency in the form of "one best way" to do just about anything.
- Industry 3.0 - The introduction, starting in the 1950s, of automation to manufacturing tasks. Also associated with practices and principles generally termed lean manufacturing that emerged out of World War II production techniques and that were brought to high levels of refinement within Japanese management models for streamlining manufacturing processes and supply chains.
- Industry 4.0 - An umbrella concept for what is emerging as the next generation of industrial practices given the combined capabilities of universal supply chain connectivity, virtually complete automation of manufacturing tasks, smart parts that convey their own manufacturing and positioning instructions, and reconfigurable assembly lines replete with data-gathering sensors that interact with each other, with smart parts, with suppliers, with logistics coordinators, with management systems, and with the customer demands that initiate all of this activity.
In my initial exploration of this line of thinking, I immediately recalled a not-dissimilar set of evolutionary stages having been described for the World Wide Web. In particular, I recalled interactions with Mills Davis of Project10x whose work on the Semantic Web as Web 3.0 provides the basis of what I will sketch out here.
It turns out that a set of four evolutionary stages can be overlaid quite neatly onto the 25 year history, to this point, of the Web.
- Web 1.0 - The initial creation of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and what some of us recall with a mixture of fondness and bemusement. The overlay of a hypertext interface onto the connectivity infrastructure of the internet which was, in the early 1990s, becoming publicly accessible for the first time.
- Web 2.0 - The explosive growth of social media platforms, propelled in part by the concurrent explosion in mobile computing, led to what has been called the Social Web.
- Web 3.0 - The progressive, if gradual, introduction of machine-readable semantics into web information content so that automated programs can perform an expanding array of useful tasks in areas such as discovery, recommendation, and personalization. Referred to as the Semantic Web.
- Web 4.0 - The culmination of all the preceding stages in a massive global network of internet-connected devices, sensors, and services that together can perform increasingly sophisticated activities (IoT).
Note: Since the time this post was written, and indeed perhaps contemporaneously with it, the moniker "Web 3.0" has been unceremoniously redirected away from "the semantic web" which, sadly, had never realized any traction outside its micro-community of acolytes, and towards all things Blockchain. There is a logic to this change. For one, as no one needs reminding, blockchain has become the "in" thing. For another, following the general trajectory of the web (although a trajectory that really doesn't bode well for the future under Web 4.0), blockchain doubles down on a core principle behind the web - that the software deployed needs to be, and needs to be celebrated for being, as ugly and inefficient as possible. But I digress (JAG Nov 2022).
The original point of reviewing these two histories, that of industrial and web evolution, was to establish a landscape within which we could consider how our notion of "content" has been changing. Does content, in effect, follow a similar trajectory? Let's take a look.
- Content 1.0 - Content is created and managed as an integral part of the information product within which it is delivered to information consumers. Examples include a cave painting, a traditionally printed book, and if we are being honest with ourselves most web sites including those offering measures of design responsiveness. There is, with Content 1.0, effectively no separation made between the intellectual and rhetorical import of an information product (its content) and the formatting rendition or application behaviour that is applied to it. We should be clear here that the vast majority of content in the world exists in this state and much of it would have little to no reason to be treated otherwise.
- Content 2.0 - There are scenarios, many of them business-critical, where it is advantageous or even essential that the content within information products be isolated and managed separately from the format and behaviour of individual information products. This scenario typically arises when there is a need to produce multiple different information products from a single, shared source. It is at this level that it makes sense to talk about content management as the genuine management of "content" as opposed to something else. This is where much of the focus of the content management and publishing industry is currently directed - helping organizations to manage their content assets efficiently and to leverage them effectively in a variety of coordinated information services.
- Content 3.0 - The logic that drove the separation of content from formatting and behaviour, seen in Content 2.0, is taken to its fullest conclusion with the goal becoming the management of content as an integrated library of assets where all details are managed at their most authoritative source. Content 3.0 can be referred to as Integrated Content and the focus at this level is on leveraging the integrated, and integrative, nature of content to optimize how organizations operate and how they interact with their external stakeholders including customers. Only a select few practitioners in the content management industry have undertaken projects at this level although the demand from leading organizations has been building steadily.
- Content 4.0 - The circumstance seen at the first stage, Content 1.0, is effectively reversed with Content 4.0 as the content asset becomes the encapsulating parent for a range of information product renditions and behaviours. Content is planned, designed, created, managed, and exchanged as objects that incorporate not only the intellectual and rhetorical import but also the associated rules governing the structure and meaning of the content and an array of rendition and behaviour processes that the object can use to render that material independently or in concert with other content objects. What this means in practical terms is that the content that is being managed is highly precise so that a variety of application processes, including multiple rendition scenarios, can operate on that content with a high degree of confidence and effectiveness. This means, in simple terms, that the content co-exists with the complete array of known behaviours that it supports and it is exchanged with stakeholders who will publish and use the content and behaviour in their own environments and to meet their own goals.
In some of the discussions that were occurring around these ideas, for example a LinkedIn Group converged around Documentation 4.0, the phrase Information 4.0 is widely being used so it is worthwhile considering the evolutionary stages that might apply to "information". Illustrating why it is important to consider content separately from information (as working concepts), we can see in the evolutionary sequence associated with information that when we focus on "information" we focus on something very important - on the concepts of authority and accountability. This is where another term, document, comes into play with a document being the transactional artifact in an information exchange. The word document summons up, quite usefully, a connection to legal deliberations and this helps us to attend more closely to the true nature of what we are talking about at this point - that information is an event, a transaction, an action for which people and organizations can, and should, be held accountable.
- Information 1.0 - The world of paperwork, quite literally. When I discuss this level, it will call up historical examples from past empires that, whatever else you might say about them, illustrate how the careful handling and processing of even paper documents can be leveraged to undertake and sustain monumental activities. The Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Allied war efforts in World War II, the engineering feats of the Cold War era - all provide illustrations of effective information handling that quite frankly puts our time to shame. Information Management guiding light Paul Strassmann, in his book The Politics of Information Management, summoned up the example of the Roman Catholic Church as a model of the effective handling of information (with some notable recent exceptions) that modern organizations would do well to learn from.
- Information 2.0 - The initial attempts to conduct "document" transactions electronically in a way that was binding and reliable which emerged in the 1970s as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). Anyone who has had the pleasure of working on an EDI implementation will know that in addition to coordinating lower level data definitions, and working around the prescriptive structures of X12 or EDIFACT, there is a lot of effort applied to the exchange and delivery frameworks. These frameworks, often grounded in legacy standards such as X400, were intended to establish security, control, irrefutability, and so on - such that the confidence previously invested in paper-trails could be assumed by their electronic replacements.
- Information 3.0 - This level refers to the emergence in the 1990s of Workflow Automation systems capable of operating across organizational boundaries and then Business Process Management systems that could do the same on increasingly more sophisticated scales. Among the factors in play at this level was the adoption of XML as a more extensible basis for EDI networks with this encompassing both data representation and security measures. In his best-selling book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, directed an unusual, but well-founded, amount of attention towards the effects of XML as one of the levelling factors that changed the face of global trade. This occurred in large part because major software vendors like Microsoft aggressively embraced XML as a messaging and data interchange format (web services) so that they could break away from the limitations of highly prescriptive EDI standards and overweening software integration frameworks like CORBA that never achieved widespread adoption.
- Information 4.0 - As befits the notion of the Internet of Things (IoT), Information 4.0 is really about establishing interaction frameworks between people, organizations, devices, and services so that there is accountability for the resulting behaviour and presumably a measure of effectiveness when viewed from the perspective of all legitimate stakeholders. It is my inclination, when exploring this level, to talk about "authority networks" that link a series of actors leading up to events such that there is traceability from observable events back to the responsible parties. As a side note, this important aspect of Information 4.0 demands very specific things from the content underlying the participating information transactions with this helping us to fully understand some aspects of what is required of Content 4.0.
While we are at it, we might as well cast a quick look at the evolution of computing technology. Many of the large consultancies have been talking about the Third Platform as a nexus of current advances including mobile devices, big data, the proliferation of data gathering sensors, cloud computing services, and the growing excitement around cloud-based cognitive computing. Closely associated to this has been a yet larger concept, that of Digital Transformation, which has been even more energetically promoted by the large consultancies as an umbrella term for the business and societal impacts of the digital revolution epitomized by the Third Platform technological convergence. I would be inclined, and I have in the above illustration, to keep all of this at the third stage in the evolution of computing technology (what I have termed "cloud computing" and elsewhere "internet systems") and then to posit a fourth stage which is purely emergent based on the assembled capabilities of the third platform. We may only now be able to glimpse some of what will emerge under Technology 4.0 but it seems safe to say that it will entail massively distributed capabilities that make the most of ubiquitous sensing infrastructure, inexhaustibly detailed data resources, unlimited processing power, and escalating software intelligence to deliver a new orders of functionality including functionality that learns and improves over time (Machine Learning). This evolutionary scale for technology aligns very neatly with, and substantiates the evolutionary changes being seen within, the other concepts that we have been exploring - those of industry, web, content, and information.
Understanding Content 4.0
This illustration tries to summarize a lot of what we have covered here and to do so in a way that shines a spotlight onto the content assets that technical communicators would find themselves working with at the various stages. This illustration emerged from a collaboration between myself and Marie Girard at IBM. Essentially, Marie organized the sprawling mess of ideas seen in early discussions of Information 4.0 and Content 4.0 and used the basic layout seen above as a way to give those ideas a more accessible form. I then, as I often do, complicated the picture further. The result succeeds, despite my best efforts, at conveying a lot about what we have been exploring in this post.
We can see, for example, how the focus of communicators shifts from the publications themselves towards progressively smaller and smarter content components. At the most advanced stage, communicators divide their attention between very small units of content, which we came to refer to as "molecules", and the encapsulating content objects that combine these molecules into components and topics and match them to application behaviour such as rendition instructions. The molecular level of content is particularly interesting because, while it is almost never sufficiently comprehensive to be deemed standalone and self-sufficient, it is often the "answer" that people are seeking when they consult information products or services. We can also see that as we move towards Content 4.0, there is a greater and greater awareness of, and interaction with, the various applications that govern either where the content sources hail from or where the content assets will go as part of their publication and delivery.
At the very least, this inquiry does point toward a confluence of forces at work across a number of fields with all of them driving towards smaller and smaller components, each exhibiting more and more independence and intelligence, and all of the them assembling and interacting to achieve ever more ambitious capabilities. This should tell us that the business of communication simply cannot sit back and pretend that the world is not changing. More specifically it tells us that, as communicators, we need to fundamentally rethink how we plan, design, create, manage, and modify content assets and how we publish and exchange the resulting information products. Sticking with the tried and true, and the comfortably familiar, is not an option. As with other aspects of digital transformation, determining exactly what we should be doing next is even more difficult than admitting that change is necessary. That said, it should be uncontroversial, given what we have been exploring, to say that the future of technical communication is fundamentally more technical, more fully and continuously integrated into the associated product lifecycles, and much more actively engaged in collaboration with lifecycle stakeholders than it has been in the past.
And if there is any agreement that authority and accountability, not to mention scalability and sustainability, are important in the brave new world of technology-mediated everything, then I would submit that Information 4.0, together with its substantiating and supporting Content 4.0, will become more and more central concerns for the modern enterprise instead of being peripheral which is where they have hovered until now. This means that the golden age of technical communication lies before us. In this we should understand technical communication as both a technological undertaking for making information fundamentally more informative to both people and machines, and as a facilitating practice that builds a grounded understanding of the technology we use, the technology we create, and the emergent technology that we will increasingly rely upon.
This is a rather large and sweeping idea to end on, so it seems fitting to hand things over to William Blake, the poet of the original industrial revolution, who can help us...
To see a World in a Grain of SandAnd a Heaven in a Wild FlowerHold Infinity in the palm of your handAnd Eternity in an hour- William Blake (Auguries of Innocence, c 1803)
Since the end of 2016, there have been some further explorations that sought to map other concepts into a similar four-phase structure. One of the most illuminating was the idea of "Consumer 4.0" and it was illuminating because it helps to shed light on why Content 4.0 needs to be the way it is. Essentially, Consumer 4.0 is notable for introducing the idea of "Conducers" - customers who take a product, and even its constituent parts, so that they can create a new product. This lines up with the idea associated with Content 4.0 where there are many publishers of the same content - you don't know who will be publishing the content you are preparing or how. For this to be viable, you need to provide these Conducers with "content objects" from which they can fashion new experiences, sometimes leveraging the behaviour that you were planning, and preparing, for and sometimes extending or overriding it.
Then as we entered 2018, and prompted by the strangest of predilections, I realized that I could not leave things to stand as a six layer model. There would have to be seven layers. I then realized that I was in fact missing my original layer from this picture, one that looked at the nature of business organizations and that arrived, in its highest state, as the Fractal Enterprise. And this is fitting as I had commenced these inquiries with a conference keynote talk on "Managing Knowledge in the Fractal Enterprise" in 1999 - almost 20 years ago. At the initial level, Business 1.0, we find cottage industries, made up of small scale organizations - often rooted in a family or community. The next stage was the multi-owner company, emerging in the early modern period as a mechanism for marshalling more formidable resources and distributing risk. In recent times, there has emerged the virtual company where expertise and resources are drawn together from across an integrated supply chain where each participating company has been optimized to a specific role. Finally, and in conjunction with the other occurrences at the 4.0 level, we find the Fractal Enterprise as something that is only now emerging and whose shape is neither clear nor static.
Below is a set of slides, together with explanatory notes, that (together with this post) represent the final state of my handling of the concept of Content 4.0 in 2016. These slides were progressively refined for a series of deliveries and discussions including a webinar given for Thought Leader Thursday at The Content Era, a keynote TED-style talk at the CIDM Best Practices Conference in Santa Fe, a keynote address at Lavacon Las Vegas, a session and group discussion at TCWorld 2016 in Stuttgart, and an uproarious opening debate at the CIDM DITA Europe conference in Munich.
Buried in this slide deck (see slides 43 & 44) is an idea of human-cyber-physical systems which I intentionally kept out of this post but to which I will return again.
Slides - Information 4.0 for Industry 4.0 (Enabling Information Interoperability): Gnostyx Annotated Slides TCWorld 2016 PDF
As a final takeaway, here is a single sheet image that lines up all of the historical trends that we have been exploring and comparing. With the magical importance of the number 7, one more layer has been added - business - with the 4th phase being associated with the "Fractal Enterprise", which takes me back to a keynote presentation I did in 1999 (which in turn makes me feel very old).