Finding the right tools for enterprise-wide structured content

Finding the right tools for enterprise-wide structured content

by Bruce Sharpe, JustSystems

July 29, 2009:Many organizations recognize the benefits of structured content - higher quality information, reduced publishing costs, faster times to market, etc.

In today's economic downturn, those benefits are more valuable than ever, helping companies do more with less, while improving quality or integrity. And those benefits multiply substantially when structured content is adopted across the enterprise. Recognition alone, however, isn't enough to drive enterprise-wide, structured content adoption.

So, what's the trick? How do companies move structured content beyond technical publications departments and into engineering, tech support, customer service, marketing, and other content-driven areas to maximize the benefits? By putting the right tools in the right hands.

The content universe incorporates the knowledge of a number of enterprise members, and it works best when each contributor has access to a structured content tool that is appropriate for his or her role in content creation and publishing. Dedicated, full-time writers need a full-featured authoring tool. Reviewers need a tool optimized for simple collaborative reviewing. And business users and subject matter experts need a tool that is easy to use, one that encourages their contributions.

While that may sound a little simplistic, the reality is that enterprise-wide structured content initiatives are even more effective when they take into account the needs of some of their least technical, but most valuable content contributors - the subject matter experts. The best way to bring subject matter experts into the structured content fold is to give them customized solutions that let users get involved with the content workflow and make contributions in the easiest way possible. Embed the tool in the applications they already use. Or make it available online, so they just fire up a browser, click on a link, and work on a web page. Give the non-technical users a simple interface, a streamlined text box in a web page form that just happens to integrate with the XML stream underneath it.

Remember, the subject matter experts aren't technical writers. They don't "own" the documents being created - the technical writers do. Instead, the subject matter experts "own" their contributions of knowledge, and keeping them close to the process of how their contributions get embodied in the content ensures more accurate information.

Moreover, the subject matter expert's contribution is just one component of the overall document. For example, technical writers could be working on product documentation that needs a few pages that explain how to use a particular product feature. For those pages, the technical writers will recruit an engineer familiar with that feature to write a first draft. With the right XML tool, the engineer can then write the "how to" content and submit it to the technical writer who owns the document as part of the overall content stream and workflow.

Without a structured content tool, however, the engineer will probably write the content in a Word document and send it to the technical writer in an email. That means the document owner winds up cutting and pasting that content from the Word document into the XML document, which isn't a difficult job per se. But it's inefficient and can lead to errors. Moreover, working outside of the structured content workflow makes it harder for the engineer to know what she's doing in the context of the rest of the document.

Ultimately, putting easy-to-use XML tools in the hands of subject matter experts leads to content that is much higher in quality. Involving all content contributors directly in the structured content flow eliminates the manual, cut-and-paste errors associated with unstructured content - errors that waste time and money and could turn into liability issues. After all, the technical writers who understand how to push the structured content through to its final form typically aren't familiar with the detail of the content. It's very easy for them to make mistakes and miss the significance of small but critical content changes as the document moves from first draft to final deliverable.

Enterprise-wide structured content has obvious appeal in areas such as product development, policies and procedures, contract management, and financial reporting. Here, ISVs and in-house developers alike can customize and deliver a tightly integrated, structured content system that addresses the needs of all - technical writers, reviewers, and subject matter experts. Put the right XML tools in the right users' hands. That's how you'll drive structured content into the enterprise.

Dr. Bruce Sharpe brings over 23 years of technology leadership experience to JustSystems, including founding XMetaL and HoTMetaL content creation solutions.

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