Making Your Intelligent Content Smarter

“When I first started writing this song, it was supposed to be about the future. But it took me seven years to finish it. So at best, it’s about the present.

I’m sure Jeane Dixon has days like that too.”

The above quote a introduction by  John Prine, one my favorite musicians, for  his song “Living in the Future.”

I can identify with Prine. I feel as though I have been writing this particular  blog post for about 15 years.  Ever since I first grasped the idea of component content management systems.

Admittedly, it took me quite some time to see the value of creating content as reusable chunks, rather than as whole documents. My “aha!” moment occurred when  a client provided me with her company’s  “about us”  boilerplate  for an RFP I was writing. I noticed  that one of the founder’s names was incorrect in the text that I had been provided.  My project team proofed the content and made several changes.  It was pasted into the RFP.

I had received the boilerplate info from an IT manager, who had received it from an HR contact.  Given the company’s size and international presence, there were very likely numerous instances of incorrect boilerplate info in magazines, web sites and official documents. It didn’t take much of a logical leap to realize that there was incorrect and inconsistent content chunks  all over the organization. Suddenly, the concept of single-source, component-level intelligent, content management moved  from esoteric to something that seemed like a smart thing to do.

I immediately started musing how these XML-based  frameworks for dynamic  text content could be integrated with  digital asset management systems (caution: DAM jokes ahead) that were rooted in delivery of rich media. It seemed that smart content could be made even smarter. I was convinced that this was the future of publishing content.

I’m still convinced that’s the future, I wish the future would hurry up and get here.

In The Beginning There Was Prepress..

I have been making digital content for a long time, since the previous millennium in fact. I started working in print when desktop technologies were just making  inroads into prepress and publishing.  Like just about everybody else, I started working with Web content in the  1990’s. All along, as I was surrounded by people who made stuff, I was interested in systems that would prevent people from losing the stuff they made.

In 2000, I finished up a DAM  project (DAM was still print-centric) and joined my first ” ‘content’ management” project. During the era, content management was normally referring to Web content management. Essentially, there was an interface to make HTML  pages and a means to add Web-ready graphics (72-DPI, jpg, .gif or .png files).

There  are very clear physics-based difference between  print and Web content, but they are primarily related to the resolution (DPI) and color model (RGB vs CMYK) of images.

It frustrated me (and still does)  that print and web were thought of as separate things, with separate  editorial, design and production workflows. Furthermore, it has long frustrated me that organizations spent such large volumes of money on software and implementation of these (largely unnecessarily IMHO) separate platforms.

The AcronyMs

I promise that I won’t go into an extended  jag about acronym reduction here, (mostly because I’ve done that before) but there  are numerous  “….Management….”   acronyms to offer confusion to organizations that just want to make their stuff. Here are a few:

  • DM (document management)
  • WCM (web content management)
  • DAM (digital asset management)
  • LCM (learning content management)
  • (I could go on, but I think the point has been made)

A Place For Your Stuff

You shouldn’t fixate on the acronyms. They are all managing content All you want is a place for your stuff. While every organization has some unique needs the core requirements for all “stuff” management systems could be described as  these:

  • To make stuff
  • To be able to find stuff
  • To share stuff
  • To prevent stuff from being shared with those who aren’t allowed to see your stuff.
  • To reuse stuff that is already made so it can be used to create new stuff (that can be found,  shared and protected)

If your content (aka “stuff”)  adds organizational value, it’s a ”Digital Asset” If not, then it’s  a digital liability.  It’s much like that line in the George Carlin routine  “A Place For My Stuff”: “Have your ever notice how everybody else’s stuff is crap, but your crap is stuff.” (note the Carlin video has a some raw language,,,,because it’s Carlin).

Trouble In Paradise

Anybody who has been making content for a while, will know how much easier it is to make content than it was before the desktop publishing technologies surfaced in the 1980’s. I don’t think anybody wants to return to the days of pounding out text on an IBM Selectric typewriter or  running photos through  a waxing machine so they can be pasted on a composed page.

Now, we can make stuff really fast without risk of getting waxy fingers.  But what is the downside?

Well,  digital technologies allow us to make mistakes faster then ever, and you can copy your mistakes faster than ever. The Internet allows us to share our mistakes with more people than ever. 

If you can’t find previously created content, it’s easy enough to recreate it. However, then you have to repeat your entire creation and QA cycle. You’ve placed your organization at risk because there are now two versions of the same content that might not be identical. Furthermore, while the retrieval of existing content should take only seconds, or a few minutes,  recreating the content may take hours or weeks.

If you don’t know exactly where the content needs to be stored, it’s easy  to put it in a lot places on the server, or e-mail to a gaggle of your colleagues.  Do your think  you will be able to remember all the places  where you put (or sent)  all that stuff, a month from now. In a year from now?

In the absence of organizational governance, the creation of content might have become just a  little TOO  easy.

Stuff Inside of Stuff
In any organization, it’s  possible to get a handle on the all the “stuff” files.  It’s a wee bit trickier when you have “stuff inside of stuff.” For example, if you have a chunk of content (such as your organizational “boilerplate”) that has been copied and pasted into  scads of Word and InDesign documents as well as into  multiple areas on your corporate Web site and intranet portals, then finding and updating that content will be extremely difficult.

For example, if your organization has a new CEO, are you going be able find all the occurrences of your boilerplate to put her name in place of her successor?

The truth will set your free; however multiple versions of the truth will set you back.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If the thought of making a small change in dozens of places throughout your organization’s content  has made your pulse quicken, it’s probably time to consider a unified content strategy and how you make your stuff. Thankfully, there are people who can help you do that.

For decades, technical communicators have been creating content as stand-alone, discoverable,  reusable modules, rather than as whole documents. This framework is known as “intelligent content.”  

Intelligent content is  (finally) starting to make inroads into other types of content outside of technical communications, thanks to the efforts of people like Anne Rockley and Charles Cooper, who coauthored this book. I certainly recommend the  book for anybody who is, will be, or even wants to be engaged in a content strategy project.

Lately, I’ve been pondering how organizations might make intelligent content even a bit smarter by incorporating  best practices of image-repurposing into an intelligent content framework. I’ll be collecting  my thoughts on such things in a post entitled “Pure Substance.”

I’ll publish that in the future and  I’ll make sure that the future hurries up and gets here.


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