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Why Technical Communication Managers Need to Manage Terminology 

Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.

Val Swisher , Author of Why Technical Communication Managers Need to Manage Terminology

Val Swisher

If your company is like most these days, you have been tasked with creating more (and more) content with fewer (and fewer) people. In the never-ending quest to cut expenses, many companies have laid-off content developers. At the same time, in the quest to drive revenue, companies are shipping more products, in more languages, and at a more rapid pace. That begs the question, “How do you get more out of the same resources when you create content?” Resources are both the people who create and edit the content, and the content itself. When it comes to increasing operational efficiency, companies can do several things to enhance their content output without adding more resources.

Operational Efficiency Is Nothing New

The quest for operational efficiency is nothing new. Since the industrial revolution, our society has been single-minded in its quest to get more out of everything. The technology revolution has propelled us even further and more quickly. For example, communicate with more people, more quickly using email; update more friends at one time using Facebook; immediately share all of your presentations using SlideShare. Technology has made us more efficient, automating the production lines that the industrial revolution allowed us to build.

What About Content?

Over the years, we have created and implemented many tools to help us gain operational efficiency in writing and publication. Shorthand allowed us to take notes more efficiently than writing in longhand. Typewriters made the process of writing even easier. Today, computer technology is the crowning achievement in operational efficiency for creating content. Someday, I hope to just think about what I have to write and have some device automatically pull the content right out of my head without me even having to speak or type it.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, we have invented fast and efficient ways to create indexes, glossaries, and tables of contents. We have automated spell-checking to efficiently catch our spelling errors. All editing software includes automated ways to switch fonts and styles on the fly, quickly and easily.

These days, we implement XML and DITA to get more out of the same content resources. When we combine these technologies with a content management system, we can create relatively small chunks of content and then repurpose them in a variety of ways: additional documents, different web pages, information for mobile devices, and more. “Write once, use many” is the goal of current authoring technologies. That way, we get more uses for the same chunk of content we’ve written.

Terminology Management Increases Operational Efficiency

Enforcing consistent terminology increases the operational efficiency of everyone in your organization who creates, works with, and reads content. That encompasses just about everyone.

Growing up, writing teachers told us to vary our language, use different words to say the same thing. It’s more colorful, less repetitive. But, it is inefficient to use different words to describe the same thing. Are you selling a dog? A canine? A puppy? A cocker spaniel? If you pick one and stick to it, you are more efficient when you write. Your readers can read much more efficiently. Your technical support department won’t have to answer questions that are already described on your web site. Everyone involved benefits when you do more with the same words.

That’s only the beginning. Remember, the efficiency we gained by using XML and CMS systems: the ability to reuse content in multiple ways? If your content developers do not use the same words to describe the same things, piecing together XML chunks into new deliverables simply does not work. Paragraph one describes how to hold the puppy. Paragraph two discusses how to groom the dog. And paragraph three details how to care for and feed the canine.

You have to break the old rules. You cannot expect to realize the gains of structured authoring efficiency if you are not efficient with the words. It is really that simple. You can have a plethora of metadata and tag all of your content chunks. But if the terminology is not consistent on your new web page when I read it, you were not efficient and I cannot proceed efficiently, either. I’m too easily confused and waste too much time trying to understand what you are trying to say.

Managing Terminology Efficiently

It is clear that managing terminology yields tremendous increases in operational efficiency on many levels. But is the process of managing the terminology itself efficient?

The answer to this question is almost always a resounding “No.” Most companies use the most inefficient and arcane methods to manage terminology, if they are managing it at all. The most common tool used to manage terminology in the content creation world is an Excel spreadsheet or a Microsoft Word table. The process of adding words to the term list is completely manual. And, even worse, the process of verifying words against the term list is also completely manual. You might as well be using a legal pad and a pen, and storing everything in a three-ring binder.

The problem is what I refer to as a “pull” rather than a “push.” Using a pull methodology, you must stop the writing process to try to remember if you just used a word that your company cares about. Then, you have to look it up manually in a list where you don’t know if you will find the word or not. Finally, you might have to act on that information, or maybe not.

Here’s the dirty little secret about Word and Excel term lists and style guides: No one uses them. That’s right. No one. Maybe a new content developer refers to a list for the first deliverable. But after that, no one has the time to keep looking things up. In the quest to do more with the same resources, most writers and editors simply don’t have the luxury of time to use an inefficient, time-consuming, manual process. It just doesn’t happen.

So What’s a Content Developer to Do?

It is not enough to use a Word or Excel document to list your approved and disallowed words. Just like all of the other processes I’ve described, you need a tool that increases the efficiency of using your terminology. The ideal tool should store all the managed terms in a database, link the approved term to the terms that are not allowed, and automatically push that information to you. Using a push technology, you don’t have to remember if a word is managed or not. The software does that for you and alerts you to it. These tools are available. And companies using these tools report significant efficiency gains in the writing process, the editing process, and the translation process.

Getting More From the Same

How do you get more from the same resources? When it comes to content, using terminology in a methodical, managed way creates operational efficiencies for the entire authoring, editing, production, and delivery process. And when it comes to managing your terminology, use tools that make you more efficient, rather than wasting extremely valuable time.

About the Author

Val Swisher is the CEO & Founder of Content Rules, Inc. She founded Content Rules in 1994 when she realized that even the largest companies often do not have the technology, people, and expertise to create content that is ready for the global marketplace. If you need assistance figuring out how to get started with your Global Content strategy, sign up to attend a Free Best Practice Clinic exclusively for readers of this magazine. For details go to Free Best Practice Clinic.

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