The Why and How of Content Convergence and Integration
by Rahel Anne Bailie
Does the company you work for consider its content an asset or a liability? This article looks at how content is becoming considered a corporate asset and how technical content, such as technical manuals, will increasingly become valuable assets to corporation in the new age of content.
Content producers are about to live through interesting times, to adapt the popular saying, with the dawning of The Age of Content. Industry is discovering content as a commodity; the rules are changing, and fast. And not just for the high-profit content like movies and music. What have traditionally been seen as the lowliest form of commercial content within an enterprise, technical manuals, are starting to take their place alongside the other valued corporate assets. Not happening in your company yet? Wait a bit – the shift will happen. The same market forces that propelled other technological advances will also push companies to keep up, at least, if not lead the pack.
Content as a Commodity
The Age of Content is a flippant way to refer to a profound shift in the way industry is looking at content that gets produced. Traditionally, marketing departments were seen as creating content that contributed to revenue, and technical communication departments were seen as creating content that added to product cost. The cost of producing the content was seen as a cost drain or resource sink, a necessary evil.
Recently, something has shifted, and content is starting to be recognized as a corporate asset that needs to be valued and managed like any other asset. The pieces of content might not be sitting like widgets in bins on the factory floor, but they are sitting in documents on hard drives or, for content management systems, cells in databases. Like other assets, content has a lifecycle that goes from planning to development to approval to publication to management (includes updates and versioning) to evaluation for archiving or deletion. And like other assets, content can be measured, not just in terms of quality of writing, but in terms of cost of production and return on investment.
What started this shift is not clear, but likely some of the impetus is to solve a business problem. After all, two universal goals at the executive level are to satisfy customers and operate efficiently. Each company’s business problems are unique, but there are a couple of problems common enough that they can be used to illustrate a couple of ways that content is converging.
Using Content to Solve Business Problems
Suppose that a company provides support for its products, software, or services. The company has a call center staffed by customer service reps whose job is to provide accurate information, as quickly as possible, to irate customers who, with any luck, will end the call as once again satisfied customers. If the reps have large books stuffed with sticky notes, bookmarks, and notes in the margins, the paper resources are often out of date. When a senior person retires, the others cannibalize their books, and even then, the amount of knowledge trapped in their minds walks out the door with them. If the reps are using online resources, these might be a collection of bookmarks that lead to various resources on a shared drive, such as PDFs of manuals, illustrated parts breakdowns, current and past catalogues, and so on. Inevitably, files get moved and links go stale; the rep will be searching for information and not find it, or cite incorrect information at the worst possible time. There is a push to get some sort of searchable, topic-based knowledge base that reps can use to pull up the right content at the right time to provide better, faster answers for happier customers and more efficient use of the reps’ time.
Perhaps it’s during the investigation into how to solve this problem that a business analyst notices how a lot of the content needed for the call center knowledge base has already been created and exists within the company. If there were only some mechanisms and guidelines for sharing the information. If the business analyst is really paying attention, he/she would realize that when customer service reps create notes to compensate for information gaps, the reps should provide those notes back to the content creators who will incorporate the details into the appropriate documentation.
The challenge, then, becomes how to make this happen. First, there is a need for guidelines around governance – who gets to make which decisions about the content – which gets handled at the policy level. Second, there is a need for technology to automate the processing of what could end up being thousands (and for multinationals, hundreds of thousands to millions) of pages of content.
The Importance of Standards
Automating the processing of content in this situation requires that the content be able to be exchanged between two databases without losing any file integrity. That means the human-readable content stays intact, as well as all the semantic and syntactic metadata attached to the file, which helps the systems accurately track the content. In order to do so, the content needs to conform to certain characteristics that allow portability (between systems) and independent use (as each chunk of content will be retrieved through a different search). This could be called Content 2.0 – where content meets the criteria to be able to meet the criteria for use in a Web 2.0 world. This calls for content to be:
- Converted to a standard format, like the ubiquitous XML
- Be carefully given attributes
- Organized in a way that facilitates automation
The content structures need to be codified and enforced to support automation, and the technologists need to build the business rules into the content management system to enforce whatever governance guidelines have been set up.
Convergence and Integration is Just the Beginning
After the corporation has taken the big leap to use content to solve business problems and to treat content as an asset instead of a liability, it is a short hop to the next level. This gets into the creative use of content to solve problems not yet identified as problems. Once the content conforms to a standard that enables it to be integrated with content from other sources, the content can also be syndicated. In a single organization, content-related activities could include the following:
- Converge technical content from various sources in a customer-service database. This would leverage existing content for new business purposes within the company.
- Integrate procedures into technical training courses, to reduce the training development cycle and to ensure the content is always up-to-date from its sources.
- Integrate product features with marketing copy on the company web site. As a result, marketing communicators wouldn’t have to locate or recreate that copy.
- Syndicate product updates out to customers, thereby keeping customers current with your product changes.
- Combine comments from product discussion forums through a notification mechanism. This could help you stay on top of what your customers are saying about you.
- Notify internal stakeholders of critical-path changes through an RSS feed, instead of using the less reliable and less customizable group email method.
- Download technical content updates automatically to remote laptops instead of periodically emailing a CD to remote technical or sales reps. Often, CDs may be inaccurate by the time they reach their audience.
- Provide personalized marketing information to potential customers who subscribe to a newsletter. This would ensure customers receive content tailored to them, and prevent the email fatigue that causes unsubscribes.
- Publish standards-based (microformat) content such as events, jobs, and news releases automatically to other sites, thereby saving staffers the rote work of copy-and-paste to multiple sites.
- Push variations of Web content to mobile devices. This would enable users to receive legible, usable content in small-screen formats for their phones and PDAs.
Consequences, Intended and Unintended
The upside of automating content processing so that it can be integrated and syndicated, be portable and convergent, is the efficiency factor. Freeing up writers to concentrate on aspects of content development that require a human touch, instead of the rote tasks such as formatting pages or manually tracking translation versions, are often the ROI factors that convince management to pursue such a project. What is equally important, if not more important, is to think through the ultimate consequences for your customers. The decisions around which content gets syndicated, to whom, how often, in what format, and so on has a tremendous impact on customers and ultimately on your brand. As we enter The Age of Content, Content 2.0 levels the playing field in more ways than one. It’s not the size of the organization that determines the success of a content convergence strategy, but the advance planning that goes into the strategy and, perhaps most importantly, a simple willingness to explore the potential of your content assets and see where it leads.
Content convergence and integration is not yet a well-understood concept to those outside the industries where the technologies get discussed. Content producers learn a bit about XML here, a bit about content management there, a bit about customer relationships there, and until now, have had to leave the overall strategy in the hands of the IT folks who may not have been included in the overall content strategy, if the organization has one.
It’s through integrated discussions like this that we learn to capitalize on the content we produce and garner the respect it deserves.
About the Author
Rahel Anne Bailie is principal of Intentional Design Inc, a Vancouver, BC consultancy that focuses on the interrelated areas of content management, content development, and usability. Rahel brings substantial business and communication experience to her projects, where she and her team help organizations with requirements and content analysis phases, through to assistance with RFP preparation and vendor selection. Rahel has many years of experience in the content development and user experience environments, and her perspectives are informed by her experience and studies. She was co-producer of the Content Convergence and Integration 2008 conference held in Vancouver, March 12-14, 2008.