By Don DePalma, Common Sense Advisory, special to The Content Wrangler

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When describing their products or unique selling proposition, many companies invert the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. They subject readers to a numbing deluge of text on websites, in printed collateral, online help systems, knowledge bases, technical user guides, and training materials. This logorrhea (excessive flow of words) has caught the attention of executives who see an ever expanding morass of content as a drag on their companies’ performance and product usability.

Our research at Common Sense Advisory has shown that few firms know what it costs to write a word, but invoices for content and translation management systems (CMS and TMS) evidence the high price of maintaining, updating, and translating them. Companies must take control of the content beast rather than just feeding it more words, however more efficiently the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) or any other approach makes them.

Today’s knee-jerk reactions to any content question – CMS, TMS, and XML – will not eliminate this glut. CMS is functionally a workflow for a database or flat files, in effect a supply chain mechanism that keeps the content trains running on time. All too often, companies deploy expensive content management systems to ease the difficulty of posting whatever wisdom comes into their employees’ heads. Their future plans call for low-level XML to integrate content- and data-heavy systems. Both CMS and XML (and its many derivatives) laudably improve process, but neither addresses the core problem of too many words or the low quality of what most firms publish. Consider the role content, writ large, plays in companies today and how most handle it.

  • Companies manage a wide range of information assets. We define content as any digitized information used to convey meaning or exchange value in business interactions or transactions. This broad definition includes highly structured data like that found in SQL databases, plus text, documents, images, video, scripts, application code, and metadata. All of these datatypes come under the CMS rubric and are subject to being managed and translated for other markets.
  • Content may be managed, but it is rarely controlled. Companies manage structured databases with cradle-to-grave procedures, but – except in regulated arenas like pharmaceuticals – lack a policy for creating, managing, publishing, and retiring freer-form content. Its unbound nature prevents the control found in SQL databases that deconstruct data into atomic components, assemble them into highly normalized records, and use mathematically provable operations.

From my conversations with planners trying to cap their content exposure, I contend that companies will have to become more authoritarian about what they publish. They must:

  1. View publication as a privilege not offered to every employee
  2. Train those allowed to publish in writing and editing best practices
  3. Develop editorial and review processes that improve content quality
  4. Support writers and processes with first-quality tools

  • Clean out the attic and reuse what’s there. Companies need to catalog the content they have, use it again wherever possible, and retire it when its freshness tag expires. Procedures for pulling documents off the shelf when their “use by” date expires rarely show up in practice, although many CMS solutions offer such triggers. With a content inventory in hand, companies need to encourage writers to reuse what already exists. Glossaries provide a quick path toward building a taxonomy and content library that encourage and support reuse.
  • Improve writing quality. Products like Word can check spelling and grammar, but only for a single writer and standalone desktops. Server-based tools like Acrocheck provide collective spelling and grammar checks for commonly used writing tools like Word, FrameMaker and XMetal, and for translation memories like SDL-Trados, thus establishing a shared foundation for corporate style and editing. Planners need to remember that writers need to conform to standardized processes and information models, not to the rubric mandated by their En101 Introduction to Creative Writing professor in college. Finally, companies in industries like aerospace can always turn to restrictive language solutions like Controlled or Simplified English that tackle the problem by limiting the universe of words and grammatical constructions that a writer can use.
  • Measure results. The volume of words being generated inside any organization makes human management of metrics a Sisyphean task. Managers need to identify areas with too many words. Content quality management tools like Inmedius Horizon can help documentation managers keep tabs on how much content their staff is writing, who is creating it, where are they in the process, how long it took them to write it, where it was reused (or not). It also helps them generate reports to keep track of metrics and how well they did meeting them.
  • Reduce volume. To break authors of the habit of spewing content onto the all-absorbing web, companies need to train them to write shorter, more usable documents. DITA breaks information deliverables into small, self-contained topics that can be re-used, thus creating fewer new words. Methodologies like ABREVE reduce content quantity through a rigorous approach to training, best practices, and tools. Imagery like that employed by IKEA in place of words takes another route that limits words and eliminates translation costs.
  • Write it once. The ultimate goal is single source, the free-form content analog of Java’s “write once, deploy many” mantra. While this is a frequent conference topic, we have found few firms that have perfected single sourcing or DITA. But CMS suppliers are jumping onto this trend. Products like AuthorIT offer a cohesive environment for designing, writing, managing, and deploying to a range of devices.

The bottom line is that technology and automation are important, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of content management. It is high time to exercise greater discipline rather than surrendering to the inexorable onslaught of more words.

About the Author

Don DePalma is the founder and chief research officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory, and author of the premier book on business globalization Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.