November 2016
By Marie Girard

Image: Kirill Kedrinski/

Marie Girard is an enterprise content strategist at IBM. She leads unified content strategy efforts through collaboration across silos, content audits, and focus on user experience. She teaches technical communication at Paris Diderot University.




A five-step content strategy for Industry 4.0

Content is everywhere. It sits in your pocket or on the screen of your mobile phone. It pops up from a search when you want to find out what something is or how it works. It might already be part of your watch telling you that it's time to exercise. With the advent of Industry 4.0, it will find its way into your fridge, or even onto a nanochip underneath your skin.

From books to molecular content

Where does technical content fit into this picture? Let’s go back in time and examine where technical content comes from. The story of mass content production started when the printed press made it possible to share scientific knowledge. Technical knowledge – that is, information about how to do something for a utilitarian purpose – remained tied to an oral tradition of apprenticeship until the industrial age. Mass industrialization created the need to transfer know-how quickly: Instruction manuals were born. Products came with a paper manual; the book was the unit of content.

Then came the Internet, and the possibility of publishing books online gave birth to PDFs. New ways of browsing and searching forced the book-like nature of PDFs to give way to a different information architecture: online Help. The first documentation standards appeared, based on SGML and then XML, and the topic became the unit of content. Soon, new technologies made it possible to create a tighter link between a software interface and the online Help. Chunks of content could provide instructions and know-how directly within interfaces. Because these chunks were smaller than topics and were sitting outside of the online Help, content management challenges emerged.

When social media entered the picture, many different authors could share know-how through videos, graphics, or forum interactions. Technical support and marketing teams embraced the change and moved to these platforms. Technical content, in the sense of content that explains what something is and how to use it, can now be found in a variety of shapes and places. And it seems that professional technical communicators are no longer the only ones producing it. UI designers, support agents, content marketers, and instructional designers are all producing technical content online or in connected objects these days.

The need for a change of mindset

The original birthplace of technical content is the instruction manual, so we tend to equate the nature of technical content (know-how) with its location (the manual). If you change this mindset and consider the nature of technical content as information that helps a client answer questions and make decisions about how to do something, then it becomes clear that the help is now just one part of the equation.

An integrated strategy is all the more important because online user experiences are disconnected and inconsistent. These experiences are fragmented because the focus is more on where content gets published than on how it matches the end-to-end user experience. With Industry 4.0, online user experience can make or break a product. Content in general, and technical content in particular, becomes critical to creating successful online experiences for clients, and therefore becomes an essential business asset.

We had to change our content strategy for technology, architecture, and processes when manuals became available online. We have to make a similar type of change now that technical content has become ubiquitous, polymorphous, and fast-changing. Analytical, linear, and hierarchy-based frameworks show their limits in a complex environment where things are interrelated, simultaneous, and circular.

Here are five steps for defining a strategy for technical content in the age of Industry 4.0. They do not need to be taken in this order – remember we are not in a linear context. Think of them as various entry points to a global approach.

Step 1: Set a goal for how you want to impact user experience

Online user experience has become the cornerstone of business in Industry 4.0. So the starting point for a content strategy is the role of content in this experience.

Go back to your audience. What sorts of questions do they have? What decisions do they need to make? How are they going to feel? How would you like them to feel? Define journeys for user experience and ask yourself these questions for each stage of the journey. Do some user research to back your conclusions.

Then, for each stage of the journey, define a clear goal for your content. Make sure the goal is explicit, shared, and understood by all. A shared goal makes it easier for people in an organization to make quick decisions without having to resort to a formal validation process. Agility in decision-making is very important in this fast-paced environment. Change the usual goal of getting content published on platform X into a goal of creating content that is relevant for stage X of the user experience.

Smart Insights’ Content Marketing Planning template is a good example of how you can set user-focused goals for your content. This template focuses on content marketing, but you can use a similar map for technical content. For example, a tutorial will seek to educate and maybe entertain, while a technical support FAQ will seek to reassure and convince.

Step 2: Create multidisciplinary teams

A lot of the inconsistency and disconnectedness that users face when using online content comes from the internal disconnection between groups. This is known as Conway's Law, which states that the design of a system mimics the structure of the organization that produced it. If the content organization is siloed, the user experience with content will be siloed too. Good news: You do not have to wait for the whole organization to change to fix this. Reach out to other content creation departments: support, training, marketing, etc., and bring representatives of these departments into an integrated content "council" or "workgroup". The mere act of creating interaction has an immediate, concrete impact on user experience, with more cross-linking, reuse, and cost savings.

Technical support teams gain a lot from documentation teams who can help them produce the content necessary to reduce support calls. Sales teams can help documentation and training teams better address user needs. Marketing teams usually look for quality technical content to promote, and technical content teams can point them to it.

Step 3: Team up with machines

To model and categorize ubiquitous, polymorphous content in the age of Industry 4.0, you need superpowers. The moment you think you have captured a model, put the ultimate CMS in place and another form of content appears that you haven't taken into account. Detailed manual inventories become impossible with molecular content scattered all over the place. Modeling and categorization are an area where machines can help. Progress in natural language processing and artificial intelligence has made it possible to search for, extract, and categorize content more easily. Structured content and metadata can help machines carry out a thorough analysis to help you understand where the content needs improvement, or where it can be reused. But an AI system can also work for unstructured content, and might actually save you more time than you would need to make this content structured.

Analytics tools can give you traffic information, but are limited for informing you about actual quality. Sentiment analysis tools can help you assess whether comments on a given piece of content are positive or negative. Text analysis can help you derive keywords and word clouds, which can help you assess how well various subjects are covered.

Step 4: Trust collective intelligence for finding solutions

Machines can analyze and audit your content – but don't go as far as entrusting them with your strategic decisions. Metrics, KPIs and categorizations will only make sense when you correlate them and check them against the goals you have defined for your content (step 1). To do this, you can leverage the power of multidisciplinary teams (step 2). People in these teams will see the data from different perspectives, and will define the best solution for complex content problems by bringing together contributions from multiple objectives and mindsets.

Metrics might indicate a high number of support calls on a given subject. Without a multidisciplinary team, the support team would only be able to define solutions at their level – their publishing platform. But if they have a venue for discussing these metrics with other teams, the group may find a solution in, say, creating a new training course, updating the documentation, and promoting the training course through the sales team’s social media channels.

Step 5: Experiment and iterate

You change a complex system by poking at it and observing what happens. In a context where content appears in a number of different outlets and formats that are strongly interrelated, you cannot make long-term plans. But you can experiment with transversal projects (reuse, linking, review process, and so on) and assess their impact. You can then make baby steps towards governing the new forms of technical content today.

Not having a long-term plan doesn’t mean you have to give up on your goal (step 1). It means that you subordinate the what and the how to the why. The clarity of that goal enables you to adjust what to do and how to do it depending on circumstances. Machines can help you get feedback on your experiments more quickly (step 3), and collective intelligence will help you decide what the next experiment should be (step 4).


Content is everywhere. Content is a business asset, the backbone of online user experience. In the age of Industry 4.0, it's all over the place, spreads in all directions, and moves fast. To embrace the challenge of ubiquitous content, rely on transversal collaboration and experimentation backed by artificial intelligence, and make user experience your guiding star.