June 2013
By Joe Gollner

Image: © Courtney Keating/ istockphoto.com

Joe Gollner is the Director of Gnostyx Research Inc., an independent consultancy and solution integrator that helps organizations to make the most of open markup standards and intelligent content technologies. He has been active in the content management industry for over twenty years and has led many large-scale enterprise implementations. He is a graduate of Queens University (Bachelors of Arts, Literature and Mathematics) and of the University of Oxford (Masters of Philosophy).





A practical introduction to intelligent content

In contrast to traditional static content, intelligent content is not limited to one media output or one purpose, but rather helps organizations integrate and automate their documentation activities. In our global world, intelligent content is not something futuristic, but rather the key to successful and effective documentation processes.

Let’s imagine that you are a specialist manufacturer of electronics that are used in the latest generation of smart phones. Business has been good over the last few years and everyone in your firm has worked hard to keep up with demand. You have been able to innovate with your offerings to remain a supplier of choice. You have been able to supply escalating volumes of components against ever shortening delivery schedules.

And now new challenges are appearing on the horizon as the needs of your customers are becoming even more complex. The challenges are becoming so demanding in fact, that addressing them will require that you enter into more and more joint ventures. Sometimes these ventures will be undertaken with major customers and sometimes they will be undertaken with direct competitors. You have done many of these ventures in the past. But now almost all of your projects assemble a network of suppliers and customers to achieve what none could achieve alone. 

The question that arises in this scenario is a simple one: Can all the parts of your business respond to the types of challenges that this marketplace demands? For our purposes, this becomes a question of how an organization should prepare and deliver documentation for its products and services in this brave new world.
The above scenario is not entirely fictional. Many readers will recognize all or part of it as something that is relevant to their work today as technical communicators or as managers of documentation teams. And it will not only be people working in the electronics industry who will be able to see themselves in this picture. Many will already know that documentation can become a highly visible part of these types of projects and not always in a good way.

When static content reaches its limits…

Let’s imagine our electronics supplier entered into a product development joint venture only to find that the changes it needed to make to its documentation were going to cost hundreds of thousands of Euros and would take months to complete. All they needed to do was replace standard texts and images with language and media adopted by the joint venture. Something was clearly amiss.

Meeting this type of requirement should have been simple. But our supplier’s documentation had evolved over a course of years using a number of different desktop publishing tools. Documentation teams had worked hard at delivering high quality publications in accordance with a never ending series of enhancement requests. But now that the teams were being called on to do something quite different with their documentation, the limitations of how they had historically been working became clear for all to see. Unfortunately, these limitations attracted the interest of executive management.

So our intrepid electronics supplier had more to explain than just the fact that making some simple changes would require months of effort and a lot of money. The more serious problem lay in the fact that the other venture partners could not in fact use the supplier’s documentation content except as large print-ready publications provided in the Portable Document Format (PDF). Within this joint venture scenario, each participant was required to contribute source content that could be integrated into a single coherent representation of the new product. And the ultimate vision for the venture was to provide a dynamic maintenance information service that customers would be able to integrate into the support platforms that they in turn provided to consumers. What was needed and what our supplier could provide were two very different things.

It becomes clear that our electronics supplier wouldn’t be able to participate in this joint venture. There might have been a time when the company would have been able to secure its position solely through the strength of its engineering skills. But in a hyper-competitive marketplace, where the schedules and margins are too tight to permit workarounds, players need to be able to operate fully in a distributed, dynamic, and almost completely automated way. And this includes how documentation content is planned, created, managed, exchanged and delivered.

Introducing Intelligent Content

Fortunately there is a solution to the problem that our dauntless electronics supplier has encountered. Essentially, the world has moved on, quite dramatically, from the time in which its legacy documentation tools and practices were sufficient. In a marketplace that is global, integrated and continuously advancing, the blunt truth is that all businesses must operate in a way that makes the most of state-of-the art technology.

It is essential because it is with effective automation that businesses can shorten cycles, trim costs, and adapt to the unique needs of every customer. Out of these three things, it is in fact the ability to adapt to each new requirement, that is the most important of all. When it came to its documentation processes, our electronics supplier had discovered its content to be very restricted. As our example highlighted, what our electronics supplier really needed to do was to handle its content assets with the same level of precision and adaptability that it applied to its engineering work. The documentation process essentially had to catch up with the rest of the business and with the demands of a global, and increasingly digital, market.

This is where intelligent content comes in. In very simple terms, intelligent content is content that has been prepared using open standards so as to be both portable and processable. In being portable, intelligent content can move between organizations and platforms. Portable content, for example, can be shared across a joint venture and be integrated from many sources to produce a single, authoritative representation of a product. In being processable, intelligent content can be processed by software applications that support a wide range of activities. Processable content can be analyzed, searched, filtered, rendered and reconfigured in an unlimited number of ways. Intelligent content, in being both portable and processable, can be used to address the types of demands that are becoming commonplace today.

Returning to our example, let’s picture a customer of our joint venture planning to release a Mobile App through which to support consumers. Our maintenance information service, if it is fueled by intelligent content, would be able to dynamically feed tailored content directly to users of this App. And the content tailoring would be something that would be continuously refined, so that users would receive details that were precisely matched to their device, their location, and even their activities. It should be pretty clear that large PDF documents, produced using legacy authoring and formatting practices, are not going to be particularly helpful in this scenario.

It is for this reason that intelligent content has emerged as a label for a set of documentation tools and techniques that have been gaining ground steadily over the last twenty years. It is in fact reassuring that intelligent content is not something new and flashy. It is really just the application of the same automation and engineering discipline to the business of documentation that has also revolutionized the global economy. And that’s why intelligent content should not be seen as optional. If your business operates on a global scale – and in a way all businesses do – then it will be essential that intelligent content becomes a centerpiece in how you plan, create, manage and deliver documentation services.

Image: Intelligent content addresses a wide range of demands.

The composition of intelligent content

We should, at this point, be quite specific about what open standards we are referring to as integral to the nature of intelligent content. Fundamentally, intelligent content leverages the Extensible Markup Language (XML) to ensure that content resources are created and maintained in a way that is fully portable and highly processable. There is clearly more to it than this simple statement implies. We need to keep in mind that XML really just provides us with a standardized way to define the markup that we will use in our content. XML does not tell us what markup practices we should actually deploy.

One of the major benefits of the long history behind the use of open standards for content processes, is that we have learned a number of important lessons about how to use XML wisely. One of these lessons is that it is advisable to adopt, apply and if necessary adapt, existing markup practices – especially those that enjoy broad support. It is for this reason that discussions of intelligent content invariably reference industry XML standards that have been developed within different sectors. These standards are valuable in part because they reflect the proven practices and data naming conventions that are prevalent within the applicable industries. Some of these standards in turn leverage the lower-level markup structures, such as paragraphs and lists, from the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) because those structures have become so familiar to authors and so widely supported in different software tools.

It is a feature of intelligent content that the application of open standards to an organization’s content resources is done in a way that makes it as easy to support and leverage as possible. Intelligent content is not, just to reiterate this point, an invitation to create a new and complex markup language based on XML that will require a small army of developers to implement and support. As our examples have shown, intelligent content is really about integrating an organization’s content, and associated documentation processes, into the mainstream flow of how that organization does business.

Intelligent content is about making sure that the documentation processes never become an impediment to how the organization adapts to a changing marketplace. On the contrary, intelligent content should help an organization to forge relationships and exploit opportunities that would not be possible without content resources that are fully portable and highly processable.

Current trends in intelligent content

The movement to adopt intelligent content as a guiding principle, even if under a different name, is gaining momentum. And this is visible in all sectors of the economy. We have already touched on a key reason with the need for organizations to integrate content processes into the core fabric of its business activities. Closely related to this is the competitive pressure to drive out costs and delays from every business process and to do so by continuously advancing the level of automation being applied.

There are other forces promoting the adoption of intelligent content as an innovation strategy. Another force being widely felt is the push for businesses to effectively address global markets. Intelligent content tools and practices can be deployed so that the costs of content globalization can be kept as low as possible. Intelligent content, to meet this need, is consciously engineered so as to eliminate the redundancies and complexities that unnecessarily inflate translation costs. Similarly, intelligent content can be designed so that the information being provided to consumers in each market is as usable and effective as possible. In a world where there are no secondary markets, intelligent content helps organizations to adopt an aggressive posture when it comes to tackling opportunities anywhere in the world.

The adoption of intelligent content in specific industry sectors can also help us to better understand the trend. In the commercial publishing industry, the emergence of eBooks and the mobile device as a key delivery channel has forced publishers to embrace intelligent content after many years of procrastination.

Only by leveraging intelligent content can publishers deliver eBooks to all of the different platforms and do so with a balance of cost and quality that is attractive. In industries such as pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and aerospace, intelligent content is deployed in a way that establishes complete lifecycle control over – and end-to-end accountability for – all content resources that support the design, development, deployment and evolution of complex systems and processes. Within government environments, intelligent content is being deployed to establish smart regulatory frameworks that reduce costs and improve overall results on a system-wide basis in sectors such as healthcare and finance. It is in fact difficult to find a segment of the economy where intelligent content is not being successfully adopted and applied.

Intelligent content is not something mystical or futuristic. Intelligent content is simply a grounded approach to making content resources portable and processable so that organizations can integrate and automate their activities efficiently and effectively. It is really a call to bring automation and engineering discipline into the business of content so that documentation processes can play a full and constructive role in the marketplace of tomorrow.