April 1999

Single Sourcing

CIDMIconNewsletter Ann Rockley, Center Associate

Traditionally, technical communicators created primarily paper-based user guides and reference material. This is no longer the case. Most likely, you create documentation for multiple media (paper-based materials, Help, Web-based, and training), multiple types of users, diverse product lines, multiple languages, and customized products. Creating multiple types of documents simultaneously can be time consuming and costly, and can lead to errors in consistency. Additionally, timelines for developing documentation are getting shorter and budgets are getting smaller. In many cases, single sourcing can simplify the process and help you meet the multiple demands.

What is Single Sourcing?

For some time, writers have been creating what some have called single source materials, i.e., a paper-based manual and online Help. Tools have enabled this; however, typically the content of the paper-based documentation and the content of the Help was identical. This has raised valid concerns that information written for one medium is not appropriate for another. In fact, what was happening was conversion, not single sourcing.

True single sourcing is the process of reusing information where appropriate and creating unique information where appropriate. Depending on how single sourcing is implemented, companies typically decrease redundancy between 25 and 50 percent.

Benefits of Single Sourcing

Single sourcing has many benefits:

  • Eliminates redundant or repetitive information
  • Improves consistency within a documentation set or library
  • Reduces the chance for errors because information is not written or updated several times
  • Improves productivity of your staff by eliminating repetitive and clerical tasks
  • Frees writers to focus on content
  • Enables users to customize their own documentation set
  • Reduces the commitment you need from technical reviewers who will only have to review a piece of information once

These benefits result in time and cost savings.

How Single Sourcing Affects Your Processes

Single sourcing affects your processes from analysis and design to content management, workflow, and writing.

Analysis and Design
While many vendors of content management systems (tools used for single sourcing) tell you that you can use existing information in its current form, to realize the full benefits of single sourcing you should redesign your materials and your design and creation processes. Analysis and redesign will be your largest up-front cost. The larger the information set, the longer this process will take, but it is only necessary once-at the beginning or as you introduce new types of information to your set.

Single source information consists of elements, not files or documents. You need to identify the elements of your information set. To do this, you look at the granularity at which information can be broken down. Granularity means looking at the smallest possible piece of information that is still a useful piece of information. You need to identify:

  • which reusable information is the core of your information set
  • which information is unique or different
  • at what level the information will change (word, sentence, paragraph or section).

Once you have identified the reusable information and the size of your elements, your next major step is to map out the design and structure of the information set. A clear structure will make it easier for writers to “slot” information into the appropriate areas.

Content Management
Content management is critical to the success of single sourcing. Every component of information needs to be identified and controlled so writers can find and reuse it easily. Content management involves version control, access control, and categorizing information.

Version control is very important when information is reused. Each time an information element is changed, a new version of the element is saved and the previous one retained. Writers can then identify if they want the element to be updated as soon as the source is updated (e.g., web sites) or to remain the same regardless of further updates (e.g., for older versions of a product). Version control also lets you save a copy of information as it exists at a particular time. This is particularly important for information/product/services that are government regulated; you can go back to a saved version to “resurrect” the information as it existed on that day.

Access control enables a writer to “own” an element of information. The authoring writer is then responsible for making ongoing changes to that element. Thus, content is not arbitrarily changed by everyone, rather, it is changed in a controlled manner. Other writers can read or use the element but cannot change it without authoring privileges. Access control also ensures that only one person has a file open at any time. This check in/check out of information ensures that writers don’t overwrite each others’ changes or introduce contradictory changes. However, it is possible to create a branching version of the file/document if more than one writer has permission.

Categorizing information is a key component of content management. Since your team will be developing a repository of information, every element must be identified for access and reuse. Categorizing information elements is similar to indexing a document; it is done using meta-data, allowing writers to add information about the element of information (e.g., content, user group, hierarchy). Writers use categorization and search phrases to find information of a particular type or from within a particular category. The more meta-tags associated with an element of information, the more likely the correct piece of information will be found quickly and easily. Standard meta-tags should be identified before you begin creating materials so that information is consistently categorized from the start.

Workflow is used to identify the process by which your information is created, reviewed, and “published.” Each element of information moves through the workflow, ensuring all documents are created in the same way. Workflow also identifies the review process, including who the appropriate reviewers are at which stage of the process. Workflow ensures that documents that have not been approved do not make it to release.

When you create single source materials you write elements, not documents. Once writers make this transition, they will find they are writing more rapidly and more effectively.

It is important to note that even though writers work on elements, they do not write in isolation of the entire document or information set. Writers must always be aware of how their element fits into the whole information set or into many sets. To write effective documents, writers must have a broader understanding of how information is used to ensure that the elements they write will work effectively whether presented in a Help file, in a printed manual, or in any other type of reuse situation.

Additionally, writers are responsible for creating the “virtual document” which defines how the elements of information are drawn together to create a unified whole. Their vision of the complete document as they create the elements is a factor in the document’s ultimate success.

Single Sourcing and the Changing roles of Technical Communicators

In the past, technical communicators have tended to work primarily on their own to create a “document.” Single sourcing necessitates a team approach. This does not mean that writers are no longer responsible for their information or that they will lose control over the structure of the final output; it means that one writer may be responsible for writing the core information (the information that is reused) while others are responsible for identifying how their information differs from the core, then adding it to the source. Or it may mean that a number of writers work on different aspects of the core, working together to ensure that all the information is integrated.

The process of creating single source materials separates the creation of the input (content) from the output (media or information type). This means that writers will become more proficient communicators and rely less on the tools used to display the final information. Writers who enjoy working with the tools can take on the challenging role of tool expert. This position involves designing conversion templates that take the content and convert it into one or many different outputs (e.g., paper, Help, Web, training). Tools experts may also design and maintain the structure of the content management system.

Single sourcing increases rather than narrows the scope of what writers do. If information is to be used in multiple media, writers write for all those media simultaneously. Writers identify the building blocks of information and how the blocks fit together. Skilled writers need to understand how their elements will work in each medium, thus becoming more like architects than construction workers.

Writers also gain in other ways. They no longer have to contend with tedious updates. Now updates are always related to new content; information that stays the same is untouched. Changes to existing material are fast-a change to a single element automatically updates wherever it is used. Time previously spent on “busy” work can now be spent on creating new material and creating innovative changes in information delivery.

Information designers play a key role in the initial design of information. They become responsible for building the models that writers use when creating their information elements. The design of these models and accompanying templates facilitate the writing and assembly process.

Standards and consistency are important in creating seamless single source materials. Single sourcing makes editing an increasingly important role because standards must be implemented and enforced across the information set.

Clearly, single sourcing will change the way you work. These changes will result in better documents that are created more cost efficiently. The roles of many of the people in your organization will change, but many will take on broader, more exciting roles. Significant periods of time will be freed up to do the interesting, rather than mundane, work.

Your role is to ensure that your organization enters single sourcing with a clear goal and vision; you set the direction for your single sourcing. You will be responsible for effectively moderating the expectations of your team and management and ensuring that they see the benefits of moving forward. CIDMIconNewsletter

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