The Environment: A Prettier Face for Content Management

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October 2001

The Environment: A Prettier Face for Content Management

CIDMIconNewsletter Peter Dykstra, Director of Product Information, Donovan Data Systems, Inc.

XML-based content-management systems promise efficiency by letting companies reuse text, but they require writers and editors to adopt new ways of thinking about content. Ecosystems’ product, The Environment, provides a user interface designed to support editorial decision making. Symantec Corporation has found it to be a key part of the company’s evolving content-management strategy.

The Problem

How do companies that are used to producing brochures, books, documents, and Help files switch to producing modular, reusable information objects?

A single topic, description, or line drawing might need to appear in dozens of places-a reference guide, a getting started guide, a Web-based e-Learning module, an installation and configuration guide, and multiple task-based user guides for specific job functions. It might also be in separate sets of these documents for products that share subcomponents and also in multiple versions as products change over time.

Obviously, it’s inefficient to create and maintain the same information over and over for each of these uses. Less obvious: how to manage the pieces so they can be written once and used many times.

Many of the issues in managing content and reuse are organizational, not technical. How do writers and editors, who may be spread across an organization, make and track hundreds or thousands of individual decisions about reuse?

How can they create text in short modules that will make sense in all the necessary contexts? How does a writer assembling a document know that information is even available for reuse? How can a writer reusing a procedure on a Web page know that future changes to the procedure won’t affect the correctness or clarity of the page?

It’s clear that anyone writing in a content-management environment needs clear content and writing guidelines. But many cases also require context-specific judgments that even the best standards can’t anticipate.

Content-management systems provide the back-end horsepower for managing content databases. They address issues such as security and referential integrity. But they can fall short when it comes to supporting staff in addressing these kinds of issues.

This is the niche that Ecosystems, a small software developer in New York City, has staked out for its product, The Environment. The product works either as the user interface for an existing content-management system or as an independent content-management system on top of a database such as Oracle.

Its designers’ intention is to provide a better user experience and support for the business processes that writers and editors actually have to follow as they do their work. It currently works with Chrystal’s Astoria and Oracle; support for other environments is planned.

“The big question people have is `How do I write for single source?'” says Ecosystems CEO Robert Reich. “This tool starts to facilitate that. We make it easier for writers and editors to reuse existing content than to re-create it. That’s where our customers are getting the most return on their investment.”

The product’s interface simplifies the process of building documents from text elements in a content repository and supports decisionmaking through extensive use of metadata to track and display the history, status, and relationships among reused elements.

“By making the organization’s current knowledge about a subject accessible to support decisionmaking, The Environment provides improved speed and accuracy, reduced cost of learning, and reduced cost of operations,” says Reich.

Symantec’s Experience

One early user is Symantec Corporation, which is currently building a content-management environment. Symantec’s product lines, such as the Norton AntiVirus and Norton Internet Security series, generally include multiple product flavors with specialized additions, requiring a mix of shared and original content.

Content developers deliver FrameMaker files to in-house publishing and localization groups. (Symantec also uses WebWorks Publisher to create both printed books and Help files from FrameMaker files.)

“Our goal is to increase reuse to save money on production and localization,” says David Walske, content management consultant at Symantec. “We translate into 12 or 13 languages-it runs into big money really fast.” Reuse has a big impact on translation costs because reused text has to be translated only once.

“Given the company’s requirements, content management seemed like the clear way to go,” says Walske. Symantec decided on Chrystal’s Astoria as a content-management system, with FrameMaker+SGML as their editor. The Environment wasn’t part of their original plan.

“We set up a trial database and got Chrystal to install a demo version of the software,” Walske says. “It took about 90 days to get this assembled. During that time, I was developing DTDs and EDDs (Element Definition Documents, FrameMaker’s equivalent of DTDs).

“We began to guinea pig, mostly with people here in Santa Monica. A big part of the process was to get writers to think in terms of content management. We had to firm up our writing standards and get people to write in a more `independent element’ format. Some changes were as simple as pulling all cross references into a separate paragraph.”

Writing groups held training sessions to address the writing issues. “There was a need for a consciousness-raising effort in the whole group,” says Walske.

However, some of the issues they ran into were tools issues. Walske reports that Chrystal’s staff were responsive and helpful but that writers found Astoria’s interface less than ideal for managing their information assets.

“The native Astoria client was hard to use for most of our local clients, difficult to understand,” he says. “Users had problems knowing how to do an effective search to discover what they wanted in trying to put a document together. When things didn’t work as expected, they had a hard time distinguishing between bugs and operator error.”

Chrystal suggested trying The Environment. “It provides a much more cohesive approach,” says Walske. “You have much more of a sense that you’re working in a single unified environment.”

Astoria’s Search, Navigation, and View functions are separate applications. To build a new document, a writer using Astoria has to search the database with the Search tool, view each element separately with the View tool, and then bring each element into an XML editor to add it to the new document.

The Environment simplifies the process by combining Search, Navigation, and View in a single tool and also adding a document construction capability, so authors can find and review elements and assemble them into new documents in a single multi-window tool.

“The Environment is an authoring tool for the author,” says Walske. “I can actually create a new document completely within The Environment from existing documents. You can create new element hierarchies on the fly.”

Origins of The Environment

The idea for The Environment grew out of Robert Reich’s experiences first as a magazine publisher and then as designer of SGML-based publishing systems for Moody’s Investor Services. In both jobs, he found himself repeatedly developing solutions to the same general problem-making the publishing process more efficient for distributed work groups.

“Current tools were replications of paper-based processes. So you had copy and paste. Well, the monks had copy and paste. How do you move beyond that?” he says.

“Content-management systems all do pretty much the same thing. At the core, you have a static view into a database. Processes for assembling information are disjointed.”

Reich started Ecosystems in 1997 to develop a generic solution to the problem of collaborative content creation. His partner (and current CTO) Boris Kogan joined the company in May of 2000.

The central need, Reich decided, was for a technology that would let users work intuitively in a content repository, selecting and combining elements for reuse.

“Say, for example, you’re a textbook publisher and you need to create student and teacher editions of the same workbook. The two documents are fundamentally the same, except that one has more content then another. The user would like to remove teacher-specific sections from the student edition without losing the underlying connections to a shared copy of the text.

“This is exactly how The Environment works. You can start from the top of the teacher’s edition and decide which components to delete from the student’s edition. The Environment maintains all of your links and `reuses’ and gives you visual cues highlighting the difference between the two.”

Users get multiple views for sorting and selecting elements, making connections, and managing relationships among data items. “It constructs a semantic network you can use to trace relationships among items. The Environment can be hot-linked to the database so changes happen in real time, or it can be used remotely,” says Reich.

At the core of the product is Ecosystems’ Live-Outline technology (see the figure below).


The Environment tracks 18 Difference States for reused XML elements that have been designated as Live Outlines. Users can decide on a case-by-case basis whether documents that reuse the elements should inherit the changes.

“We spent months analyzing content creation and modification patterns at different types of corporations,” says Reich. “The majority of tools we studied broke down into two paradigms when it came to creating new versions of a document-you could copy text or you could reuse it. `Copy’ creates a new version with no connection to the original. `Reuse’ copies by reference and automatically feeds all changes through to the new versions. Both of these choices have advantages and disadvantages. Reuse is efficient, but it doesn’t work all the time.”

Live-Outline technology gives authors a third choice: they can specify that reused text be treated as a Live Outline.

“Live Outlines provide the best of both worlds,” says Reich. They preserve the connection to the original text to track reuse, but they also give the author independent control of each instance. Rather than changing instances automatically whenever the source text changes, the system takes an action such as notifying an editor, who can review affected documents and decide whether to apply the changes and make related adjustments.

Live Outline provides another benefit: authors and editors can see metadata showing information such as the person making the change and the date and reason for the change, helping them evaluate what action to take.

“In a large workgroup, information is continually evolving,” says Reich. “People borrow and recreate information. Subtle relationships get lost. The fact that I took paragraph `x’ from person `y’ on day `g’ and inserted it at point `m’ is important information that can affect how the information evolves. The Environment is built around the premise that within both large and small workgroups, most information required to complete a content modification or assembly task already exists in one form or another.”

Live Outline technology captures and represents how information evolves as part of the publishing process. It also passes the information back into the legacy system, modifying how the underlying system creates and modifies documents.”

People can use information more intelligently if they know what’s changing and why,” says Reich. “That’s the cornerstone

[of Live Outlines]. We are capturing and cataloging all content, structure, and metadata changes and then visually representing those relationships back to the user so they can make informed decisions.”

Doesn’t all this information become unmanageable? “No, because users see only the information about the content they’re focusing on.”

Top-down vs. Bottom-up Creation

One of The Environment’s benefits was not even a requirement at Symantec initially but is now seen as a big advantage: the ability to create new documents from the top down rather than from the bottom up.

“We uncovered the top-down editing issue during a prototyping stage, working with scenarios that would be typical,” says Walske. “In Astoria you build your documents from the bottom up.” You can reuse either an individual element or an entire element hierarchy, but if you use the hierarchy, you have to reuse the whole thing as-is. The only way to get detailed control of individual elements in the new context is to select each element separately and copy it into your XML editor.

Live Outlines introduces the concept of pruning: “We can grab the entire hierarchy, prune out what we don’t need, and add new pieces-a complete flip in the way you build documents, from the top down rather than from the bottom up. It’s a much more usable interface.”

This can make a huge difference in the cost of document management, Reich explains: “In the past, you had to balance granularity against time and effort. For example, one document at Honeywell [another Ecosystems’ client] had 220,000 elements. It could take months, maybe years, to build new versions from the bottom up one element at a time. So people reduced the level of granularity and hence the potential for reuse.

“Now I can build a document from the top down and prune out what I don’t need. I get all the benefits as if I had built it from the bottom up. By starting at the top, I can now use any existing document as a template. This provides a practical way to produce and manage highly customized documents based on a common core of information but not limit the end user to some predetermined level of granularity.”

Role-based UI

The Environment can be customized based on security restrictions so people can see and change just the things they need to change.

So, for example, a product manager could manage all the details of the product interface and operation. A training group could reuse the details in printed or online training curriculum and build `wrappers’ around the product details containing learning objectives and sample exercises. An account manager could build a document for a specific client and add client-specific content without changing the core content.

Where to Next?

Reich’s vision for The Environment includes database independence. Ecosystems plans to offer separate connections (known as proxies) for other content-management systems and databases.

“Whatever your content management system is, you should be able to start grabbing data-and also grabbing data across content-management systems. Everybody’s got their own silos-IT, management, publishing, training. People are starting to call us a virtual single-source repository.

“Our goal is to sit on the desktop of every person to simplify their content creation and modification process. The more people that contribute to the system the more intelligent your documents become,” he says.

Will The Environment do for content management what Lotus 1-2-3 did for accounting and the Mac did for desktop publishing? The jury is still out, partly because few companies have implemented content management. As Reich says, “Nobody’s doing this stuff.”

But it’s clear that The Environment is based on an appreciation of how workgroups work and addresses many of the practical issues that content creators deal with day to day. And an effective user interface that makes writers and editors more productive could easily make the difference between success and failure as companies adopt content-management strategies.