Building a Content-Management Strategy at Calix
Investigating a strategy
Having been a trainer and writer, I am intrigued by the similarities shared by these professions. I believe a company can realize significant benefits using collaborative development shared by documentation and training.
The emergence of single sourcing for documentation, learning objects for training, and content and knowledge management for the enterprise suggests a converged content-development strategy that can improve content consistency, save money, and do more with less.
I put this idea into action when I joined Calix, a telecommunications start-up.
Breaking new ground
Calix had not yet set their strategy for delivering customer information. They were designing the product and assembling teams for customer documentation, training, and support.
Our small team could not waste time on duplicate development, and we could not achieve the innovation we wanted by working alone. We sought collaboration with other groups not normally associated with documentation and training.
Pursuing multiple content strategies
Like many companies, Calix had multiple groups pursuing multiple content strategies. Our challenge was to convince these groups to contribute to a shared content repository.
- Documentation sought a single-source solution to deliver and reuse content in print and online formats.
- Training sought a system supporting reusable learning objects to speed training development and delivery of just-in-time learning on the Web.
- Support and sales sought knowledge-management systems to deliver support solutions and product marketing information.
- The Web team sought content management to make the content available online.
These groups were working around the edges of the same problem. They did not realize that they were seeking a common solution or that their content needs included the same product descriptions, illustrations, and procedures.
Proposing a solution
Calix needed a solution that blended the requirements of multiple groups into a strategy for development and delivery of customer-oriented content.
Our task was simplified because Calix had not yet invested in development tools or established standards. We proposed a strategy intended to
- reduce content development time by eliminating redundant development
- reduce costs for content development by reusing text, graphic, and media objects for documentation, training, support, and marketing
- reduce maintenance costs by ensuring that revisions to content would appear in all places it was reused
- reduce production costs by exporting content to multiple formats
- improve customer experience by delivering a consistent message
The result was a converged content-management strategy supporting customer documentation, training, support, and product marketing.
Developing a Strategy
For the Calix strategy to work, we needed to
- adopt a content model to guide design and development
- develop a method of tagging content for retrieval
- find tools that supported reusable content development and delivery
Our first step was to look for success stories and best practices from similar efforts.
Studying a previous success: The Cisco RLO Strategy
In the learning field, the Reusable Learning Object (RLO) Strategy1 by Cisco Systems is a well-known success story. We sought to apply a variation of this strategy to a more generally reusable content strategy.
An RLO contains an Overview, Summary, Assessment, and five to nine (7±2) Reusable Information Objects (RIOs). The RLO teaches a common job task, and each RIO is based upon a single objective supporting the RLO (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Cisco Reusable Learning Object Model (With Permission from Cisco Systems, Inc.)
Aside from using an assessment, the model of organizing topics in support of an objective is a structure common to many forms of writing.
The definition of an RIO had greater importance to a general content strategy. An RIO contains content, practice, and assessment elements closely paralleling a topic map with content blocks as defined by Structured Writing.2, 3
Following a model for structured reusable content: The Learnativity Content Model
Combining the concept of reusable information objects with the principles of Structured Writing yields a general model for structured reusable content. Such a model, mapping the levels of context and reusability to structured content, has been proposed by Wayne Hodgins of the Learnativity Alliance.4
The Learnativity Content Model shows that as content is assembled into larger structures the context carried by the content increases but the reusability of the content drops. This model implies that the greatest reusability occurs at smaller content sizes and that assembling content adds meaning (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. © 2001 Learnativity Alliance
After studying the Cisco RLO Strategy, the Learnativity Content Model, and the principles of Structured Writing, we developed a strategy for developing structured reusable content at Calix. We followed traditional Structured Writing for the development of content blocks and topics. We then followed a generalized version of the Cisco RLO Strategy to govern how topics were assembled into sections.
At Calix, content reuse occurred at the following levels of the content structure:
- Blocks became the most widely reused and versatile content level as core information was developed for maximum reuse. It is common for a single content block to appear in multiple manuals, courses, and datasheets.
- Topics were assembled from blocks supporting a single objective or idea. Reuse of complete topics occurred mostly within a single domain, such as documentation or training. A documentation topic is reused in other documentation projects but only occasionally reused in training or support.
- Higher levels of the content structure, such as sections and chapters, rarely see reuse.
Separating content from presentation
To preserve reusability for different uses and formats, we avoided applying formatting, such as font, size, color, and weight. These presentation properties are applied, and appropriately set, when content is exported to a presentation medium.
Applying format to content when it is created destroys reusability.
Tagging content with metadata
Tagging content is crucial to finding it later. At the beginning, we found it possible to get by without a metadata plan, but it was a trap.
As the volume of content grew, it reached a point where tagging was necessary to find and reuse content. Because we did not tag content early, we faced a huge job of tagging content after-the-fact.
Selecting a tool that supports reuse
Any significant amount of reusable content requires a sophisticated content-management system. We chose a tool that supported authoring, storage, management, and reuse of content in a single environment. Advantages included
- separation of content from presentation
- natural support for developing content in structured blocks
- support for custom meta-tagging at all levels of the content structure
- export to multiple formats
The tool Calix chose was Evolution from OutStart.5 This tool is designed as a learning content-management system, but we found it also worked well for developing documentation, marketing, and support content.
Implementing a Solution
Implementing a reusable content strategy caused us to rethink many of the methods we used to develop content.
- Standard outlines were insufficient to identify needed content blocks and opportunities for reuse.
- Development guidelines required greater detail on the design of content blocks and how to assemble blocks into topics.
- Developers had to think of content blocks as complete stand-alone items and not allow dependencies to occur as is common when developing with a document mindset.
- Developers had to give up the idea of owning a document and work instead at assembling a document with the help of others.
Most of the difficulties we encountered could be traced to loosening design standards or ignoring principles of developer collaboration.
Planning development projects with content maps
To account for content reuse at the block level during planning, we produced detailed content maps rather than traditional outlines (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. An Example of a Content Map
A content map at the block level provides the following benefits compared to an outline:
- provides more detail before writing starts
- identifies the content blocks needed
- makes it possible to search for blocks to reuse
- allows reviewers to provide more useful recommendations sooner
- supports early tagging by identifying the blocks being created
- makes collaboration with other developers easier
Along with all of the basics for specifying writing, editorial, and graphic style, additional standards are required. We also created standards for
- creating content maps and circulating them for review
- organizing blocks into information types, such as concepts, facts, principles, procedures, and processesWe also defined what block types were used to express and support these information types.
- assembling blocks into topicsWe defined the structure of a topic and the common block types used in given topic types.
- rules for reuse and how to check proposed changes with other developers
There was a strong temptation to keep standards loose and to allow for adjusting things as we went. We found that when we left standards loose, we had to go back and fix them. The tighter the standards are at the beginning, the more time you will save fixing content later.
The level of detail and discipline needed for a successful reusable content strategy was foreign to some developers. They had objections and claimed the strategy would hinder their ability to get work done. Such objections, and counters to them, include
- Creating reusable content takes too much time.There is more work in the beginning, but the time and effort decrease dramatically once a sufficient number of reusable content blocks are stored in the repository.
- My content is too unique to be reusable.A large percentage of the content in any document is made of basic information that should be consistent wherever it is used. Uniqueness comes in how you assemble the content and add other blocks to provide context.
- Reused content will not have the same writing style.Reusable content does not change anything about establishing writing standards for a shared writing style. It just makes following them more important.
- I cannot reuse content because I need a special spin.This comment usually comes from one group arguing that they cannot use content from another group. The core content should be the same. The spin, or context, is provided by how the content is assembled.
Dealing with lone authors
Creating reusable content within an enterprise requires a high degree of communication and collaboration. This strategy is definitely for team players. Developers working in isolation lead to major problems in a reusable content environment. All developers need to work collaboratively and work must be visible and available for potential reuse at all times.
Supporting developer collaboration
Best practices occur when developers work collaboratively on similar or related projects. The developers can better map out content reuse and share the development load.
Supporting this collaboration requires a high degree of communication and trust in your colleagues. At Calix, we hold regular meetings where developers identify what they are working on so that reuse plans and questions can be addressed early.
Managers must also make it clear that evaluations are based on teamwork, block development, and the reusability of blocks created.
Results and Lessons Learned
Calix has been pursuing a reusable content strategy since the fall of 2000.
- We spent the first nine months researching tools, developing the strategy, and defining standards.
- During the next year, our team grew. Many reusable content blocks were created and many volumes assembled.
- When the economic downturn hit, we scaled back and found that the reusable content strategy made it possible to survive with far fewer resources.
Get management buy-in
Moving to a reusable content strategy is a long-term commitment and cannot be done halfway. Complete management support is necessary.
At Calix, we emphasized the following benefits:
- a consistent message from all information groups
- easier to keep content accurate by reducing the number of places content must be updated
- easier to assemble blocks into custom information products
- lower cost to create content in multiple formats
- lower cost for production by sharing development across multiple groups
Set standards early
Well-defined and rigorously followed standards are critical to success. All of the problems we encountered at Calix have been the result of not fully developing standards or purposely leaving some standards loosely defined because we thought we needed the flexibility.
Example of loose standards causing problems
Early in our development phase, we were not quite sure how rigidly to define the standards for content blocks. We thought that block titles should be optional and that multiple reusable chunks could be assembled into a single titled block. We left standards for block size and block titles loosely defined to provide flexibility.
That decision caused problems for reusing and maintaining the content. We have now fully defined our block standards for size and titling, and the problems have disappeared.
Design with blocks
Our primary content design effort occurs at the block level. We begin by defining all content needs according to their block types. We work in small chunks and try to control the size of blocks and topics.
Working from the bottom up, from blocks to documents, is a good way to resist the urge to create blocks that are too large.
The real payoff for reusable content comes after a critical mass of reusable blocks is developed. Before critical mass was achieved, our efforts were greater and progress slower than normal. Once a critical mass was achieved, development efficiency took off.
Calix has realized many benefits from following a reusable content strategy. The benefits have come from both improved efficiencies and the ability to weather an adverse economy.
- Speed of development has greatly increased after reaching a critical mass of reusable content blocks.
- Shared content development between documentation, training, support, and marketing makes better use of resources.
- Revisions are more efficient because changing one reused block updates multiple documents.
- Content quality has increased because of greater collaboration and communication between developers.
- Efficient use of reusable content has maintained development standards following budget and staff cuts.
- The flexibility of reusable content supports quickly reorganizing documents to fit changing resource levels and customer needs.
Implementing a reusable content strategy and extending it across multiple groups has paid off for Calix. The strategy is helping us to weather a slow economy and will leave us poised for rapid development when the situation improves.
1 Reusable Learning Object Strategy
Cisco Systems, Inc
2001, Cisco Systems
2 Mapping Hypertext
Robert E. Horn
1989, The Lexington Institute
3 Structured Writing at Twenty-Five
Robert E. Horn
Performance and Instruction 32 (February 11-17, 1993)
4 Into the Future: A Vision Paper
H. Wayne Hodgins
5 For more information about Evolution and other products from OutStart, visit www.outstart.com