Getting Your Ducks In A Row: What to Consider Before Moving to a Structured Writing Environment

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February 2006

Getting Your Ducks In A Row: What to Consider Before Moving to a Structured Writing Environment

CIDMIconNewsletter Bret Freeman, Vasont Systems

We’ve all heard the cliché “get your ducks in a row,” meaning to get organized, usually in preparation for future work or new challenges. This is how you need to approach the move from an unstructured writing environment to a structured writing environment with a content management system. Tackling such a project without having your “ducks” organized is ensuring yourself a very large headache and less than successful results. To get your ducks in a row, you need to answer these questions:

  • Why do we want to get structured?
  • How does our current environment look?
  • How should our new environment look?
  • How are we going to get there?

The key for a successful outcome is to answer the first three questions before answering the last one and organizing each of your responses before moving on to the next one. Doing so will ensure your organization is able to take advantage of its new structured writing environment in the best way possible.

Duck One: Why Do We Want to Get Structured?

To understand why this question is important, it helps to know what the wrong answers are. Wrong answers include: “We want to move into the 21st century,” “Everyone else is doing it,” “It is the latest trend,” and “My friend at Company X did it.”

Do not make the move to a structured writing environment just because it is trendy. Do not make the move to a structured writing environment because your friends’ companies are doing it. The task of the first “duck” is to sit down and list the benefits that structure will give to your unique organization. Many groups find it useful to identify their pain points, or the problems that they would like to solve, and then talk about how structuring their content will fix those problems.

The benefits of a structured writing environment are huge, and they vary from organization to organization. Here are some to consider:

  • Greater control over content-Improving consistency and accuracy is almost always a high priority. Content reuse and repurposing help organizations to do that, allowing authors to take advantage of content that is already created and approved, while spending less time creating new (or duplicate) content from scratch. A structured writing environment also makes it much easier to deliver content to multiple channels, such as the web, CD-ROM, and print, without creating twice the work.
  • Higher levels of productivity-Content management systems enable you to automate key tasks that will save hours of time within your unique editorial process. This automation can vary from automatically emailing an editor when an author is finished with a project to automatically sending new content out for translation. Automation frees staff members from mundane tasks and allows them to be more productive, while ensuring a smooth editorial process.
  • Shorter production cycle-Content reuse and repurposing, combined with automated processes, can greatly shorten the production cycle. Imagine that your organization publishes an encyclopedia, and you need to put together a short booklet on mammals. Your author could pull approved content and repurpose it into the booklet. The graphic designer could automatically receive an email request for the relevant photos, and the editor could be automatically notified when the booklet is ready for review. The booklet could be compiled in days rather than weeks!
  • Cost savings-When an organization can do more with its existing content while shortening its production cycle, significant cost savings are sure to follow. Reusing and repurposing, combined with more efficient workflow and translation processes, equals money saved.

Duck Two: How Does Our Current Environment Look?

After you have decided that moving to a structured writing environment is a good idea for your organization, it is time to address your current environment. After all, you can’t get your ducks in a row if you don’t know where they are!

Start by evaluating your current environment. Many organizations have an “over the wall” editorial process. Content is thrown over cubical walls from author to editor and so on, rather than using technology and an organized workflow. This puts content at risk for editorial mistakes, inaccuracies, and lost content. Also, think about how much time you spend looking for content that you know someone created but you don’t know where they stored it. Your goal in evaluating your content is to understand where your content goes. What path does it take? What people are involved?

Once you have a better idea of what path your content takes, go through and identify the valuable processes. You have already identified some pain points, so you know the process isn’t flawless, but there must be some steps that are working or you wouldn’t be able to operate. Put flags next to your valuable points-these are the steps you want to keep. Next, work with your team to reassess everything else. The goal is to look at your environment as it stands now and identify what is working and what is not, where the bottlenecks and delays are in your processes, and so on.

Another aspect of evaluating your current environment is to understand what your current content looks like. What does it consist of? Procedures? E-learning lessons? Parts definitions? What content does your organization create, what does it use, and what does it need? What content have you created in the past? Do you currently reuse any of it? As you ask these questions, keep in mind that most likely not all of your content will need to be converted. Every organization will require a different strategy for dealing with legacy or “old” content. This step presents a good opportunity to identify which content is most useful and which is less useful.

When you have combed through the whole process from start to finish and you understand what content you are currently managing, your team is ready to move to duck three.

Duck Three: How Should Our New Environment Look?

Once you know what your current environment looks like, your team can dream about your ideal environment-emphasis on dream! Don’t be afraid to think big in this stage. Look at duck two and think “OK, this is what we have-but what would we LIKE to have?” A few points to keep you on the right track:

  • Know where you are going. What is your destination or final deliverables? Don’t lose track of the goal in your brainstorming, or you will end up with a really interesting environment that doesn’t get you to your deliverable.
  • What should your final deliverable look like? In other words, does it need to be published in print, on the web, and CD-ROM? Or just print? Does it need to be in English only or in multiple languages?
  • What should your document lifecycle, or workflow, look like to get to that destination? What tasks must get accomplished?

If your team can answer these questions, then they are most likely ready to block out a roadmap of how to get from an unstructured to a structured writing environment. Congratulations! Before leaving this duck and moving on to the next one, be sure to go back and compare your ideal environment with duck number one. Does it address your pain points? Then compare it to duck number two. Does it include your most valuable points? If the answer to both questions is yes, move on to duck four.

Duck Four: How Are We Going to Get There?

Duck four is the “road map” step. Based on the previous, in-depth analysis your team has done to get to this point, it is time to put together a road map of how your group will get from its current environment to its new structured writing environment. The previous analysis was crucial because it will ensure that you choose your tools and your path based on your unique situation and your goals, rather than letting your tools dictate your goals. The final decisions you make need to be solidly based on your organization’s unique situation-but because you have your ducks in a row, that won’t be a problem!

Here are some of the decisions your team must make:

  • Which DTD is right for our situation? Based on your analysis, you’ll need to decide whether to create a custom DTD or pick one off the shelf, such as DocBook or DITA. Don’t forget to include metadata in your discussion. Metadata enables your authors to locate and use information and is a big part of working within a structured writing environment.
  • Which tools will help us to reach our goals? A major part of your overall move to a structured writing environment will be implementing the appropriate technology. The technology will probably include an authoring tool, a content management tool, and a publishing tool. If you are nervously patting your wallet, that’s okay. This is where the financial investment comes in, but don’t let that intimidate you. Today’s vendors provide a variety of options and are willing to work with you to put together a plan that works for your team as well as your budget. Ideally all three systems should be selected simultaneously. They should be evaluated with each other throughout the process to ensure that they work together seamlessly, ensuring the most efficient editorial process possible.
  • Should I use a phased in approach? By now you are probably thinking, “Wow, this is becoming a huge undertaking.” Don’t panic. For many organizations, a good way to begin this new initiative is to run a pilot. Running a pilot of just one project is a useful way to figure out the kinks and benefits of the new environment and will probably make everyone feel more comfortable. Though this varies, if your company is ready to jump right in, by all means go ahead!
  • How/when do I turn off my old system and turn on my new one? The easy answer here is: when you don’t need the old one anymore. Some overlap is inevitable and not a bad thing. There is comfort knowing that the older, more familiar system is there if the newer system should encounter a problem. But once you have your content switched over to the new system and your staff is comfortable with it, it is probably a good idea to remove the old system-to avoid mistakes and duplication of effort.

Dealing with Challenges

Having all of your ducks in a row will greatly help to minimize the challenges you will face when moving to a structured writing environment. Although every organization is different, there are still a few common obstacles that you should be aware of in case they arise.

First, be aware that authoring in a structured writing environment and using a content management system are fundamentally different than authoring in an unstructured writing environment. Structured authoring opens up a whole new way of thinking to your authors, some of whom will find it exhilarating, while others will find it a little intimidating. Be aware that each of your authors will have an adjustment period and that the length of that adjustment period may vary from author to author. A strong training program as part of your content management system implementation will go a long way to helping the entire editorial staff become more comfortable with the change and get excited about the system. Be sure to ask each of the vendors that you work with about the training and support available.

Second, even with previous analysis, when it comes time to actually implement the tools needed for a structured writing environment, some organizations find that they haven’t adequately addressed the issue of legacy content. Many organizations have so much legacy content that it is difficult to form a plan of attack. The simplest is often to divide the legacy content into three categories: used often enough to store in the content management system’s repository, important enough to save but not used often enough to store in the CMS repository, and not important. If a large amount of content falls into the second category, don’t worry. As the editorial department continues to work in and become more comfortable with the structured writing environment, it will become easier to sort through the legacy content.

Third, organizations often have a harder time identifying an ideal workflow than one might think. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where the “entry point” to the process is. The authors point to the editors, who point to the managers of the department, and so on. Often, information-development workflows actually start outside the writing department, when the product development team draws up the specs for a new product. Then they tell the technical communicators that they need new materials, initiating the workflow. After identifying the entry point, some organizations stumble when trying to automate their workflow processes. Should they use automated email? What tasks need to be automated? It is helpful to identify what tasks are repeated most often, because they are often the tasks that can be the most helpful when automated (for instance, the author sends an email to the graphic designer requesting an image, the author sends email to editor with content for review, and so on). CMS vendors can provide helpful advice and guidance in this area, because they know their systems well and have usually worked with a variety of unique organizations.

Guaranteeing Success

Finally, there are a few final tips that can help guarantee success:

Set goals. Goals give your plan a direction. Even the best technology cannot succeed without a well-designed implementation plan.

Set milestones on the way to each goal. Projects of this size often get so large that they can seem out of control to the people actually involved. By celebrating milestones along the way, the people involved can see that steady progress is being made, reflect upon lessons learned, and build on each milestone until the ultimate goals are reached.

Build measurable results. Be sure to structure all goals and milestones in a way that is measurable-not “We will improve our editorial process.” Ideally, everyone can improve an editorial process, but how will you improve yours? Will you shorten production time by X days or weeks? Do more with fewer people? Keeping goals and milestones measurable will also make them easier to report to upper management and to celebrate when you meet them.

Evaluate progress. As you proceed, always evaluate each goal and milestone. In fact, evaluate your progress in between each goal as well. The true value of having your ducks in a row is being able to always look back to make sure that you are on the right track-but that is only valuable if you take the time to do it! CIDMIconNewsletter