JoAnn T. Hackos, PhD
Director, The Center for Information-Development Management

In preparation for my Trends update talk at the Best Practices conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about the move of information development into content management. Except for using content management as a publishing tool to do Level 1 single sourcing (same content, different output media), many managers are reluctant to turn their organizations upside-down. The question becomes—is it worth it?

Is it worth the time and effort to move to modular writing, create modules in XML, store them in a repository, and construct compound documents from collections of modules? Is the upfront work required to reinvent the documentation and restructure the processes worth the cost?

Many information-development organizations look at the price tag on a typical content-management system and cringe. The thought of spending $100,000 or much more on technical publications provides a case study in sticker shock for upper management. People keep asking me if there aren’t less expensive alternatives—something in the $700 per license range. My answer: not really, not if you want to make a difference.

I believe the key to addressing the price dilemma is broadening, not narrowing the scope of the content-management solution. Generally, I urge reluctant publications managers to look beyond the cubicle to other parts of the organization that may have a vested interest in managing content.

In the most recent issue of the Gilbane Report (Vol. 9, No. 6, July 2001), Frank Gilbane (a content-management technology guru), argues that enterprise-wide implementation as a whole is not very practical—too many conflicting goals. Instead, we should be looking at content-management solutions that support customers in well-defined ways. He points to the product Catalog as the key killer application for content management. Because the product catalog is usually controlled by sales and marketing, they have been getting the funding they need to place catalog upkeep under content management. While other software vendors in general have seen considerable falloff in sales, content-management vendors appear to be holding their own because they can promise two critical results:

  • greater efficiencies that lead to reduced costs and an improved competitive position
  • higher quality service to customers

The Catalog on which Gilbane centers his argument becomes a metaphor for delivering critical information to the customer. Gilbane focuses his discussion of the Catalog as part of the sales cycle. We know that companies spend money on sales even in the worst of times.

I argue that we need to look beyond the sales cycle to the entire support chain. I credit David Davidoff of Enigma with alerting me to the support chain concept in content management. The support chain contains the entire process of delivering information and learning to customers as they consider, purchase, configure, and use our products. At each stage in the support chain, customers rely on information.

For the complex technical products that we support, some of the critical support chain information comes from humans. The sales representative and the applications engineer engage the customer directly, providing demonstrations, explanations, and working models with customer data. Because our products are typically very difficult to touch, we rely on people to present information. At the decision and purchase stages, those people come from the sales and consulting teams. Afterward, the key people are from training and customer service.

Yet we recognize that for most technical products, the people, no matter how much they are preferred by our customers, cannot stand alone. Their efforts must be supported by content that is effectively managed for accuracy, completeness, appropriateness, and accessibility.

We need to regard our function in content management as the linchpin, the key part that holds all the others together. The information that we generate, or others generate and we help make understandable and retrievable, should be the core of the content-management solution. This information is distributed to marketing, sales, customer service, consulting, and training. They may reuse the information intact or modify it for their own needs. The content-management system must, in fact, support both direct reuse and modifications that remain linked to the source information. But, most important, we must partner with all of these organizations to obtain feedback. Each member of the support chain provides value to the information collected under content management. They note shortcomings and omissions, find errors, and discover better ways to explain, at least partially closing the feedback loop to the end-customer.

My advice, then, is to consider the role of information development in the support chain. Establish a partnership with the other key players. Together you will find the support and funding for a comprehensive content-management solution.

Critical reading: If you haven’t yet read Dr. Michael Hammer’s description of the Support Chain problem, download it today. It’s critical reading for ID managers. Find the white paper at Enigma’s Web site.