Companies that adopt structured content have consistently seen it accelerate the creation, simplify the maintenance and improve the quality of their content. They've seen structured content drive higher quality information, reduced publishing costs and faster times to market for their technical manuals, policy documents, financial information and other content and content-based products and services.

So how does an organization -- a department, division or an entire company -- get on the structured content bandwagon? Or, if it's already on the bandwagon, how does it expand the use of structured content within its operations? Here's a start.

In either instance, the organization needs a strategy for moving to structured content and managing the change such a move creates. After years working with companies and helping them with their structured content adoption, I've found several common steps in the process.

Step 1 - Find a champion

You need a manager to sponsor the project, someone with a vested interest in the success of the structured content project. The champion's title is not as important as his or her commitment. Depending on the size of the organization, the title may be relatively modest. Department managers can be just as effective in the champion role as senior vice presidents. In fact, the department manager may be more effective than the senior VP in a department-level adoption.

Regardless, the champion needs to be someone with a strategic vision and influence in the organization when it comes to content processes, and someone who stands to benefit by the move to structured content.

Step 2 - Understand the problem

What are the problems associated with your current content practices? And what are those problems costing today in terms of money, lost time, redundancies, inefficiencies, etc? Companies in regulated industries or litigious fields need to consider costs associated with penalties and litigation. For most companies, a typo is embarrassing, but it can lead to a huge fine or worse for companies in financial services or pharmaceuticals or other regulated industries.

Finally, consider opportunity costs, the opportunities you can't pursue due to unstructured content constraints -- e.g., adding multiple languages in a product line or publishing content in new formats.

Step 3 - Propose the alternative

Given the problems revealed in the previous step, define how structured content is going to resolve them. Map structured content's key functional attributes -- content reuse, separation of format and content, etc. -- to the challenges currently posed by unstructured content. Identify how reusable content could drive down costs by eliminating duplicate content creation or mitigate risk by ensuring the right content is used in all technical, legal and financial documents.

Explain how the separation of format and content accelerates time to market by simplifying the creation of new content deliverables. Bottom line, you need to provide your champion with a vision of how structured content will solve those specific business problems that you just articulated.

In step 3, you also begin gathering requirements for the new structured content systems. This is a good place to start engaging the people who will be using the new tools and working with the new processes. You get a better idea of users' needs, and you get users invested in and excited by the new system, all of which promotes successful adoption.

Step 4 - Implement the change

Most organizations starting from scratch with structured content are better off starting small, getting their feet wet with a departmental pilot project instead of a broader departmental -- or enterprise -- rollout. Even organizations expanding their use of structured content are encouraged to move slowly, racking up a series of small successes rather than risking one spectacular failure. So start small and get professional assistance with the technical details rather than trying to do it all, even the tasks that are within your skill set.

Similarly, don't reinvent the wheel when it comes to using structured content within your specific business. If DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) or some other schema is an appropriate solution for you, use it. The proof of concept is the proof of value. Later, you can expand the pilot into a larger implementation.

Step 5 - Hold users' hands

The last thing you want to do is implement a structured content solution only to have writers sneak off, create content in Word and then copy and paste it to the structured content system because they're not comfortable. Make the users comfortable, especially the power users who others look to for how-to tips and advice.

Too many organizations implement a project and move on, forgetting the people who have to use the new tools. Don't underestimate the amount of training and support users will need to be successful. And don't forget to give the users a voice in the adoption process. Implement a feedback cycle that lets them communicate their challenges and requests, and nurtures the feeling of investment that you initiated during Step 3.

Step 6 - Adjust and extend

Pilot projects are highly recommended for organizations that can afford them. The benefits of the pilot are the lessons learned from experience in the pilot. A pilot project reveals areas that can be improved and ways to make structured content tools and standards better fit the organization. So the pilot lets the organization make adjustments and corrections as it moves forward and builds out its structured content system.

Note the typical pilot project advice is "avoid customizations." In structured content, the pilot advice is "don't worry about getting your customizations perfect." Customization and specialization is inherent in the value of structured content. You can modify the systems to best serve your business needs.

So as structured content adoption grows beyond the pilot, one of the key issues involves selection of the right products and the right standards. Those choices give you the right balance between what works out of the box and what is flexible -- i.e., customizable -- enough to meet future needs. You don't want a system that requires a lot of customization to be usable, but you do want a system that is capable of such customization to meet your evolving needs.

Step 7 - Acknowledge the success

No matter what size the organization or project, success needs to be communicated to project champions, project stakeholders and the organization at large. This helps stakeholders look to other business units that may be suffering similar problems and help drive change in those areas of the organization. Ideally, those successes will be supported by before-and-after metrics that demonstrate quantifiable improvements -- time or money saved, process efficiencies realized, etc.

Structured content can be a powerful change agent within the organization. But to reap the power, organizations must first embrace the change. The steps above will help make the change happen.