Where do most automation efforts begin or get to almost immediately? With the technology, sometimes even choosing the products before they start. Should they?
Probably not, but they do anyway.
Projects that start with technology often end up with technology unmatched to their needs, costing more than they can really afford, often failing to improve things or making them worse.
Is there a better way to approach automation? Experience suggests that there is: following the content imperative.
What is the Content Imperative?
For most applications, content is the only enduring value created in the application lifecycle. While not always the case — process-centric credit card authorization transactions are an exception — the Internet and Web are making content the major value-added in automation. Even in workflow, it’s the content that flows, not the work which is performed on it during the application lifecycle.
From that realization grows an assumption that content is the key value component, and if it is right, a wide range of technology can be successful. If it is not, no amount of technology will generate a truly workable environment.
Content as the Repository of Value
To find and follow the content imperative, you must understand what content means to your organization and efforts. Though not always the case, the majority of content in today’s world is logically complex, intended for diverse audiences, and usable at multiple levels via components nested within it.
This is not, unfortunately, how most organizations view content and is certainly not how most software vendors would like you to view it. Their view: dumb content means smarter and more expensive technology.
So the first part of the content imperative is to understand what you have or know that others want, demand and will pay for. Only then can you begin the process of figuring out the best way to create it.
Notation ain't Design
Once you have identified your intellectual value, you must select a notation to record it: my suggestion is XML and its related protocols. XML, if not the latest gee-whiz protocol, is by far the most mature, flexible and easily processed data recording approach available, its subtle disparagement by the database community notwithstanding. People — including me I admit — after a long history with XML and its precursor SGML, tend to view the decision to adopt XML as a given, but it is more difficult than it may seem and this view has not been conventional wisdom.
Many organizations begin with their final deliverable on the web, see the HTML with its <angle bracket notation> and congratulate themselves on using XML. Not quite for a number of reasons.
Look at a file of content in HTML (or XHTML: essentially XML syntax-compliant HTML) and you see a well formed structure with < > tags, names and attributes. What could be more useful than that? The answer is “a lot." The HTML tag set, even with the addition of “cascading style sheets” and other ancillary metadata, is designed to record how a browser should display raw content on a screen, caring little about the underlying information value or other delivery modes.
While valuable in browser setting, this form of notation ignores the majority of value in content, and by ignoring it makes it unavailable. If HTML or XHTML is your guide, you will end up leaving a great deal of value on the table.
Designing your Intellectual Value
So the first thing you must do as you adopt the content imperative is to look at your intellectual property with an eye toward what you have that can and should be captured in content and, once captured, all of the contexts and uses to which it should be put.
There are plenty of XML content design examples: Congress’s recently issued USLM for legislative content, Docbook for technical documentation, S1000d and ATA for maintenance, DITA’ six DTDs, NLM for medical and scientific documents and a host of others, each designed to capture a high percentage of intellectual value and make it available for use in all of the contexts for which it is or may be intended.
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