Newsletter of the Society for Technical Communication, San Francisco Chapter
OK, the title of the presentation, "Transforming Strategies to Component Content Management," promised an evening of talk about topics like "common denominators," "reusability" and the familiar alphabet soup of CMS, WCM, SMMS, with a bit of DITA tossed in for good measure.
But an intellectual dissection of the professional kitchen pantry?
It all happened at the San Francisco STC Chapter meeting in March. If you weren't there, you really missed out.
Liz Fraley, of Single-Sourcing Solutions, Inc., gave a witty, informative, insightful and, at times, poetic talk on how to wrastle down big whole hunks of content to their simplest, most elegant and reusable components. The way to do it? Via Component Content Management System, or CCMS.
Fraley started with an overview. We all know about managing content, she said, where you put information, where it belongs so that it is ends up in a virtual – or physical – file cabinet. The file cabinet, the folders with stuff (the "product information"), the folders crammed into the cabinet. You know the deal.
Not so fast. Things can get complicated.
But, she continued, what do you do if your product morphs into something completely different? Or what if it goes global? How do you handle the explosion of content to the point where the questions of "who's got what?" and "what is what?" can't be answered painlessly?
What's a techie to do?
Fraley had the answer.
Component content management is at the new frontier, she said. And a helpful way to think about this new geography, she said, is to look no farther than a professional kitchen pantry.
A pantry is chock-full of stuff, or "content" — spices, flour, salt, sugar, what have you. Your job, ideally, is to manage each "piece" of content, said Fraley. Let's say flour is that "piece." Are you going to have bags of flour in different places – one bag with soup cans, another with the pastas? Or will you have a single bag of flour, in one place, and you can dip into this one bag for a whole host of foods — spaghetti sauce, bread, cakes, soups. One bag of flour, multiple guises. It's the same with spices — will the spices be on one shelf, eminently accessible, or will they be Balkanized throughout the shelves?
That was the thinking.
Content is similar to that pantry, said Fraley. Content is multidimensional, and the job of the content manager is to set this house — or pantry — in order. And the best way to succeed is to tackle the task step by step.
Step 1. Design your strategy. Map out the path the content takes. Where does it come from, where does it end up? Do a flow diagram to keep track of it all. Figure out who produces the content and who uses (or consumes) it.
Step 2. Figure out the lowest common denominator. Comb through the content. Identify common structural elements and of those, which is the tiniest? What's rigid? What's flexible? What that denominator is depends on the project, said Fraley. For example, in the legal profession, the lowest common denominator in contracts may be boilerplate language.
Step 3. Logical groups. Organize your content into groups. Does a specific group or consumer need it? In other words, figure out what groups make sense, what the organizing principle is.
This step-by-step approach, apparently, is easier said than done. It sparked a lively discussion, with an extended back-and-forth on issues as diverse as how to define the smallest common denominator? (It depends), will there be reuse police? (maybe), who will curate content? (classified by librarians?), how to organize content (from a user's point of view, writer's, by task?).
The discussion was more than helped along by PowerPoint slides, many of which were great explainers in keeping with the culinary leitmotif of the evening. Photo highlights included: a neatly stacked pantry, where all was calm and orderly; eerily glowing fridges stacked with bags of food; a map of Turkey and a picture of a Chinese landscape shown side by side, respectively, with a gobbling turkey and china plate (a lesson in "get your term base straight"). Then there was that slide of a roast turkey packed to overflowing with greasy, starchy stuffing (use your imagination on that one. . . .).
Fraley gave thoughtful responses to each question in the blizzard of inquiries. Things to think of, according to Fraley, include: knowing your components and where they go; knowing what you have, where it's from, where it goes, whether it's duplicated. If there is a dupe, she advised, go to the source and then you can begin to see bridges, and ways you can reuse components.
Also, she said, assess the human resource factor. Perhaps a sponsorship and a budget are needed in the process — find out what your meaningful number is. Equally important, said Fraley is to challenge your perspective. Content and the perception of it are multidimensional. What you might think is global may be, in fact, extremely local.
In sum, CCMS values a "single-source of truth," as Fraley sees it. You organize content in the same way you organize an orderly professional pantry. Know the life cycle of your consumers and producers (think, customers and chefs). Things to decide on include roles, permissions, organizational schemes and components (staples, specialty items).
Now that's a full plate.
Michele Anderson is a licensed attorney, former San Francisco Chronicle writer and editor, and current freelance editor.