or Everything I Needed to Know About Compliance, I Learned From My Dog
I’ve had some big changes in my life the last couple of years. I got a puppy and I changed jobs. Both experiences have taught me some things about compliance and the principles for eliciting specific behaviors. I believe a content strategy and DITA have a lot to offer the compliance process in an enterprise environment.
First, Some Background
Dave on Prarie Mountain
My dog Dave recently celebrated his second birthday. He’s a great little guy who shares my no-fence neighborhood, with forest, streams and a rocky mountain riverbed literally in our back yard. In the spirit of this wild and natural setting, Dave spends a lot of time off-leash. Even though he has a fair bit of freedom, he listens well and is reasonably well behaved.
But it wasn’t always this way. Dave graduated, just barely, at the bottom of his puppy class. Of course, these 6-week classes aren’t really designed to train your puppy. They’re intended to teach you how to train your puppy.
In my work world, I left the comfortable world of software documentation to venture into a large enterprise environment where I’ve been documenting standards (procedures and minimum requirements). The organization’s goals are to standardize behaviors and bring efficiencies while respecting the need for some freedom to accommodate the diverse nature of business units.
As I look back on these experiences, I can see similarities between training my dog and my work in compliance. I feel very constrained by the traditional enterprise tools for content development and delivery, such as MS Word, network file systems and even Enterprise Content Management Systems. I can see how a content strategy and single-source tools can help, especially around these three principles:
- Audience Focus
My husband and I were initially using different commands to instruct our dog: Different from time to time, and different from each other. We needed to get on the same page and be consistent in our messages to our pooch. Once we did this, Dave eventually figured out what we were talking about and was able to respond more or less consistently.
Consistency is a simple concept, but it can be difficult to achieve. Part of a content strategy includes a controlled vocabulary: an overall strategy and agreement on the terminology you will use and what those terms mean. Then you need to use that vocabulary consistently: use the same words and say the same things, the same way, every time.
The problem with traditional enterprise content creation tools is they do not scale to meet this challenge. Sure, you can cut and paste content from one document to another. But once you get beyond a certain number of documents and/or writers, this becomes un-manageable. There is no easy way to determine where all instances of a statement are used. Searches are slow and painful, and they only find exact matches. Any variations that were made are very likely to be missed. Content quickly gets out of sync and the message gets diluted. Uncertainty creeps in and people are no longer clear on what is expected of them.
Single source tools such as DITA allow you to re-use content by reference rather than by creating multiple copies. A true Component Content Management System (CCMS) will be able to tell you all the documents a statement is used in. You only need to update the statement in one location, and you can assess the impact on all affected documents before you make the change.
DITA and CCMSs both allow you to create relationships between pieces of information. Provided you develop a proper content strategy for this, these relationships can help you to determine what related content may be impacted by your change.
Dogs are situational learners. We were happy when Dave learned to “stay” in the kitchen, but he had no idea what we were talking about when he got outside or went to Gramma’s house. He needed to learn the command in multiple situations before he truly got it.
A content strategy needs to address the variations in content that are required to address different contexts. Context can be a change in location or a change in equipment. For example, the rules may change from province to province (or state to state). Different models of the same pump might have slightly different specifications or operating instructions. 80% of the information may be exactly the same in all situations, but we need to accommodate the 20% variation. We need to provide information that is relevant to the employee’s unique situation.
Again, traditional tools don’t meet these challenges. You have two options:
- Clone (cut and paste) and modify to create context sensitive information. As I’ve said, it becomes totally unmanageable very quickly.
- Lump all the information into one document and let the employee wade through it all to get to the nuggets they need. While this option isn’t a challenge for traditional tools, it is a challenge for the reader. This approach goes against the desire to promote understanding and create efficiencies.
Single-source tools provide mechanisms for creating content variations while re-using the core content. DITA provides multiple ways to do this, so chances are good that there is a method to meet your needs.
Context can also affect the medium for delivery. In the quiet of our home, I can get my message across to Dave with a soft voice or even just a hand gesture. In the great outdoors, he can be distracted by a myriad of things: smells, other dogs, squirrels, rabbits, birds, butterflies, or leaves blowing in the wind. My message needs to be louder, sharper, and sometimes accompanied with a whistle or hand-clapping to get his attention.
A content strategy also needs to address multi-channel delivery. Mobile is all the rage these days, and with good reason. Many people don’t sit behind a desk all day and they need access to information on the go. Some work in remote locations where connectivity is an issue and they need offline storage on a mobile device. Still, there are times when workers do have access to larger screens and would prefer to use them over the small screen of their mobile device.
Traditional tools offer conversions to other formats such as HTML for web-based output. The problem is they are not optimized for these other formats. The original design of the information is geared towards standard book or print delivery. A simple conversion from one format to another does not equate to a practical implementation. The navigation structures for web-based content are completely different. The organization and styling of the content requires a lot of laborious, time-consuming, and expensive tweaking.
A true single-source system such as DITA separates content from style. It also separates content from organization by breaking content into discrete chunks. This allows the content to be re-organized quickly. Style and navigation features are not applied until the content is published, so they are always appropriate to the output and don’t need to be tweaked after the fact.
I use the term “true single-source system” because there are a lot of tools out there that claim to be “single-source”. However, if the system does not separate content from style and organization, you will forever have to do some sort of tweaking to get from one format to another. IMHO, this is not a true single-source system.
I can (and do) talk incessantly to Dave all day long. I’m sure most of what he hears sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Unless I’m speaking his language (the limited vocabulary he’s learned) and telling him exactly what I want from him, he doesn’t really know or care what I’m saying.
The truth is, people aren’t much different. We are all bombarded with information and we are constantly filtering what we read, see and hear to determine how the information affects us. Is it good or bad news? Can we or do we need to do anything with the information? If it doesn’t affect us in some way, it’s just noise.
A content strategy needs to accommodate our audiences need to filter content. Employees need to easily filter and find content that matches their role, their situation and their experience levels. As writers/information developers, we need to eliminate the noise and deliver content that is truly relevant to them.
Traditional authoring tools don’t generally offer anything in this area. Enterprise Content Management Tools have features for adding metadata. The problems are:
- You need that controlled vocabulary we talked about earlier.
- Adding metadata to long documents is much more challenging than a single topic. The keyword list for a 50 page document would be daunting.
- The task is often left up to the general corporate population. While it’s not rocket science, it adds enough cognitive overload that the average employee does not have the time or willingness to give the task the attention required to fulfill the needs of the content strategy.
Single-source tools offer conditional processing features for filtering and metadata tagging schemes to allow for faceted searches. Content can be filtered at a granular and personal level. It can be delivered in a method that suits the reader.
Content can even be delivered in the multiple languages. If you have translation requirements, this is a whole other area the content strategy needs to address. I’m no expert in this area, but I believe the ROI metrics for translation alone can often justify the switch to a single-source system. Here’s the expert on DITA Metrics.
In any organization, implementing a set of corporate wide standards involves creating a common understanding of what you want your employees to do. A solid content strategy is essential to support the process. A single-source tool isn’t a magic bullet – it won’t do the work for you. But it can provide a solid and scalable infrastructure to effectively and efficiently implement the strategy.
Still not convinced? Check out Using DITA XML for standards: a manifesto by John Tait. It’s a short easy read, sans dog analogies.