Curated for content, computing, and digital experience professionals

Month: July 2007 (Page 1 of 3)

DITA and Dynamic Content Delivery

Have you ever waded through a massive technical manual, desperately searching for the section that actually applied to you? Or have you found yourself performing one search after another, collecting one-by-one the pieces of the answer you need from a mass of documents and web pages? These are all examples of the limitations of static publishing; that is, the limitations of publishing to a wide audience when people’s needs and wants are not all the same. Unfortunately, this classic “one size fits all” approach can end up fitting no one at all.

In the days when print publishing was our only option, and we thought only in terms of producing books, we really had no choice but to mass-distribute information and hope it met most people’s needs. But today, with Web-based technology and new XML standards like DITA, we have other choices.

DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is the hottest thing to have hit the technical publishing world in a long time. With its topic-based approach to authoring, DITA frees us from the need to think in terms of “books”, and lets us focus on the underlying information. With DITA’s modular, reusable information elements, we can not only publish across different formats and media – but also flexibly recombine information in almost any way we like.

Initial DITA implementations have focused primarily on publishing to pre-defined PDF, HTML and Help formats – that is, on static publishing. But the real promise of DITA lies in supporting dynamic, personalized content delivery. This alternative publishing model – which I’ll call dynamic content delivery – involves “pulling” rather than “pushing” content, based on the needs of each individual user.
In this self-service approach to publishing, end users can assemble their own “books” using two kinds of interfaces (or a hybrid of the two):

  • Information Shopping Cart – in which the user browses or searches to choose the content (DITA Topics) that she considers relevant, and then places this information in a shopping cart. When done “shopping”, she can organize her document’s table of contents, select a stylesheet, and automatically publish the result to HTML or PDF.
    This approach is appropriate when users are relatively knowledgeable about the content, and where the structure of their output documents can be safely left up to them. Examples include engineering research, e-learning systems, and customer self-service applications.
  • Personalization Wizard – in which the user answers a number of pre-set questions in a wizard-like interface, and the appropriate content is automatically extracted to produce a final document in HTML or PDF. This approach is appropriate for applications that need to produce a personalized but highly standard manual, such as a product installation guide or regulated policy manual. In this scenario, the document structure and stylesheet are typically preset.

In a hybrid interface, we could use a personalization wizard to dynamically assemble required material in a fixed table of contents – but then use the information shopping cart approach to allow the user to add supplementary material. Or, depending on the application, we might do the same thing but assemble the initial table of contents as a suggestion or starting point only. The first method might be appropriate for a user manual; the second might be better for custom textbooks.

Dynamic content delivery is made possible by the kind of topic-based authoring embraced by DITA. A topic is a piece of content that covers a specific subject, has an identifiable purpose, and can stand on its own (i.e., does not require a specific context in order to make sense). Topics don’t start with “as stated above” or end with “as further described below,” and they don’t implicitly refer to other information that isn’t contained within them. In a word, topics are fully reusable, in the sense that they can be used in any context where the information provided by the topic is needed.

The extraction and assembly of relevant topics is made possible by another relatively new standard called XQuery, which is able to both find the right information based on user profiles, filter the results accordingly, and automatically transform results into output formats like HTML or PDF. Of course, this approach is only feasible if the XQuery engine is extremely fast – which led us to build our own dynamic content delivery solution offering around Mark Logic, an XQuery-based content delivery platform optimized for real-time search and transformation.

The dynamic content delivery approach is an answer to the hunger for relevant, personalized information that pervades today’s organizations. Avoiding the pitfalls of the classic “one size fits all” publishing of the past, it instead allows a highly personalized and relevant interaction with “an audience of one.” I invite you to read more about this in a whitepaper I wrote that is available on our website (www.FlatironsSolutions.com).

The Marginal Influence of E-commerce Search and Taxonomies on Enterprise Search Technologies

As we gear up for Gilbane Boston 2007, the number of possible topics to include in the tracks related to search seems boundless. The search business is in a transitional state but in spite of disarray is still pivotal in its impact on business and current culture. The sessions will reflect the diversity in the market.

One trend is quite clear; the amount of money and effort being expended for Web search or site search on commercial Web sites is a winner in the “search technology” revenues war with annual revenues measuring well into the $billions. On the other hand, a recent Gartner study described the 2006 revenues for enterprise search as below $400M. This figure comes from reading an excellent article, Enterprise Search: Seek and Maybe You’ll Find, by Ben DuPont in Intelligent Enterprise. Check it out.

The distinctions between search on the Web and search within the enterprise are numerous but here are two. First, Internet Web search revenue is all about marketing. Yes, we use it to discover, learn, find facts, and become more informed. But when companies supplying search technology to expose you to their content on the Internet they do so to facilitate commerce. If it falls into the hands of organizations that have other intent, libraries or government agencies, so be it.

As we all know, when we are at work, seeking to discover, learn or find facts to do our jobs better, we need a different kind of search. Thus, we seek a clear search winner built just for our enterprise with all of its idiosyncrasies. The problem is that what is inside does not look like the rest of the world’s content as it is aggregated for commercial views. Enterprises are unique and operate sometimes chaotically, or, at best, with nuanced views of what information is most important.

The second distinction relates to taxonomies, and the increase in their development and use. I’ve seen a dramatic increase in job postings for “taxonomists” and have managed several projects for enterprises over the years to build these controlled lists of terms for categorizing content. What is noteworthy about recent job opportunities is that most seem to be for customer facing Web sites. Historically, organizations with substantial internal content (e.g. research reports, patents, laboratory findings, business documents) hired professionals to categorize materials for a narrowly defined audience of specialists. The terminology was often highly unique, could number in the hundreds or thousands of terms, even for a relatively small enterprise. This is no longer a common practice.

Slow financial growth in enterprise search markets is no surprise. Like many tools designed and marketed for departments not directly tied to revenue generation, search goes begging for solid vertical markets. Search’s companion technologies are also struggling to find a lucrative toehold for use within the organization. Content management systems integrated with rich and efficient taxonomy building and maintenance functions are hard to find.

I am confident that tools in CMS products for building and maintaining complex taxonomies will not improve until enterprises find a solid business reason to put professional human resources into doing content management, taxonomy development, search, and text analytics on their most important knowledge assets. This is a tough business proposition compared to the revenues being driven on the Internet. What businesses need to keep in mind is that without the ability to leverage their internal knowledge content assets better, smarter and faster, there won’t be innovative products in the pipeline to generate commerce. Losing track of your valuable intellectual resources is not a good long term strategy. Once you begin committing to solid content resource management strategies, enterprise technology products will improve to meet your needs.

Links and Connections: Finding the Context

A provocative conversation broke out on one of the discussion groups I monitor last week. “I’m curious how you and others you know are using ‘LinkedIn.com.'” the person asked. “For me, I like who’s in my network, [and] keep asking others to join; but overall I find it to be very static.”
A static network — now there’s a new concept! But there’s a good deal of truth to wondering how these links work within the business environment. Sure I too have a modest network; I check out my Linked-in account once or twice a month to see who’s doing what. For me, this substitutes (poorly) for the water-cooler conversations earlier in my career, when I was surrounded by lots of co-workers. There was always the lunch-time gossip and the hallway exchanges . . . did I know that so and so was working on this new skunk-works project? Had I heard that another sales team just surpassed its revenue goals or that a particular key customer now had a new set of requirements?
While linking-in through Linked-in is a poor substitute for the chatter of the co-located workplace, it’s at least the beginning of a business conversation. It maintains its professional aura, boundaries, and rules, in part by continuing to stove-pipe its connections, and not (yet) mashing up its links and membership.
Not so with Facebook, now trying to take the “digital natives” (those who grew up with the Internet ant the Web) into the workplace. This move — blending the power of networks with mashups — is raising a number of eyebrows. “Friend? Not? It’s One or the Other” Rob Pegoraro, the personal technology columnist wrote provocatively in the Washington Post last week.

You could stay in touch with your drinking buddies at MySpace, then schmooze with your business partners at LinkedIn.
But life isn’t always that neat. And when the private and professional overlap at these sites, you can spend more time worrying about your image than building your network.

To be sure Facebook has a slew of privacy setting — at least 135 according to Pegoraro — but having to define how I want to expose some of my activities to one group of friends and other actions to business colleagues adds complexity to what should be cast as a rather fluid interchange.
What’s missing to my way of thinking is not simply privacy but context. We all have our business personas and our personal personas. We have certain expectations when in a business context, others when in a social context, and still others when “being personal.” Many of our social networks are, in fact, rather complex.
To make these networks useful within a collaborative (and online) business environment, we need to be able to add (and manage) our business contexts. We need to be able to describe (and map) the business purposes for our social networks.

Adobe Ships ColdFusion 8

Adobe announced the availability of the shipping version of ColdFusion 8. Designed for developers building dynamic Web sites and Internet applications, ColdFusion 8 targets day-to-day development challenges to increase developer productivity and integrate with complex enterprise environments. ColdFusion 8 uses Adobe Flex and Ajax-based components, and includes advanced Eclipse-based wizards and debugging to help developers build applications and identify and fix problems, while a new Server Monitor quickly identifies bottlenecks and tunes the server for better performance. It integrates with .NET assemblies, support for Windows Vista and new J2EE servers, for enhanced flexibility, interoperability, and scalability, and interacts with Adobe PDF documents and forms for a printable, portable way to capture information. ColdFusion 8 is available in two versions: ColdFusion 8 Standard and ColdFusion 8 Enterprise Edition. Each license is valid for 2CPUs. Adobe is also offering discounted upgrade pricing for customers who own ColdFusion MX 6.X or ColdFusion MX 7. www.adobe.com/products/coldfusion

Results: Growth in Language Translations Poll

The results to our poll on the Growth in Language Translations are in. Take a look:

language translation poll
A couple of data points jump right out:

  • There is clearly a significant decline in those who are currently translating to only 1-3 languages when we look at plans for 2008/2010.
  • In terms of changes from 2007 to 2008, the increase in language translations appears to be moving up from 3 languages maximum to 10 languages maximum. That’s more than doubling “translation capacity” over a relatively short period of time.

Adding to some of the stats in Mary’s blog on Emerging Markets: The Brass Ring?, economists agree that a revolution in the global economy is well underway. Donald Hepburn, corporate economist for Unilever, notes that “companies that do not understand the economics of developing nations will miss out,” and predicts a major shift in consumer consumption by 2010. The Economist concurs, noting that the shift is not just about China and India. And a Goldman Sachs study takes it a step further, predicting that by 2040, the world’s ten biggest economies will include Brazil, Russia, India and China, aka BRIC.

Begs the question, how are companies preparing for the increase in demand for translated content and localized user interfaces? Mary and I are on vacation next week, July 30 through August 4, but we’ll have more commentary when we return. Happy summer!

Counting How the Game is Changing

Nora Barnes (director of the Center for Marketing Research at UMass, Dartmouth) and Eric Mattson have a new survey report out on social computing — The Game Has Changed: College Admissions Outpace Corporations in Embracing Social Media. They compare how universities and companies in the Inc. 500 are using social media — blogging, social networking (whch I take to mean sites like Facebook and MySpace), message boards, online video, podcasting, and wikis. In a nutshell

Social media has arrived in college admissions. The ivory tower is innovating even faster than the elite Inc. 500. And the game has changed forever.

I cannot wait to see their detailed analysis.

Picking through their numbers so far, two things jump out. First, universities are almost as likely to use social networks as search engines when evaluating potential students (26% vs 21%).

Admission offices can find out all kinds of information about their prospects by googling them on the web. Tracking and tracing their social networks is close behind. Hum, I wonder what enterprises are going to be doing, both when reviewing job candidates and business partnerships, and when tracking performance. I can see it now — a new generation of “socially conscious” HR and business applications.

Second, we’ve been talking about blogs and wikis in almost the same breadth (thanks in part to Don Tapscott and Wikinomics and “how mass collaboration changes everything”). But not so fast. While blogging is more widely used in universities than in corporations (33% vs 19%), wikis are more widely deployed in corporations than in universities (17% vs. 3%). So we ought to take another breadth, turn down the hypemeter, and better understand how these different modes of collaboration are used in practice.

Here’s my vote. It’s all about the difference between self-publishing and supporting a business process. Blogging’s easy — I’m standing at my virtual Hyde Park corner (as in this blog), using my own time. Others who want to invest their time can read what I have to say. (Thank you, my readers!) But putting up a wiki is all about sharing information that’s part of a business process — I post, you modify, and our colleagues elsewhere in the world add their two cents. The outcome is a group project, the results of our “collective intelligence.” It’s a bit like co-authoring a report or developing a project plan for a group or . . . . you get the point — we share in the results through an interactive process.

Oh, one other thing. Business processes are tough to implement. They happen not by accident but by design. When the bloom is off the rose, we’re going to have to do a lot more work to make wikis really useful within the enterprise.

Atom is Finished

Tim Bray reports Atom 1.0 is complete. Atom is the XML app that is meant to be a better RSS. We have been using both in our newsfeeds for awhile, sometimes switching depending on various newsreader support issues, and have been reluctant to completely switch from RSS. But this will edge us closer.

WSJ on iPhone and Instant Messaging for Business

Today’s Wall Street Journal has 2 articles that relate to enterprise social computing: Instant Messaging Invades the Office, and iPhone Calls to Some Business Users. Our recent informal poll of Facebook users suggests they think instant messaging will be more dominant than some other “social software” in enterprises in the near future. The WSJ article indicates IMing is invading fast.

It is not surprising that iPhones, with their dramatically improved viewing experience, will find a lot more use in business environments. I love my Treo, but avoid viewing spreadsheets and using it with other web apps. The iPhone will make a huge difference to my interaction with our corporate information when I am out of the office. Of course, there are security issues, and no doubt other technical issues that may get in the way initially, but there is no going back. And if tomorrow’s numbers from Apple are less than expected they will merely reflect the initial velocity, not an inability to reach escape velocity.

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