Authoring in a structured text environment has traditionally been done with dedicated structured editors. These tools enable validation and user assisted markup features that help the user create complete and valid content. But these structured editors are somewhat complicated and unusual and require training in their use for the user to become proficient. The learning curve is not very steep but it does exist.

Many organizations have come to see documentation departments as a process bottleneck and try to engage others throughout the enterprise in the content creation and review processes. Engineers and developers can contribute to documentation and have a unique technical perspective. Installation and support personnel are on the front lines and have unique insight into how the product and related documentation is used. Telephone operators not only need the information at their fingertips, but can also augment it with comments and ides that occur while supporting users. Third-party partners and reviewers may also have a unique perspective and role to play in a distributed, collaborative content creation, management, review, and delivery ecosystem.

Our recently completed research on XML Smart Content in the Enterprise indicates that as we strive to move content creation and management out of the documentation department silo, we will also need to consider how the data is encoded and the usefulness of the data model in meeting our expanded business requirements. Smart content is multipurpose content designed with several uses in mind. Smart content is modular to support being assembled in a variety of forms. And smart content is structured content that has been enriched with semantic information to better identify it’s topic and role to aide processing and searching. For these reasons, smart content also improves distributed collaboration. Let me elaborate.

One of the challenges for distributed collaboration is the infrequency of user participation and therefore, unfamiliarity with structured editing tools. It makes sense to simplify the editing process and tools for infrequent users. They can’t always take a refresher course in the editor and it’s features. They may be working remotely, even on a customer site installing equipment or software. These infrequent users need structured editing tools that are designed for them. These collaboration tools need to be intuitive and easy to figure out, easily accessible from just about anywhere, and should be affordable and have flexible licensing to allow a larger number of users to participate in the management of the content. This usually means one of two things: either the editor will be a plug in to another popular word processing system (e.g., MS Word), or it will be accessed though a thin-client browser, like a Wiki editor. In some environments, it is possible that both may be need in addition to traditional structured editing tools. Smart content modularity and enrichment allows flexibility in editing tools and process design. This allows the  use of a variety of editing tools and flexibility in process design, and therefore expanding who can collaborate from throughout the enterprise.

Also, infrequent contributors may not be able to master navigating and operating within a  complex repository and workflow environment either for the same familiarity reasons. Serving up information to a remote collaborator might be enhanced with keywords and other metadata that is designed to optimize searching and access to the content. Even a little metadata can provide a lot of simplicity to an infrequent user. Product codes, version information, and a couple of dates would allow a user to hone in on the likely content topics and select content to edit from a well targeted list of search results. Relationships between content modules that are indicated in metadata can alert a user that when one object is updated, other related objects may need to be reviewed for potential update as well.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no one model for XML or smart content creation and editing. Just as a carpenter may have several saws, each designed for a particular type of cut, a robust smart content structured content environment may have more than one editor in use. It behooves us to design our systems and tools to meet the desired business processes and user functionality, rather than limit our processes to the features of one tool.