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Understanding the Smart Content Technology Landscape

If you have been following recent XML Technologies blog entries, you will notice we have been talking a lot lately about XML Smart Content, what it is and the benefits it can bring to an organization. These include flexible, dynamic assembly for delivery to different audiences, search optimization to improve customer experience, and improvements for distributed collaboration. Great targets to aim for, but you may ask are we ready to pursue these opportunities? It might help to better understand the technology landscape involved in creating and delivering smart content.

The figure below illustrates the content technology landscape for smart content. At the center are fundamental XML technologies for creating modular content, managing it as discrete chunks (with or without a formal content management system), and publishing it in an organized fashion. These are the basic technologies for “one source, one output” applications, sometimes referred to as Single Source Publishing (SSP) systems.

smart technology landscape

The innermost ring contains capabilities that are needed even when using a dedicated word processor or layout tool, including editing, rendering, and some limited content storage capabilities. In the middle ring are the technologies that enable single-sourcing content components for reuse in multiple outputs. They include a more robust content management environment, often with workflow management tools, as well as multi-channel formatting and delivery capabilities and structured editing tools. The outermost ring includes the technologies for smart content applications, which are described below in more detail.

It is good to note that smart content solutions rely on structured editing, component management, and multi-channel delivery as foundational capabilities, augmented with content enrichment, topic component assembly, and social publishing capabilities across a distributed network. Descriptions of the additional capabilities needed for smart content applications follow.

Content Enrichment / Metadata Management: Once a descriptive metadata taxonomy is created or adopted, its use for content enrichment will depend on tools for analyzing and/or applying the metadata. These can be manual dialogs, automated scripts and crawlers, or a combination of approaches. Automated scripts can be created to interrogate the content to determine what it is about and to extract key information for use as metadata. Automated tools are efficient and scalable, but generally do not apply metadata with the same accuracy as manual processes. Manual processes, while ensuring better enrichment, are labor intensive and not scalable for large volumes of content. A combination of manual and automated processes and tools is the most likely approach in a smart content environment. Taxonomies may be extensible over time and can require administrative tools for editorial control and term management.

Component Discovery / Assembly: Once data has been enriched, tools for searching and selecting content based on the enrichment criteria will enable more precise discovery and access. Search mechanisms can use metadata to improve search results compared to full text searching. Information architects and organizers of content can use smart searching to discover what content exists, and what still needs to be developed to proactively manage and curate the content. These same discovery and searching capabilities can be used to automatically create delivery maps and dynamically assemble content organized using them.

Distributed Collaboration / Social Publishing: Componentized information lends itself to a more granular update and maintenance process, enabling several users to simultaneously access topics that may appear in a single deliverable form to reduce schedules. Subject matter experts, both remote and local, may be included in review and content creation processes at key steps. Users of the information may want to “self-organize” the content of greatest interest to them, and even augment or comment upon specific topics. A distributed social publishing capability will enable a broader range of contributors to participate in the creation, review and updating of content in new ways.

Federated Content Management / Access: Smart content solutions can integrate content without duplicating it in multiple places, rather accessing it across the network in the original storage repository. This federated content approach requires the repositories to have integration capabilities to access content stored in other systems, platforms, and environments. A federated system architecture will rely on interoperability standards (such as CMIS), system agnostic expressions of data models (such as XML Schemas), and a robust network infrastructure (such as the Internet).

These capabilities address a broader range of business activity and, therefore, fulfill more business requirements than single-source content solutions. Assessing your ability to implement these capabilities is essential in evaluating your organizations readiness for a smart content solution.

What’s Next with Smart Content?

Over the past few weeks, since publishing Smart Content in the Enterprise, I’ve had several fascinating lunchtime conversations with colleagues concerned about content technologies. Our exchanges wind up with a familiar refrain that goes something like this. “Geoffrey, you have great insights about smart content but what am I supposed to do with all this information?” Ah, it’s the damning with faint praise gambit that often signals an analysis paralysis conundrum for decision-making.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear — I do not have an out-of-the-box prescription for a solution. It’s not simply a matter of focusing on your customer experience, optimizing your content for search, investing in a component content management platform, or adopting DITA – although, depending on the situation, I may recommend some combination of these items as part of a smart content strategy.

For me, smart content remains a work in progress. I expect to develop the prescriptive road map in the months ahead. Here’s a quick take on where I am right now.

  • For publishers, it’s all about transforming the publishing paradigm through content enrichment – defining the appropriate level of granularity and then adding the semantic metadata for automated processing.
  • For application developers, it’s all about getting the information architecture right and ensuring that it’s extensible. There needs to be sensible storage, the right editing and management tools, multiple methods for organizing content, as well as a flexible rendering and production environment.
  • For business leaders and decision makers, there needs to be an upfront investment in the right set of content technologies that will increase profits, reduce operating costs, and mitigate risks. No, I am not talking about rocket science. But you do need a technology strategy and a business plan.

As highlighted by the case studies included in the report, I can point to multiple examples where organizations have done the right things to produce notable results. Dale and I will continue the smart content discussions at the Gilbane Boston conference right after Thanksgiving, both through our preconference workshop, and at a conference session “Smart Content in the Real World: Case Studies and Real Results.”

We are also launching a Smart Content Readiness Service, where we will engage with organizations on a consulting basis to identify:

  • The business drivers where smart content will ensure competitive advantage when distributing business information to customers and stakeholders
  • The technologies, tools, and skills required to componentized content, and target distribution to various audiences using multiple devices
  • The operational roles and governance needed to support smart content development and deployment across an organization
  • The implementation planning strategies and challenges to upgrade content and creation and delivery environments

Please contact me if you are interested in learning more.

In short, to answer my lunchtime colleagues, I cannot (yet) prescribe a fully baked solution. It’s too early for the recipes and the cookbook. But I do believe that the business opportunities and benefits are readily at hand. At this point, I would invite you to join the discussion by letting me know what you expect, what approaches you’ve tried, where you’ve wound up, what you think needs to come next – and how we might help you.

What’s Hot in XML? Workshop on Smart Content Describes Leading-Edge Content Applications

What is hot in XML these days? I have been to a few conferences and meetings, talked with many clients, participated in various research projects, and developed case studies on emerging approaches to XML adoption. DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is hot. Semantically enriched XML is hot. Both enable some interesting functionality for content delivered via print, on the web, and through mobile delivery channels. These include dynamic assembly of content organized into a variety of forms for custom uses, improved search and discovery of content, content interoperability across platforms, and distributed collaboration in creating and managing content.

On November 30, prior to the Gilbane Conference in Boston, Geoff Bock and I will be holding our 3rd workshop on Smart Content which is how we refer to semantically enriched, modular content (it’s easier to say). In the seminar we will discuss what makes content smart, how it is being developed and deployed in several organizations, and dive into some technical details on DITA and semantic enrichment.  This highly interactive seminar has been well received in prior sessions, and will be updated with our recently completed research findings.  More information on the seminar is available at  http://gilbaneboston.com/10/workshops.html.

By the way, t The research report, entitled Smart Content in the Enterprise, is now available at the research section at Gilbane.com. It (now available from Outsell Inc) includes several interesting case studies from a variety of organizations, and a lot of good information for those considering taking their content to the next level. We encourage you to download it (it is free). I also hope to see you in Boston at the workshop.

Smart Content and the Pull of Search Engine Optimization

One of the conclusions of our report Smart Content in the Enterprise (forthcoming next week) is how a little bit of enrichment goes a long way. It’s important to build on your XML infrastructure, enrich your content a little bit (to the extent that your business environment is able to support), and expect to iterate over time.

Consider what happened at Citrix, reported in our case study Optimizing the Customer Experience at Citrix: Restructuring Documentation and Training for Web Delivery. The company had adopted DITA for structured publishing several years ago. Yet just repurposing the content in product manuals for print and electronic distribution, and publishing the same information as HTML and PDF documents, did not change the customer experience.

A few years ago, Citrix information specialists had a key insight: customers expected to find support information by googling the web. To be sure, there was a lot of content about various Citrix products out in cyberspace, but very little of it came directly from Citrix. Consequently the most popular solutions available via web-wide searching were not always reliable, and the detailed information from Citrix (buried in their own manuals) was rarely found.

What did Citrix do? Despite limited resources, the documentation group began to add search metadata to the product manuals. With DITA, there was already a predefined structure for topics, used to define sections, chapters, and manuals. Authors and editors could simply include additional tagged metadata that identified and classified the contents – and thus expose the information to Google and other web-wide search engines.

Nor was there a lot of time or many resources for up-front design and detailed analysis. To paraphrase a perceptive information architect we interviewed, “Getting started was a lot like throwing the stuff against a wall to see what sticks.” At first tags simply summarized existing chapter and section headings. Significantly, this was a good enough place to start.

Specifically, once Citrix was able to join the online conversation with its customers, it was also able to begin tracking popular search terms. Then over time and with successive product releases, the documentation group was able to add additional tagged metadata and provide ever more focused (and granular) content components.

What does this mean for developing smart content and leveraging the benefits of XML tagging? Certainly the more precise your content enrichment, the more findable your information is going to be. When considering the business benefits of search engine optimization, the quality of your tagging can always improve over time. But as a simple value proposition, getting started is the critical first step.

What is Smart Content?

At Gilbane we talk of “Smart Content,” “Structured Content,” and “Unstructured Content.” We will be discussing these ideas in a seminar entitled “Managing Smart Content” at the Gilbane Conference next week in Boston. Below I share some ideas about these types of content and what they enable and require in terms of processes and systems.

When you add meaning to content you make it “smart” enough for computers to do some interesting things. Organizing, searching, processing, and discovery are greatly improved, which also increases the value of the data. Structured content allows some, but fewer, processes to be automated or simplified, and unstructured content enables very little to be streamlined and requires the most ongoing human intervention.

Most content is not very smart. In fact, most content is unstructured and usually more difficult to process automatically. Think flat text files, HTML without all the end tags, etc. Unstructured content is more difficult for computers to interpret and understand than structured content due to incompleteness and ambiguity inherent in the content. Unstructured content usually requires humans to decipher the structure and the meaning, or even to apply formatting for display rendering.

The next level up toward smart content is structured content. This includes wellformed XML documents, content compliant to a schema, or even RDMS databases. Some of the intelligence is included in the content, such as boundaries of element (or field) being clearly demarcated, and element names that mean something to users and systems that consume the information. Automatic processing of structured content includes reorganizing, breaking into components, rendering for print or display, and other processes streamlined by the structured content data models in use.

Smart Content diagram

Finally, smart content is structured content that also includes the semantic meaning of the information. The semantics can be in a variety of forms such as RDFa attributes applied to structured elements, or even semantically names elements. However it is done, the meaning is available to both humans and computers to process.

Smart content enables highly reusable content components and powerful automated dynamic document assembly. Searching can be enhanced with the inclusion of metadata and buried semantics in the content providing more clues as to what the data is about, where it came from, and how it is related to other content. Smart content enables very robust, valuable content ecosystems.

Deciding which level of rigor is needed for a specific set of content requires understanding the business drivers intended to be met. The more structure and intelligence you add to content, the more complicated and expensive the system development and content creation and management processes may become. More intelligence requires more investment, but may be justified through benefits achieved.

I think it is useful if the XML and content management (CMS) communities use consistent terms when talking about the rigor of their data models and the benefits they hope to achieve with them. Hopefully, these three terms, smart content, structured content, and unstructured content ring true and can be used productively to differentiate content and application types.

Upcoming Workshop: Managing Smart Content: How to Deploy XML Technologies across Your Organization

As part of next week’s Gilbane Boston Conference, the XML practice will be delivering a pre-conference workshop, “Managing Smart Content: How to Deploy XML Technologies across Your Organization.” The instructors will be Geoff Bock, Dale Waldt, Bill Trippe, Barry Schaeffer and Neal Hannon–a group of experts that represents decades of technical and management experience on XML initiatives.

A tip of the virtual hat to Senior Analyst Geoff Bock for organizing this.

Smart content holds great promise. First with SGML and now with XML, we are marking up content with both formatting and semantic tags, and adding intelligence to electronic information. Using richly tagged XML documents that exploit predefined taxonomies, we are developing innovative applications for single source publishing, pharmaceutical labeling, and financial reporting. By managing content snippets in a granular yet coherent fashion, these applications are revolutionizing our capabilities to meet business needs and customers’ expectations.

What’s working and why? What are the lessons learned from these innovative applications? Does the rapid growth of web-based collaborative environments, together with the wide array of smart content editors, provide the keys to developing other business solutions? There are many promising approaches to tagging content while doing work. Yet we still face an uphill battle to smarten up our content and develop useful applications.

In this workshop, we the five members of the Gilbane practice on XML technologies will share our experiences and provide you with practical strategies for the future. We will address a range of topics, including:

  • The business drivers for smart content
  • Some innovative content management techniques that make authors and editors more productive
  • The migration paths from ‘conventional’ documents to smart content
  • How to apply industry-specific taxonomies to tag content for meaning
  • The prospects for mash-ups to integrate content from disparate application communities

We will discuss both the rapidly developing technologies available for creating, capturing, organizing, storing, and distributing smart content, as well as the organizational environment required to manage content as business processes. We will identify some of the IT challenges associated with managing information as smart content rather than as structured data, and map strategies to address them. We invite you to join the conversation about how best to exploit the power of XML as the foundation for managing smart content across your organization.

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