Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Consulting lite: life at Scriptorium

September 26, 2016 by

Scriptorium is hiring. Our consulting jobs are a unique blend that you don’t see in many other places. Over and over, I’ve found myself struggling to explain this blend to candidates. So here is an attempt to describe life at Scriptorium.

Job structure

Our technical consultants are full-time, permanent employees with benefits. Our interns are full-time temporary employees with benefits. After 6-12 months, interns are eligible to become permanent employees.

Client load

Employees typically work on multiple client projects in a single week. You might deliver a draft document to one client, then turn your attention to updates on another project, receive a few review comments from a third client, and clear a support ticket from another client.

Each project has a project lead. For small projects, the lead might also do the work; for larger projects, the lead coordinates the project team.

One of the biggest challenges is remembering different communication requirements. For example, we use Basecamp for project collaboration on some projects. For others, we use client infrastructure (usually SharePoint).

Client mix

Our clients come from a cross-section of industries: finance, life sciences, education, high-tech, heavy machinery, telecommunications, state and federal government, non-profit associations, semiconductors, and others.

We specialize in working with organizations that have content problems, and they are found everywhere!

Our consultants are exposed to content workflows across many industries.

Sales and marketing responsibilities

Unlike freelancers, our employees are not responsible for hunting down their own new projects. But our employees do have some sales and marketing responsibilities. These include:

  • Participating in social networking
  • Writing blog posts or other articles
  • Presenting at industry conferences
  • Ensuring that clients are happy
  • Noticing when a client asks for additional work and making sure their issue is addressed promptly
  • Contributing to proposals

Travel

All of our consultants travel. Some of that travel is for conferences and industry events, and some is for client visits. No consultant is expected to travel more than 25% of the time.

Cloud systems

Our office space is in Research Triangle Park (Durham), North Carolina. Most of our employees are based there, but all of our systems are cloud-based. Employees can access the information they need at home, or remotely, or while traveling.

Scriptorium versus corporate life

It’s hard to generalize about Scriptorium versus All Possible Full-Time Jobs. But here are some things to consider:

  • Domain knowledge (expertise about the company’s products and industry) is more valuable in a corporate job. Scriptorium employees move from project to project, so the domain changes constantly.
  • If you like change, Scriptorium may be the place for you. We learn new things in every project, and we are always looking for better ways to do things. If you prefer to develop deep expertise in a single set of tools or a specific approach, this is not the right place for you.
  • As a change of pace from client work, you might find yourself working on LearningDITA.com, writing blog posts, or working on internal processes.

Scriptorium versus freelance life

Bring on the additional generalizations! Working as a consultant at Scriptorium is basically Consulting Lite:

  • Like a freelancer, you have project variety and an ever-changing list of assignments.
  • You do not have to do all your own sales and marketing work.
  • Scriptorium handles administrative support (payroll, taxes, invoicing, and office management tasks).
  • You are paid a salary and not an hourly rate.
  • You have coworkers who can QA your work before it’s sent to the client.
  • You have an office location (if based in RTP), and an internal communication network to discuss projects, share juicy gossip, and abuse the emoji capabilities.

 

Does consulting lite sound appealing? We’re hiring.

 

Making localization “better”

September 19, 2016 by

This post is the first in a series about the value proposition of localization strategies. You can also see a presentation on this topic at LavaCon this October.

Localization issues are a primary reason companies seek help with a new content strategy. One of the most common questions we hear is, “How do we make our localization process better?”

When we’re asked this question, we turn the question around. What is wrong with your current localization process? What would you like to improve? How do you define “better?”

fast, good, cheap project triangle for localization

Fast, good, cheap… why pick only two?
(image: wikimedia)

The answers always fall somewhere on the project management triangle. Localization costs may be too high, localization may take too long or happen too late in the project cycle, or there may be quality issues with the translated content.

Usually when companies say they want “better” localization, they mean that they want to make a combination of improvements; they are paying too much for problematic translations that take too long to produce.

In short, they’re not getting value for their efforts.

Defining localization value

Localization value is usually measured in two ways:

  • Cost: how lean can it get?
  • Quality: how accurate and error-free can it get?

What’s interesting is the absence of “Time” in the value assessment. This absence is largely due to viewing localization as an end-game process. To measure and see the powerful value of time, we must look at time to market.

How much of a revenue increase would result in bringing multilingual versions of a product to market three months sooner? Six months sooner? Concurrent with the “core” release?

How favorably do your multilingual customers currently view your company? How might that change if they could receive the same level of product or service within the same timeframe as other customers? Would they be more likely to promote your company? Might that increase sales in certain markets?

Improving time to market for localized products and services can be tricky, and should always include improvements in cost and quality. More on this in the next post in the series. But for now, a parting question:

What do you see as your biggest localization hurdle to overcome?

Glue strategy: connecting web CMS to CCMS

September 12, 2016 by

Web sites are fantastic at content delivery and generally terrible for content authoring. If you’re old enough (like me), you may have experienced the pain of hand-coding HTML or even editing HTML files live on your web server.

These days, hardly anyone codes HTML by hand. Instead, we use web content management systems (web CMSs), such as WordPress, Drupal, Magnolia, and many, many others. Web CMSs have two major functions: letting authors create content, and running a web site to deliver content to readers. The problem arises when web CMS A provides great authoring functionality and web CMS B provides great web site functionality. Which do you choose? Do you make life easier for your authors or for your audience?

After sufficient pain in that area, you eventually decide to decouple the web site and content management. This approach lets you choose the best option for authoring and web site, but it also requires you to glue the two components back together. Somehow, you have to move your content from the content management (authoring) system over to the web site:

Content management icon, arrow labeled glue pointing from CM over to a web site icon

Decoupling CMS and web site

A decoupled CMS enables you to take advantage of new and innovative technologies for creating rich web and mobile experiences, while ensuring your content authors and editors have a consistent approach to content management. (Spelling out the advantages of a decoupled CMS, CMSWire)

The decoupled approach lets you choose a content management system with a great authoring experience for the authors and a web site delivery system that meets the needs of your web site visitors. It does introduce a few new problems, though:

  • You have to maintain two systems instead of one.
  • You have to find a way to glue the two systems together.

Adding complexity with DITA

When you add structured technical content and DITA into the mix, things get sticky (!!). How do you manage DITA content if you already have a web CMS (which may in fact be more than one platform)? If you decouple everything, you are faced with a fairly sketchy-looking architecture:

Separate repositories for web content and DITA content. Each has a arrow labeled glue pointing to the web CMS for rendering.

So much glue, so little time

NOTE: I’ve labeled the contents of each repository as CSS (for formatting), DITA (for DITA XML), and HTML (for web authoring). This is of course a gross oversimplification. Not all formatting is CSS. The content repositories can and should include other types of content.

It’s rare to see the decoupled architecture with DITA involved.

Instead, the web CMS owns one set of content (usually marketing content). Inside the web CMS, you manage that content and also control the presentation layer for the web site. A separate component content management system (CCMS) manages DITA content. So DITA content is created, edited, reviewed, and approved in the CCMS. Then we send it over to the web CMS. The process of gluing together the CCMS and the web CMS is generally painful and expensive. The advantage to this approach is that the web CMS people (marketing) and the CCMS people (tech comm) can basically ignore each other. Oh, and the people who know how to create glue code? They are very, very overworked.

CCMS icon contains DITA, glue arrow points to web CMS icon that contains HTML, CSS, and more content

Web CMS and CCMS

In a few systems, the glue is built into the CCMS. For example, you can deploy SDL’s LiveContent Architect (the CCMS) along with LiveContent Reach (web CMS). easyDITA offers connectors to Mindtouch and WordPress. So in this case, the glue technology is attached to the CCMS:

Similar to previous image, but now the glue arrow is connected to the CCMS.

Glue gets easier…

With the just-announced XML/DITA connector for AEM (Adobe Experience Manager), Adobe is gluing together the repository and the display management. Nearly every other solution—for example, a DITA CCMS plus Drupal—requires you to create that glue.

Inside the web CMS icon, we have HTML,  CSS, and DITA

DITA inside the web CMS. No glue!

If you take the AEM approach, you get free glue. (That is, when you license the XML/DITA connector along with AEM, you do not have to build out a connector yourself.) You can manage your DITA content in the same repository as your non-DITA content. And you can be sure that your web site delivery will be consistent across all of your content. If you work in a company that has already invested in AEM for web delivery, this could be a reasonable answer.

So what is your glue strategy? Will you choose individual components for maximum flexibility and pay for glue? Or does it make more sense to choose a single integrated solution?

 

This post provides only a general overview of possible glue strategies. If you need a recommendation for your specific situation, contact us to discuss a content strategy assessment.

PS I really wanted to entitle this post “The Glue Factory,” but my coworkers are mean.

Before XML, improve DTP

September 6, 2016 by

Thinking about migrating unstructured content to XML? Take a hard look at your existing desktop publishing workflow. The maturity of your DTP process will have a big impact on a move to XML.

Following a template-based DTP workflow is not just about implementing best-practice processes. Templates make a potential move to XML less expensive and painful.

Templates are key for efficient DTP

The cornerstone of a mature DTP workflow is the template: predefined paragraph, character, table, and other styles. With a template in place, authors don’t have to guess about the right formatting, and applying existing styles is much faster than manually adjusting the look and feel of content.

Templates also provide a consistent user experience: the standardization in formatting across a company’s content unifies information and reinforces branding.

There is an additional advantage to templatized content that deserves its own discussion: conversion.

Efficient conversion

Whether you are converting DTP files to web pages, online help, or even XML for a new structured authoring workflow, template-based content greatly increases the quality and efficiency of conversion. Conversion scripts map template styles to tagging for the new output.

Ad hoc formatting is much more difficult and expensive to script for automated conversion. If authors are not using templates well (or at all!) in a DTP workflow, content creation itself is inefficient, and by extension, all conversion efforts will be less efficient, too.

Before moving to XML, consider cleaning up the DTP process with better templates. Cleaning up unstructured content can be the right choice when, for example, some content needs to stay in the DTP workflow for a while because of release cycles.

Some unstructured source files are so poorly assembled that it will be more cost efficient to re-create the content in XML. You may split the difference: some DTP content gets cleaned up and is converted to XML, and other content gets re-created in XML. If you’re unsure of what path(s) to take, invest in a little third-party advice from a consultant—even if you intend to use internal resources for the actual conversion work.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for converting DTP files to XML. Automation through scripting, scheduling, and cost/benefit analysis all come into play.

Moving to XML is really hard for those who don’t use templates

person leaping across rocks

Before leaping to XML, look at your DTP processes

For content creators, moving from DTP to XML is challenging. Period. But those working in a template-based DTP environment usually have an easier time with the transition to XML.

A mature DTP workflow has an implied structure defined by correct template use. Content creators who use templates correctly are already accustomed to working in a more controlled process. Moving to the guided authoring/enforced structure in XML content workflows is less of a shock for these template users.

For authors who don’t use predefined template styles and apply ad hoc formatting, moving from template-free content development to structure is a huge, difficult leap. These authors often feel too constrained by structured authoring tools and resist the change to structure. The already difficult transition to XML then becomes even less pleasant for everyone involved.

 

P.S. Also worth noting: templatized DTP is essential for efficient localization processes (free registration required for link).

Tech comm, content strategy, and coaching

August 29, 2016 by

Earlier in the year, I was chatting with Sharon Burton. As an aside to our knitting-focused discussion, I asked her what new services we should offer.

The answer came back immediately:

Coaching?
“Coaching?”

So with many thanks to Sharon, we are offering coaching to managers, directors, and executives with responsibility for technical content, localization, and/or content strategy.

Leading a content or localization team can be lonely. Your peer managers don’t understand your job function, and your staff doesn’t understand the management challenges. Our goal, as coaches, is to provide a confidential setting in which to discuss management problems, strategic decisions, and new ideas.

Over the last 20 years, we have worked with many managers who were confident in their leadership abilities but needed support in understanding content teams. When your background is in HR, QA, or engineering, it often seems that the content creators are speaking another language. (And some staff members aren’t shy about pointing out your lack of front-line experience in technical communication as a reason that they should get to do things Their Way.)

Bridge

Tilikum Crossing, Portland, Oregon // flickr: Twelvizm

Coaching can help you bridge the gap by filling in the technical expertise so that you can understand what your content team should be doing.

We are still finalizing the coaching offering, which will launch officially in January 2017, but there are a few things you can do today:

  • If you’d like to sign up immediately, we have an early-bird program, which will offer a discounted rate for coaching through the end of 2016. Contact us to get more information.
  • For more details, read the coaching services page.
  • If you’d like to provide some feedback and help shape the program, we have a very short survey. Or you can just leave a comment on this post.

Thank you!

Going for the gold with your content strategy

August 22, 2016 by

Now that the 2016 Olympic Games have come to a close, countries are tallying up their final medal counts. Athletes are assessing their performances, celebrating their victories or mourning their losses. After you’ve implemented a content strategy, you should also assess the project to determine how successful it was.

Your number one metric for success should be your goals and how well your implementation achieved them. Olympic athletes do this, too—some are aiming for a gold medal (or more), while others are just trying to make the podium, improve their best times, or qualify for their event finals.

Similarly, your content strategy should outline the goals you plan to accomplish. Once you’ve implemented that strategy, you can see how well your new content development processes line up with those goals. Here are some ways you can figure out whether your content strategy was a success.

Have you solved your content problems?

Flickr: Paul Hudson

Flickr: Paul Hudson

If you implemented a strategy to make your content more localization-ready, have you seen any improvements in the localization process? Maybe now you’re spending less on localization than you were before, or you’ve cut your time to market in half. Maybe the customers who consume your content in another language are having a better experience using your products, and that’s showing in sales increases in global markets. Analyzing how much better localization is now than it was before can help you measure your strategy’s success.

The same logic applies to whatever content problems you set out to resolve. If you were missing lots of reuse opportunities before, are you maximizing your reuse potential now? If you were concerned about wasted time and resources in your content development process, have you made that process more efficient?

Has your strategy uncovered any other problems?

Sometimes implementing a content strategy can reveal problems you didn’t initially realize you had. Perhaps your implementation is already equipped to solve these new problems along with the original ones. If not, you’ll need to make some adjustments or additions to your content strategy to ensure that as many of these issues will be resolved as possible.

In some cases, implementing a content strategy might resolve your original problems but introduce new ones that you didn’t expect. For example, the content management system you chose might help improve workflow efficiency, but it might also make it more difficult to share your content with other groups, therefore exposing a problem with silos.

In cases like these, you will need to start thinking about other strategies to solve your new issues. With careful planning and time spent exploring the possibilities of unforeseen problems before you implement, you can reduce your chances of finding yourself in such a situation.

Has your implementation gone according to plan?

The answer to this one is almost certainly no—even the most thoroughly researched, well-planned implementations usually end up veering into unexpected territory. But unless a few bumps in the road derailed your project completely, you can still use your original project plan to help determine how successful your strategy was.

Did you solve your content problems and improve your content development processes in the end, even if getting to that point took much longer than you anticipated? If your plans for change management didn’t go quite as smoothly as you’d hoped, was the overall implementation still successful in spite of issues with change resistance? Even if you still achieved the desired outcome with your strategy, assessing where your implementation veered from its original course can help you do a better job planning for future changes.

How has your strategy helped the business?

The main purpose of a content strategy is to use your content to support your company’s business goals. This means that a good strategy should reduce costs and improve the bottom line.

Now that you’ve put your strategy into practice, you can calculate the total costs you spent on implementation. Are you earning the kind of revenue you need to offset those costs? Have you improved your content processes enough that your total profits will increase over time? The more cost your strategy saves, the more successful it is.

How have your business goals changed?

Because implementing a content strategy takes time—usually several months or even a couple of years—it’s possible, even likely, that your business goals could change during the implementation process. If the original business goals that drove your strategy shift before your implementation is finished, how adaptable is your strategy to those changes? A good content strategy addresses both short-term solutions and long-term possibilities so that you will be ready for changing business goals.

A successful implementation will put you in a position to scale up with new business requirements. You can build on the strategy you already put in place to keep achieving business goals as they grow and change. If your content strategy only focused on solving one or two short-term problems and didn’t account for future goals, your strategy probably won’t have lasting success, and you might need a new one sooner than you’d planned.

Now that you’ve done a post-implementation assessment of your content strategy, how did it measure up to your goals? Did it get the gold, silver, or bronze? Maybe it failed to make it onto the podium, so you need a different strategy if your goal was to win a medal. Either way, analyzing the results of your content strategy implementation is the best way to determine how to keep using content to achieve your business goals going forward.

Content strategy after mergers and acquisitions

August 15, 2016 by

Mergers and acquisitions often result in a new content strategy. In a typical scenario, the merged company needs to align disparate content organizations. Before the merger, the companies had different tools, technologies, workflows, deliverables, and content culture. A goal of the merger is to unify company products, and therefore, the merged organization must also unify content development.

The two (or more) combined content organizations see value in having a single content strategy instead of maintaining multiple tools, technologies, and publishing systems. But aligning content strategy is hard work: the organizations probably have different workflows, different corporate cultures, different locations, different localization strategies, and so on.

The ugliness starts when you have to decide whose publishing system is the best approach. Depending on the relationship between the organizations, this can go smoothly or turn into a shouting match. During one infamous project years ago, we discovered that group A so despised group B that A would block any initiatives from B simply because they came from B. B, of course, returned the favor.

Most groups are more professional than this. Nonetheless, a merger is a big change. A new content strategy is also a big change, and piling change upon change wears people out.

A few years back, we had a classroom training session that was much more difficult than usual. The participants and the trainer were experienced professionals, but the class just didn’t go as smoothly as expected. At the end of the first day, the trainer found out that most of the participants were new to the organization. There had been a recent merger, and our training was the third consecutive week of training and travel for the participants. No wonder they were a little cranky! Had we known about the merger-related training, we would have recommended deferring our training to a better time. At a minimum, we could have addressed their travel fatigue at the beginning of the class.

Consider these points when working on content strategy in a merger and acquisition scenario:

  • Understand that mergers are stressful for employees. Changing tools and workflows adds to the stress, especially because employees are often concerned about job security after a merger. They have hard-won expertise on how to publish in their current tool, and that expertise is of no value if you change tools.
  • Consider the timing of your initiatives in the overall merger scheme. Will employees need to change their benefits enrollment at the same time as your new CMS roll-out? Is there going to be a layoff in the midst of your content strategy work? Make sure you know the overall merger plan before you start scheduling your project.
  • It is not sufficient to evaluate the toolsets already in use against each other and choose from those options. The merged organization may need an entirely different class of tool than the individual organizations did.
  • Sometimes, it’s best to create only losers. Instead of having a winner and a loser, consider imposing the pain of change on all groups. This gives the content professionals a common enemy (the outside consultant!).
  • Because merged organizations do not have a common history, you need to be careful about assumptions. Communicate. And then communicate more. Listen more than you talk.
  • Pay attention to the official and unofficial reasons for the corporate merger, and be sure that your content strategy aligns with both. If, for example, two organizations merge to improve their global footprint, localization strategy should be a priority for you. If you have just been acquired by an organization that focuses on great user experience, look for ways to align with that priority in your content strategy efforts.

Struggling with content strategy in a merged organization? Talk to us. We offer coaching and consulting.

Your content strategy easy win

August 1, 2016 by

You have a content strategy plan. Management has agreed to fund implementation. Time for the happy dance, right?

A little celebration is in order. But you still have to prove your new strategy will work in the real world. Showing early success with an “easy win” during implementation will give you momentum.

What is a good choice for a content strategy easy win? Consider the following criteria—preferably before you get into actual implementation.

(I use the term “easy win” with some hesitation.  Easy is very relative when it comes to implementing any new process or tool.)

Adjust your scope—down, down, down

Finish line this way sign

flickr:
Kai Chan Vong

Being ambitious when selecting your content strategy easy win is a really bad idea. Instead, identify a part of your strategy that is somewhat self-contained. For example, if you plan to create PDF files, ebooks, web pages, and so on, in the new workflow, choose one output for which you already have a strong set of specifications.

If you are working on a strategy that spans departments or product lines (such as a new review workflow), focus on implementation for just one department or product first to work out any potential kinks and to prove the plan works. Pilot projects are your friend.

Select something adaptable

An adaptable easy win means choosing something that works well on its own but could be augmented a bit to achieve another goal. Following the example of creating new output types, assume you choose HTML output as your easy win. If you also plan to offer EPUB ebooks, you can use a lot of the work for the HTML in your ebooks: an EPUB file is essentially a collection of HTML files in a zip file.

It’s a smart move to demonstrate early that your process can evolve to address other requirements. A good content strategy will scale and adapt as the company’s needs change.

Fix a customer complaint

If the people using your product or service have been complaining about particular aspects of your content, it is wise to address at least some of those complaints early with the easy win.

When content-related complaints come through support channels (calls, forums, chat, and so on), they are costing the company a lot of money: the cost of producing the bad content is compounded by the cost of support services addressing the complaints. Fixing the content means you have happier customers who aren’t contacting support as much, and management is pleased to see the company’s bottom line improve.

Address what upper management wants

An executive will look at a content strategy from a different vantage point than a department manager or content creator.

For example, a reduction in the time it takes to format content means the following:

  • Content creators: more time to focus on creating useful information
  • Localization manager: big drop in costs to reformat translated content
  • CEO: shorter time-to-market interval for worldwide products means more revenue

Be sure that you can articulate how the content strategy easy win addresses the executive sponsor’s views on the overall project.

Yes, there are some office politics in play here. No corporate project goes forward in a politics-free vacuum (not even projects with a strong business case). It’s important to keep the executive sponsor informed—and happy. Choose an easy win that shows progress on the executive’s goals for the project.

 All of the above

If your easy win meets these criteria, you have chosen well. Start a project with a manageable goal, get an easy win, and then move on to the harder stuff.

What have you chosen as an easy win for a content strategy project? Let me know in the comments.

Pokémon GO and community documentation

July 25, 2016 by

Yes, I'm playing.

Yes, I’m playing.

Even if you aren’t twitchily checking your phone and resisting the urge to run outside to catch a Pikachu or Gyrados, you’ve probably heard all about the phenomenon of Pokémon GO. One of the most common criticisms of the game is that the in-app documentation is sparse at best. In response, the community banded together and began to document their theories and findings. You can readily find articles covering “eeveelutions,” theories on how to more easily capture Pokémon, and how to capture opposing gyms. It hearkens back to a time of meeting up in schoolyards to swap tips and rumors.

This community-driven documentation has done an amazing job of bringing players together in the absence of official documentation. While this works for a game, you need to be sure that your own documentation does not force your staff or users into this behavior.

In QA

The heart of QA is documentation. While a QA department can get by on oral tradition and tribal knowledge, there’s always the threat of brain drain. Should the unthinkable happen and your QA guru is hit by the lottery, what happens to the testing and validation portion of your workflow? In the best case, you lose efficiency while your remaining QA staff attempt to formalize what was once a loose testing structure. In the worst case, your workflow grinds to a halt while your staff tries to create documentation where there was none before.

The same also goes for general internal documentation, including style guides and information on how to configure business-critical software.

In production

Perhaps there was a miscommunication between your development and tech pubs teams, or something was lost in building out documentation requirements. Regardless, having mis- or undocumented features in your products or services can be a major headache, both in dealing with the fallout and attempting to rectify the inconsistency. Unlike with games or other social media, your users probably won’t converge to do the documentation for you.

Taking action

So how do you try to prevent these issues?

For internal materials, consider using wikis or document repositories for storing critical information. Be sure that any information is easy for your staff to find. Having software licensing information or style guides stored won’t help you if no one can find them.

For external materials, have strong SOPs in place that govern how your content is reviewed before being published. You should also have some means to integrate feedback from users so that future publications can take real-world practice into account.