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April 4, 2013

The truth is out there

One of the most important issues in technical content is to establish a single source of truth for technical data. More often than not, our workflow assessments uncover multiple sources of dubious accuracy.

sisyphusGiven a workflow in which information is extracted from a database, dropped into a layout tool, and then published to print, you might assume that the database is the source of truth. Unfortunately, the database is usually incomplete or error-ridden, and the technical communication team is not permitted to change the database. This results in the following workflow:

  1. Extract iffy information from the database.
  2. Import bad information into layout files.
  3. Make corrections and updates in the layout files.
  4. Do random additional formatting tweaks because you’re spending so much time in the layout anyway.
  5. Publish corrected information.

Notice the absence of:

  1. Correct information in the database.

Without corrections in the database, the most accurate source of truth is the layout files, in which information has been scrubbed and reviewed.

This is not a good thing.

One of the most common recommendations we have for improved workflows boils down to:

Fix the $#@!$#@! data.

(We generally phrase it more tactfully.)

If you move the source of truth back into the database (the base of the data), you can create a workflow like this:

  1. Update the database with good information.
  2. Extract information from the database.
  3. Import into layout files and publish.

A few  things make this workflow compelling:

  1. In the original version, the correction work is infinite. The technical communication team must either rework the content every time they export from the database, or they must maintain their layout files as a repository of truth and integrate updates one by one. Neither approach is appealing or efficient.
  2. In the new version, the database updates will, over time, make the database better and better instead of being a Sisyphean task.
  3. If the database content is accurate, it’s possible to import and publish with minimal (or zero) intervention in the actual layout files. The process might take an hour instead of a weeks or months.

If your workflow is nothing but a series of workarounds that are driven by bad data, it’s time to consider a new plan of attack.