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October 13, 2015

The commodity trap

In a recent post on lean content strategy, I wrote about a focus on waste reduction:

After creating a nice automated XML-based process, waste in formatting is eliminated, and we declare victory and go home. Unfortunately, the organization is now producing irrelevant content faster, and the content organization is now positioned as only a cost center.

Is your content perceived as a commodity?

Given a critical mass of content, a move away from desktop publishing (DTP) and into XML publishing offers compelling benefits—faster publishing, more efficient translation, efficient reuse, and so on. (Try the XML business case calculator to see whether it makes sense for your situation.)

Over the past decade or so, many organizations have moved into XML. For the most part, they have implemented what we might call XML Workflow Version 1, which has the following characteristics:

  • Focus on automation, especially in translation, as the justification for the change.
  • Refactoring content to improve consistency, which improves efficiency for authors and translators.
  • Reducing formatting edge cases that are difficult to automate.

All of these improvements are useful and necessary, but they focus on how information is encoded. Many organizations are now experiencing pricing pressure from management. Because the content creators have shown that they could be more efficient, management assumes that there must be more efficiency gains available.

Because the justification for XML Workflow Version 1 positioned content as a commodity, management now assumes that content is a commodity.

If you are in the commodity trap, you will experience the following:

  • Pressure to lower content creator costs via staff reductions, outsourcing, and so on
  • A lack of interest in content initiatives other than cost reduction
  • A flat or declining budget
  • A focus on lowest-cost suppliers across all aspects of content and localization and on commodity metrics, such as price per word
  • No budget for staff development

So how do you avoid the commodity trap?

First, it is a fact that XML Workflow Version 1 is mostly about efficiency—and many content groups need to be more efficient. When negotiating for a shift to XML, however, make sure that your argument includes XML Workflow Version 2, in which you can begin to use XML in more sophisticated ways. For instance:

  • Integrate XML-based content with information derived from business systems (such as SAP)
  • Deliver content to other business systems (such as software source code) in a compatible format to provide for better integration and collaboration across the organization
  • Improve the semantics of content (for example, embed an ISBN number with a book reference or a part number with a part reference) and provide for useful cross-linking
  • Focus on touchpoints in the customer journey and how to deliver information that supports the journey
  • Improve the localization and globalization process to deliver information that meshes with each locale, rather than just a somewhat awkward translation

Efficiency in content creators is a means to an end. By freeing content creators from formatting responsibilities and from copying/pasting/verifying repeated information, you can make them available for more high-value tasks. Avoid the commodity trap by ensuring that your content vision goes beyond efficiency and automation.