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April 3, 2019

Full transcript of Open file formats in your digital transformation (podcast)

Alan Pringle:     Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 48, we discuss the importance of using open content formats in your digital transformation.

A. Pringle:          Hi everybody. I am Alan Pringle of Scriptorium, and today I am talking with Sarah O’Keefe and Bill Swallow.

Sarah O’Keefe:  Hey there.

Bill Swallow:     Hey everyone.

A. Pringle:          So today we want to talk about digital transformation, what that is and how open file formats can play a very important part in that. So to kick things off, we probably need to define digital transformation, so I’m going to throw that out there. What is digital transformation?

S. O’Keefe:         So digital transformation refers to the process of using technology, digital things but technology generally, to modify how you do business, your business processes, that type of thing. So if you think back to something like a timesheet, a time tracking kind of situation, in the olden days we had punch cards. You would punch in. You would punch out. Then maybe there was some sort of paper sheet that you would fill out, that type of thing. But if you think about it today, it’s probably an app. We have an app here that we use for time tracking where you electronically tell it, “This is what I’m working on,” and you track the time against that. And then the transformational part is it’s not the same as a punch card or as a paper form. The transformational part is that because all that information is captured digitally/electronically, we can then use that data to generate reports on what’s going on with our time every week or every month or every year. So digital transformation refers to that process of using digital features, functions, technologies to change how you do business.

A. Pringle:          So we’ve defined digital transformation. Now let’s talk about another part of this, open formats. So what is an open format?

B. Swallow:        An open format is a file format that conforms to some kind of documented standard, and it’s not tied to one specific tool. It’s widely available for many tools to use and adopt, and generally it will allow people who adopt this file format to not be constrained to any one particular tool, meaning that their content or their file formats are much more transferable between systems and you can migrate things easily.

A. Pringle:          On the reverse side of that, what is a closed format then?

B. Swallow:        A closed format, it really is the opposite of that. It’s a proprietary file format, binary or not, that conforms to the very specific needs of a singular tool. So it was basically created to be used with one specific technology.

A. Pringle:          Let’s talk now about the advantages and disadvantages of open versus closed tools. Sarah, what are some of the advantages of using an open format?

S. O’Keefe:         So if you have an open format then at least in theory, you reduce your vendor lock-in, right? You can take your toys and go home if you’re not happy with the vendor that you’re using to create, manage, edit that data or information or content. You have the potential for collaborating with other organizations that are producing equivalent information that you want to share across, and you’re using the same file format because you chose the same open format. That can of course in theory work if you’re using a proprietary format, but you have to make sure that you’re all using the same tools and you’re all in alignment. And even then you can run into problems with, “Oh I’m on version seven, and you’re on version nine, and it doesn’t quite work.”

S. O’Keefe:         So with an open format, you have this potential of everybody being essentially on the same platform and the ability to interact in that way. The flip side of that, the disadvantage is, especially if you’re using an open source standard that’s managed by some service standards body, they move slowly. You can’t rely on them necessarily to make changes as quickly as you might like, and the standard is not always a perfect fit for what you’re trying to do. And so you can have a bit of a gap between exactly what your requirements are in your organization for your project versus what the standard does.

A. Pringle:          So Bill, what are some of the advantages of closed format?

B. Swallow:        So with closed formats, one of the key advantages that you gain is that your information, your files will be completely tied to the implementation of the tool that you’re working with. They are built for a very specific purpose, and they work very closely with the functions of the tool that you’re using. Another advantage is that you have a lot less custom configuration that you need to do because the tool is already designed for a specific purpose, so the file formats that support the tool or support the information that’s being leveraged by this tool is already optimized for that particular use case.

B. Swallow:        Now again on the flip side, this is all fine and good provided that this tool or this technology, software, what have you will suit your needs in the long run. And do you have to either have a game plan that is going to follow that tool’s capabilities, or you have to be absolutely certain that the vendor that provides this tool or this technology is either going to work with you to move things along as other technological advances happen or that they already have a plan that aligns with your use cases.

S. O’Keefe:         So if you’re a company that’s typically out there on the bleeding edge doing weird custom stuff, then there’s a pretty good chance that the tool vendors are not going to keep up with you, for the obvious reason that there aren’t that many of you out on the bleeding edge so why would the tool vendor be building for that small contingent, right? They’re building perhaps for the early adopters, but mostly they’re building for the middle. They’re building for the people that are going to come along when this thing you’re trying to do becomes widely adopted.

S. O’Keefe:         So it’s probably worth looking at, taking an honest look at where is your organization in terms of technology adoption. Are you typically early? Are you medium? Are you late? Because if you’re a late adopter, the commercial tools are probably going to have what you need. If you’re an early adopter, there’s a really, really good chance that they don’t because you’re out in front of them. So that’s something to consider.

S. O’Keefe:         There’s also some interesting things around risk management in here. Well,

you can argue on the one hand that a closed format is less risky because of less configuration, but you can also argue that it’s more risky because of the risk that it won’t do what you need it to do.

A. Pringle:          And vendor lock-in is higher as well.

S. O’Keefe:         And vendor lock-in is definitely a potential issue. But even with an open format, at the end of the day, it’s never fun to switch vendors ever. So, although there might not be a big huge technological hurdle in moving from one system to another if you’re in an open format, there’s still going to be the expense and the pain and the productivity hit of changing your tools no matter what.

A. Pringle:          Let’s talk a little bit about content strategy in the context of digital transformation and these open and closed formats. Where does content strategy fit in this picture?

S. O’Keefe:         So digital transformation asks us to look at a business process from the point of view of, “how can we best make this process happen with the digital tools that we have available to us?” So if we put this in the context of content strategy, then what we’re probably talking about is a digital transformation that’s focused on content and information, the entire lifecycle: creation, management, development, governance, delivery, all those things. So what is the best way to deliver this information? Is the 1,000 page PDF that you have to download the best way? Probably not.

S. O’Keefe:         But can we take a step further? Step one very often as something like, “Okay, we’re going to put it online.” And initially that meant a PDF; now it means we’re going to make a bunch of HTML and have an HTML experience of some sort. And initially, a lot of those still looked like books. They had book-like navigation. There was a lot of table of contents tree structure stuff going on.

S. O’Keefe:         But sometimes you have to take a step back and look at your information and say, “This product has 18 different configurations. So I’m going to give you, the customer, a configuration tool that allows you to specify or configure the thing, and then get the information that exactly matches your specific configuration,” instead of making you wade through a whole bunch of, “If you have the LX model, this happens. If you have the EX model, you don’t get this.” I mean we’ve all seen this in printed car owner manual type of things. In a digital transformation workflow, you can know what your reader has and therefore deliver the right information to them, and filter it for them so that they get only what’s relevant to them.

B. Swallow:        Right.

B. Swallow:        And on the same side with looking at the digital transformation and the old way of passing information along from one body to another, a lot of times it was done in long form. So you would be passing, whether it’s PDF, HTML or something else, you’re passing long blocks of content from one source to another to be used in some certain way, whether it’s an end user of configuring a system or what have you, someone programming something on the back end. And nowadays, we’re looking a lot more at a systems integrating at a system-to-system level with a lot less human interaction. And if your goal, if your digital transformation goal is to automate more of the experience and more of the value that you’re providing, then you need to start looking more at solutions that take that information and break it down and pass it over programmatically or systematically that can be used in many different ways.

S. O’Keefe:         And that’s where you get the tie-in back to the question of digital transformation and open versus closed formats. Provided that what we’re trying to do with our content is relatively straightforward and a relatively common problem, we can get away with using a closed format that maps to those requirements and does them well. But what’s happening more and more and more often is what Bill’s describing, which is, “Oh, we need to connect our content with this weird outlier system that nobody’s ever heard of.” And provided that we have an open format to transport information, we can do that. If we have a closed format, the canonical exam or the canonical answer to this back in the ’90s was, “There’s an API and a connector, and then you do a bunch of work.”

S. O’Keefe:          Now what we’re basically saying is the underlying information, the underlying content and the way that it’s encoded, provided that it’s in an open format, can be moved and becomes portable in the way that you’re describing, where you can take it from point to point to point and do different things with it or collect up a bunch of content coming from a bunch of different sources, package it up and deliver a thing. All of which is being built on that open underlying format that is agnostic as to where the content came from.

A. Pringle:          It is also sometimes agnostic, the format into which is going to be transformed.

S. O’Keefe:         Yes.

A. Pringle:          It could be anything from all the delivery formats you mentioned to something inside an inventory tracking system. It’s limitless almost these days, where that information can end up.

S. O’Keefe:         Yeah. I think that’s really the key, is that at this point nearly every customer we talk to has what I would describe as at least one … I want to say weird, but let’s go with unique … at least one really unique requirement for content delivery or encoding or something. And those outlier requirements are not easily met by a commercial tool or in a closed format because by definition the closed format has to cater to the broadest possible common denominator.

A. Pringle:          Where it’s not sustainable.

S. O’Keefe:         Yeah, It’s not sustainable. It doesn’t make any sense to write a closed format for a bunch of one-off problems, but your open format potentially can be extended in that direction to address what you’re trying to do.

A. Pringle:          And if five years from now, who knows what those requirements are going to be? And will the proprietary tool, will that developer be working quickly enough to anticipate and handle those things that we don’t know about?

S. O’Keefe:         Yeah, and that’s an interesting point too. Because you and I talked about laggards and late adopters, but in fact there’s a lot of organizations now that are looking at really profound content transformations maybe for the first time, and they’re leapfrogging a lot of the people that did this 10 years ago where the focus was really on cost avoidance and efficiency and automation. The people that are looking at it today are looking at innovating. They’re looking at interesting ways, interesting things they can do with their content and looking really beyond just, “We can squeeze out some formatting costs savings,” although they can.

A. Pringle:          Yes. And I think we’re moving more into a world of seeing the value of content, and not just something that has to be delivered at this point.

A. Pringle:          And with that, I think we’re going to wrap up. Thank you Sarah and Bill.

A. Pringle:          Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.