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November 4, 2019

Subject matter experts as authors and reviewers (podcast)

In episode 63 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and Chip Gettinger of SDL chat about subject matter experts and their role as authors and as reviewers of content.

“One of the most important things about working with SMEs is to meet them where they are. It’s important to understand where they’re coming from and their perspective. Understand what issues matter to them.”

—Chip Gettinger

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Sarah O’Keefe:     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 63 we talk about subject matter experts, and their role as authors, and as reviewers of content. Hi everyone, I’m Sarah O’Keefe, and I’m delighted to be here with Chip Gettinger of SDL.

Chip Gettinger:     Hi Sarah, hi everybody. It’s great to be on the podcast today, looking forward to it.

SO:     Yes, we are delighted to have you here, glad we get a chance to chat because we don’t as much as we might want to. Chip is over at SDL, where he manages the global solutions team focused on structured content management, working directly with customers and partners. And for someone like me maybe more importantly, has been in this industry for a while, and knows everybody, and perhaps everything. For those of you that have also been in the industry for a while, you should know that he was an actual typesetter, so he comes by his interest in content honestly.

CG:     Yes Sarah, I remember the days fondly of teaching typesetting picas and points to my students, it was really fun.

SO:     Alright, well now that we’ve lost all the millennials we can move on to our actual topic. So, a little bit about subject matter experts and their relationship to content. I guess traditionally, a subject matter expert would be somebody who, who’s what? What is a subject matter expert?

CG:     It’s a great question Sarah, and I think it does vary by industry, but let’s start with high tech manufacturing organizations. I think one of the first things I see frequently are software, hardware developers, engineers. These are experts in the company, who are developing products, writing software, developing hardware, and they have so much knowledge, and so much expertise. But, they’re really driving the production, the development of the products. And this information is so critical that they have about how those products work, how they operate, and how they can get that information out.

SO:     So you’re talking about somebody who’s an expert in the product, but not necessarily somebody who is an expert writer?

CG:     Correct, correct. Unfortunately we’ve all read content that’s written by somebody who really is not a good writer. Our professional writers, the industry has grown up over many decades of skills and so forth, working very closely with SMEs to ween out that information. And then, professionally write it and present it typically for customers, or internal use for their organizations and products.

SO:     Yeah, so I mean traditionally is kind of a loaded term. But, it seems like what we have had with the rise of professional technical writing, typically is that your subject matter expert reviews content, right? So, I as the writer create the content, and then I send it to you, the product domain subject matter expert and say, “Did I get it right?”

CG:     Absolutely. Those workflows are still very much in use today, and actually quite, quite beneficial for organizations. What we’re also starting to see however, is real pressure on time to market. Organizations are investing in technology that perhaps they could capture information, and I see this especially, let’s say I was seeing this, semiconductor manufacturing industries. We have very technical products, and you have SMEs that can write about, let’s say a chip layout, or a manufacturing device. And then, that information can get captured, it doesn’t have to go through a writer to get that information.

SO:     In the same way that we’re losing in a lot of ways, the gatekeepers to publishing, and you and I have both talked about that a lot.

CG:     Yes.

SO:     Now the writers are no longer the SME’s gatekeepers in some of these scenarios.

CG:     In some of them there are, and in some organizations we’re finding that SMEs, there never really has been a centralized documentation team that has had professional writers. What I’ve been working on is, how do we help those organizations understand we need to have things like consistent content, we need to do things like reuse. And other aspects that are important for organizations, but perhaps are on an audience of people less technically skilled at being able to do some of that.

SO:     So we have what I would describe as sort of the rise of subject matter experts, or having them more integrated in content authoring, or having them contribute more to content authoring. And as you said, there’s some benefits to that. Are there risks, are there downsides?

CG:     There are risks and downsides. I mean, we’ve already talked about content quality, terminology consistency, you probably have had podcasts around that, and there’s risk about that. An emerging area that I really like is where technical doc teams work with SMEs who are doing the authoring. So, when you have a centralized content management system where SMEs can perhaps write structured content, and contribute that, and then put it in a draft review mode. And then, the professional writers can come in and use some of the tools they can to ensure consistency, perhaps create some reuse around terminology and so forth. But, it shortens their time, the professional writers time, it took to get that information out because they were able to capture it right from the SME.

SO:     What’s the implication of this on structured content? I mean, you and I live in a world where we’re structuring content, and we’re enforcing content structure, and there’s a lot of pretty heavy technologies sitting in and around that. What’s the implication when I’m dealing with a person who’s a physician or something, but not necessarily interested in developing that level of expertise in content?

CG:     It’s a great question, and really I look to you Sarah, and the skills your team brings around content strategy, and information architecture. I think gone are the days when we information architect to the experts who understand all the tagging, and metadata, and attributes, and so forth. The content strategy now gets driven by perhaps, how can we simplify this? And secondly, how can we perhaps use some automation downstream to do things that maybe professional writers would have done before?

CG:     An example of that might be for example, indexing and auto tagging. I’ve seen technology now that’s starting to embrace AI to do some of that. It doesn’t replace the quality of the writing, but what we’re starting to see is some automation, and better tools. And then secondly, all we have to do is look at wikis, and other example products. Many organizations, especially a lot of the SMEs are using wikis to capture content. But, you know what? Its internal customer … Or, I’m sorry. Its internal content only, it’s not customer facing.

SO:     Is it reasonable given the tool sets that we have now to expect subject matter experts to write in XML, is that a thing that’s happening, for them to create structured content?

CG:     Yes, and at SDL we have several customers doing that now. I will say it’s been early stages, and the most successful customers have picked their projects very carefully. I will say one example is Cloud based products, tend to be easier, more newer products. A second area we have is in medical information, on healthcare information. We’re seeing early stages, where a lot of this information needs to be structured to fit into regulatory type information. And we’re seeing some early stage kind of good work going on there for making SMEs work contribute, but be in structure.

SO:     Yeah, and so since you’re doing an excellent job avoiding the actual plug for SDL tools, I think it’s worth nothing that SDL, and others-

CG:     Yeah.

SO:     … Do have tool sets where the professional writer might be using one set of tools, the subject matter expert is using a different and more lightweight set of tools, but they’re working on the same content.

CG:     Exactly.

SO:     I’ve had some very bad experiences with wikis, and the inability to manage or pull content out of wikis. So, hearing wiki always strikes fear in my heart if it’s supposed to be customer facing content, because-

CG:     Yes.

SO:     … That really is a terrible, terrible challenge. I will also say that it’s been our experience that you can look at subject matter experts along a couple of different kinds of axes. One is their level of expertise, and by that I mean if we’re talking about literal rocket scientists and there’s only a few of them in the world, that presents a challenge. If you’re talking about somebody who has some product expertise, but there are lots of people like him or her, that’s kind of okay. But, the more specialized the knowledge, and the more unique that person is, the worse off we are in terms of getting them to cooperate, right?

CG:     Right.

SO:     We don’t have a lot of leverage. The other axis that can be very, very problematic is whether or not they are in fact an employee of the organization for which they are SMEing. In other words, when you’re dealing with volunteers, all bets are off, you know?

CG:     Yeah.

SO:     If it’s an employee within the organization you can appeal to their sense of, the organization needs you to help us with this.

CG:     Exactly, exactly.

SO:     But, if they’re a volunteer, that is just not very fun. Where do you see this going? I mean, is the pendulum going to swing from lots of professional writers, all the way over to just SMEs, or where are we going to land with this?

CG:     You know Sarah, I think about that myself. If I look at traditional structure content industries, it’s happening. This is one of those changes that we need to accept and think about. If I look at our most successful customers, are ones that think about the products that they can document and so forth. And, another example might be if your company has a suite of solutions that comprise different products, it could be several SMEs. And so, you still need to have professional writers who can collate and combine all the various aspects to your product.

CG:     But secondly, I think for our industry there’s an exciting opportunity of new users that are going to come on, that are in regulated industries who traditionally have used unstructured tools, don’t know really much about structured authoring. So, I feel that there’s a larger audience out there that we could capture and get in, if we make it moderately easy for them.

SO:     Right, because I mean the great advantage of structured content is that you’re not going to forget, right? You’re not going to forget to put in that mandatory chunk of content, because the structure itself will say, “Uh, chip? This requires an abstract, and you haven’t done one.”

CG:     Exactly, exactly. And, the other aspects that are required for digital deliveries, you know? We for years, have promoted single sourcing concepts. And Sarah, you said something great about a centralized, you know, having a centralized CMS manage this. And, the variety of tools that could be used depending on your skill sets, or level of education. I’m a professional writer, I’ll use the power tools versus an SME that might use lighter weight tools, but we’re all single sourcing off the same content.

SO:     What are some of the best practices? I mean if you’re talking to an organization and they’re going to have SMEs contributing content, and potentially interacting with some sort of structured content, what’s the advice that you give people? What are some of the best practices, what are some of the things that they should do or not do to make sure that this thing succeeds?

CG:     I think Sarah, one of the most important things about working with SMEs is meet them where they are. A lot of times these are organizations that you don’t have direct responsibility, and many companies, they can go off and do their own thing. I think it’s important to understand where they’re coming from and their perspective, and really get to know your SMEs, you know? Understand what issues matter to them. I feel it’s also important for, let’s say us, our professional writers, to educate them about customer needs. And by the way, the customers could be fairly technical in all the other aspects, so really getting to know them. And, some of the techniques I’ve seen Scriptorium use are things like conducting interviews, you know? And also, identifying the superstars of the organization.

CG:     We always know that there’s going to be the laggards, and the superstars. Identify those people that say, “Oh, this looks kind of interesting,” and so forth. And then, that gives the less confident people nudges and saying, “Okay, if so and sos going to do this, maybe I should get, move forward.” And then finally, measure and reward.

CG:     If you have brown bag lunches, or better off, if you have social groups that you can socialize this, a new progress in your company, measure and give rewards out to people that are successful.

SO:     What are the worst practices, or put another way, what are the risk factors? You go into a customer or a potential customer and they start saying, “Well, we’re going to do this, and this, and this.” What are those things that strike fear in your heart when it comes to SME content and reviewing?

CG:     Yeah, boy, great question. I think what strikes fear in my heart is lack of a strategy, you know? A real strategy around how we’re going to do this, and a big part of that of course is the content strategy information architecture. I think secondly, there does need to be some training. Now, it can’t be days and weeks, it needs to be measured in hours perhaps. But, there needs to be some structure. And finally, I also like to see, I think of it as mentoring. I’ve really been … and, a lot of organizations do this, where they’ll team, let’s say a newer person in the organization, with someone more experienced and so forth. So, having sort of social networks, having places they can post questions, share information, and so forth. The SMEs become part of the process, but ultimately somebody is helping to control and make sure that it’s going to work for them without chaos ruling.

SO:     Yeah, I mean that seems like a good list because I think I would agree that we’ve seen a lot of that as well. Which, I almost feel like we could just, we could just rename this podcast to, “You have to do change management.” You know?

CG:     Yeah, yeah.

SO:     The end. Every podcast, every document we put out basically says, “If you don’t do change management, nothing else matters. This project will fail.”

CG:     Right?

SO:     That’s what I’m hearing from you, right?

CG:     Yeah.

SO:     You have to think about what you’re doing before you do it.

CG:     And suddenly Sarah, we have a larger audience with people interested, and participating with us. What I also see, one of the negative things is I’ve seen tech doc groups get ignored. And, engineering and other development groups just go off and do their own thing, and they can publish it out to the web, and they can do all that. If you don’t meet them in the middle, if you don’t really interact with them, they’ll bypass you if it’s too onerous or too difficult. And, back to your earlier conversations about tools, I think some of the early mistakes are making the tools too complicated. Now, the idea is to keep the content structure quality there without having to have the SME jump through hoops to make it work.

SO:     Yeah, and I think it’s certainly fair to say that 10 years ago we didn’t really have tools that allowed us to achieve both things, right? That allowed us to have structured, flexible content that we could manipulate, and an authoring environment that was easy enough for a person who was not focused entirely on writing.

CG:     Yeah, and Sarah I think a conversation you and I’ve had in the past is, we’re seeing organizations adopting second or third generation CMSs.

CG:     They’re moving from, let’s say document based content into component based. And we’re seeing this, I’m seeing this across industries, not just your traditional tech companies, and so forth.

CG:     The exciting thing for me I think is our industry in structured content, content strategies. As we mature, we have an opportunity to get our best practices, our governance, and all that out to a larger audience of people. We just suddenly can’t measure it in years, we’re going to have to measure it in weeks and months now.

SO:     So as a final question since SDL is mostly focused on localization, right? As a global company. Are there any particular concerns, or considerations that you have in dealing with SMEs in an environment that’s heavily localized, or perhaps multilingual. Have you run into anything along those lines?

CG:     Yes. I’m working with a customer right now who has traditionally published English only content, and a number of their customers are based in Asia. What they found is, the number of English speaking engineers are being hired away, they’re being recruited away. So, they’re going to have to start doing their first translation projects to Vietnamese, simplified Chinese, Japanese, and so forth. The concern I have then is back to the basics of, we know that for example, if you have people writing in English and it’s not their primary language, we need to have tools available. Quality checks and so forth, to check terminology, phrasing, and so forth.

CG:     The second fear I have is that terminology leaks in that’s very cultural, you know? An American term that doesn’t make any sense to a Brit, or somebody in Australia, or other types of things. Again, professional authors have a knowledge of that, SMEs may not know what they’re writing about has that. That has a direct impact on translation. As you know, translation has greatly simplified the centralization of translation memories for language, but it also requires consistency. One of the benefits of moving into this structured authoring for SMEs, at least the structure of the content can be more uniform, which will reduce translation costs. But boy, we have to make sure the content written matches as well.

SO:     And interestingly, we’re also seeing that this, let’s call it prioritization of subject matter experts, is leading to multilingual source authoring. So, our entire engineering team is in Korea, so we’re going to source the documents in Korean.

CG:     Yes.

SO:     Now, they’ll then translate and do some other things, but the logic becomes that we’re going to get better quality content if we start in the engineers preferred language, and then we’ll worry about translation downstream. But we are, I think as the subject matter experts potentially become more and more critical to the content process, that’s actually going to drive a need to do … because companies are global, and they have engineering and product development operations all over the world. So now all of a sudden we’re talking about the need to support the engineers in Germany, the engineers in Korea, the engineers in China, wherever they may be, in their preferred language.

CG:     Right, and that’s the exciting thing about my job at SDL. I really get to work with global organizations, and I’ve got team members in Europe, Asia, and here in North America. I think that the exciting customers I work with, our CMS, or tools can support those kind of environments. They’re not easy to manage, I’m not going to pretend. But, it’s possible to be authoring in multiple languages, and it does take really strong governance.

CG:     One of the exciting things I see also is, I mentioned earlier, is the teaming up. You may have a new person in Eastern Europe coming on, and they pair them up with somebody in North America, in California, who’s more of an expert. And, there’s real skills being transferred, and you can do things with video, and recordings that don’t get rid of the time difference, and so forth.

CG:     I think all of those kinds of things are really exciting for me, working with global organizations on managing this. And then finally, if I look again back in the regulated industries, financial, medical, pharmaceutical, that’s the real growth area for this. That’s the area I think I’m learning a lot about some of their challenges, it kind of feels almost like 20 years ago Sarah, when we first really started getting into structured content.

SO:     And, I think that might be a good place to leave it. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening. Chip, thank you for this, it was really interesting, I learned a few things. We will look forward to seeing you downstream at whatever conference we might next bump into each other at, and there will be chocolate. With that, 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.