Finding the value when selling structure (podcast)
In episode 87 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and special guest Nenad Furtula of Bluestream talk about finding the value when selling structure. Why do so many tech pubs departments fail to get support for structured content and what can we potentially do to change that?
- Bluestream Content Solutions
- Steps to structured content (podcast, part 1)
- Steps to structured content (podcast, part 2)
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 this episode, we talk about finding the value when selling structure with special guests, Nenad Furtula of Bluestream. Why do so many tech pubs departments fail to get support for structured content and what can we potentially do to change that? Hi everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe from Scriptorium and I’m here with Nenad. Nenad, you’re over there in sunny Canada?
Nenad Furtula: Thank you, Sarah. Always good to hear your voice and talk to you. I’m located in Vancouver, British Columbia.
SO: Nenad, tell us a little about yourself and Bluestream and what brings you to the structured content conversation?
NF: Of course. Yeah. My role at Bluestream is I guess I’m one of the two managing partners and I also manage all the business development and marketing activities when it comes to Bluestream. Bluestream has been around since 1997 and we initially were an XML database company and shortly after that, transitioned into content management. We’ve been doing content management for a very long time. Around that time that we got into this business, about 2005, DITA came about and so what we’ve done is we built a product called XDocs, which is a component content management system. For the past, I guess, 15 years, I’ve been soliciting the value proposition of our flagship product.
SO: Right. And you and I have had many conversations, at many conferences, with many drinks, about the industry and it’s always interesting to hear what you think about it. And so today I wanted to ask you specifically about what I think is yours and perhaps my number one business problem, which is why is it so hard to sell structured content at the executive level? When we go in and we’re selling to potential clients, why is that so hard with the execs?
NF: I guess the famous line is to catch a gopher you to think like a gopher, Bill Murray from Caddyshack. If you think about roles in an organization, executives have a role and predominantly they are concerned with growth, business growth and returning shareholder value, and sometimes stakeholders as well, right? Classical product documentation, when we talk about structures for example, is generally seen as a low-level cost center. That is necessary when you have to release a product, but it’s not really a forefront of the business thought. It does not generate revenue and it does not necessarily improve your organization’s image like marketing does, right? So that is a problem.
SO: And it doesn’t bring in new leads, right?
NF: Exactly, exactly. It’s a cost center, that’s the problem, right? It’s not a priority and it’s also a low-level cost center, meaning that there are expenses that are not overbearing essentially, right? Just to give an example is when you’re talking about, say Salesforce, they write that check every year no problem, right? Whereas when you’re talking about a component content management system, that becomes a bit of an issue.
SO: Basically, we have to show that this type of content, product and technical content, does in fact add value to the business, or I guess maybe more accurately, doing it better adds value to the business, right?
NF: Well, we have to show where it adds value. I think that’s key and we have to think about how it does that. Right? I think that I am guilty of this as I think many of us are in the beginning, let’s just say, let’s roll back 10 years ago or so, we were really focused on content reuse and how great it is for documentation lifecycle and proves the processes and reduces publish times and that these things are not really, executives don’t think about things like that. Right? The focus, really I think, has been in the last five years to really sell value of information and also show where it brings most value to the organization.
SO: Yeah. I’ve been warning people that focusing on cost avoidance is pretty much a straight train to the land of commoditization.
SO: Which we don’t want actually.
SO: What about DITA? Is there a different argument there or is it the same?
NF: Well, it’s sort of worse, right? If you think about it because, well, that’s the problem. Again, going back 10 years, we’re telling the world how great DITA is, right? I think it frightens some people too because it is great, it’s a wonderful standard. At the very essence of it, it’s just a technology that helps you deliver a structured content, right? Executives care even less about it. But where I’ve found the DITA argument, in particular, the standard argument helpful, is when you’re trying to mitigate risk. Right? Because the question inevitably comes up. We’re bringing this new tool and are we going to be vendor bound, right? Here we say well look, when you’re going with something like DITA which is a standard and not a proprietary schema, there’s a bunch of them out there, you are essentially mitigating risk. To me, that’s the most valid argument. You can talk about there’s a community, there’s thought share and all that wonderful stuff, but it really comes down to, can I switch to vendor? Should I need to? And yeah, you can because you’re working with the standard.
SO: Right, so you have a risk mitigation and then I’ve talked about it a little bit as an enabling layer in that there are things that you want to be able to do with your structured content and the people who built out DITA originally thought pretty carefully about what those things might be. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s useful if you have the typical kind of structured content. Okay. We know that we can do some cost avoidance, some lower expenses, but we don’t really want to focus on that too much. What other kinds of things, what other kinds of value propositions do we have then?
NF: Well, when it comes to value proposition, I mean it depends on the organization and it depends on the industry. We’ll get into to the industry later on in this call but the true value proposition in my mind has to show an ROI, right? We get asked for this all the time. In particular, in my line of work, when I’m working with procurements, when I’m working with technical documentation managers trying to solicit value proposition internally, it’s all about all about the ROI. The number one, I think, point when it comes to ROI is, is this going to have an impact on my revenue, right? If you can show that a structure or going towards structure is going to impact your revenue, you have a pretty good argument. That’s a good starting point, right? And not everybody can show that. Not every industry is capable of showing that.
NF: Now of course, the second point is as you mentioned, is impact on expenses and reducing expenses. It is about lowering translation costs and making these departments more productive, if you would, right? That’s a big one. It’s really difficult to quantify a third point, pardon me, is that through documentation, you can enhance end user experience with your product. Okay. That’s a very interesting point to make because we’re no longer shipping 500 page PDFs. We’re shipping help centers. Give you an answer to your question, right? Talk about enhancing experience with the product that you were looking for an answer, it’s there, right? But then, like I said, it’s much more difficult to quantify.
SO: Yeah. I think you’re right. We’ve run into some other related things to what you’re talking about. I don’t know where you put this, but regulatory compliance and making it easier to deliver the right content that your regulatory body requires and doing it correctly the first time means fewer holdups in your regulatory experience, right? Fewer calls from the regulators saying, “Hey you didn’t do this,” or, “Hey we’re not going to approve your product unless you give us X, Y, and Z.” You give them exactly what is required and accurately the first time. You talked about risk earlier in a technology context. We talk a lot about risk mitigation as a value proposition that if you have a transparent, traceable, et cetera kind of process, you can reduce the number of mistakes you make in your content, right? And if you do make a mistake, you can fix it and be confident that it’ll get fixed everywhere, which reduces potentially your exposure from a product liability point of view, right? If you ship a possibly dangerous product, dangerous if used incorrectly and you don’t provide good instructions, you’ve got some exposure there, so that’s a concern.
NF: I agree. I agree.
NF: That was the preamble to the question. The answer was it really depends on the industry.
SO: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
NF: That’s what we’ve seen. I’m sure you’ve seen the same thing. Adoption of structure, from these regulatory driven industries was much quicker, right? Pharma, they jumped on this early on. Medical device manufacturers, we’ve seen them adopt structure for that very reason early on.
SO: Right. To your point, risk mitigation. Yep.
NF: Risk mitigation. Exactly. I think that should have been a fourth point is industries driven by regulation. They just have to do it.
SO: Well and I guess they recognize the value, right? Because they know what the consequences are if they don’t do it right. For a lot of other people, the consequences are kind of squishy.
NF: They are. They are.
SO: I did want to ask you about cost centers because you mentioned them and I sort of twitched because we have seen a pattern, especially recently, where you have a technical publication or information development group that actually charges their services back to the in-house business units. If I’m tech pubs or whatever they’re called, then every time I produce a document for a particular product line, I charge back my time or the team’s time, to that business unit. Oh, we spent 30 hours, we spent 100 hours on your document so you owe us 100 hours times our internal magic bogus rate.
SO: What they’ve run into is that if they layer in something like structured content, or let’s say they’re sharing content, and so I write content for business unit A, but then I actually use that content again for business unit B. Well, business unit B pays eight minutes and business unit A pays three hours because that’s what it took me to write that piece of content, but then I reused it. If I have better efficiency, I charge back fewer hours which means the team gets less budget the following year and there’s no provision really to fund the infrastructure, to fund the build of structured content or the maintenance of the style sheets or anything like that. And this may be an unanswerable question, but I’m looking at this and saying, this doesn’t work. This cost center approach doesn’t work.
NF: Well it sort of works for certain organizations and not for others. We’ve certainly, especially in large organizations, this is the case, we have yet to run into, or I have yet to run into a case where the technical documentation department has become so efficient that they are getting their budgets cut. That’s just my experience. I personally haven’t seen it. The other reason too is because just the demand for information is growing as well. There is more information, there are more product lines. Maybe that’s why I haven’t necessarily seen that myself, but certainly it could be a problem.
SO: Yeah. It’s not common, but we’ve seen it a few times and we keep saying, well you have to account for the shared infrastructure somehow. I think the challenge is when you move to structure, there’s more shared infrastructure and less hourly billing back, and that’s what you want because more reuse equals more lower translation costs and all the rest of it. You mentioned different industries have different arguments for structure and we kind of touched on regulatory and risk management and what that looks like. What are some of the other examples of that where a different industry or a different vertical might care about different things when they’re looking at structured content?
NF: Yeah. I’m actually glad that we went through regulatory first because the two examples that I had in mind, I’m comparing say a classic software vendor to say someone like a heavy equipment manufacturer, right? Their arguments for structure are going to be different, we found anyway. When you’re producing software manuals and say you have a software product like we do and you need user manuals and such, basically it is a straight up cost to business to develop that. Okay? For example, just to start with, ignore the fact that your processes are going to be better while using structure and you’re going to be more efficient and all that, and your localization costs are going to lower.
NF: What you really need to do is you need to focus on information flow and you need to figure out which recipients of that information have the most value or are getting the most value. In an example of a software company, quite often we see these delivery platforms emerging, and that’s the argument, right? The argument is we need to go into structure so that we can have a better delivery mechanism of our documentation so that for example, we can reduce the burden on our support organization. Okay? And voila, here is your delivery platform, right? What’s interesting about that argument, what we’ve seen there is we’ve seen a lot of people, a lot of software companies actually, sell structure successfully to management and of course, now they’re working debt, because they can’t get money for a tool and get budget for it, for a tool like a CCMS.
NF: But then, it’ll be much easier for them to sell a delivery platform because it’s outward facing. Right. And the whole argument there is, well information flow is, hey, look at my end user. They’re interacting with this documentation, with our product. Again, you’re enhancing the end-user experience with the product and you’re reducing the burden on support. Right? And that works very well for say a software manufacturer or software vendor, for example. Whereas if we take a look at someone like heavy equipment manufacturing and Bluestream has really niched into that vertical quite a bit, over the years, they have a completely different requirement and their requirement is much more sophisticated when it comes to delivering information for the use of this equipment. Right?
NF: Well, first of all, the equipment has a long lifespan, right? And this equipment needs to be serviced and a big portion of a company’s revenue or some fair portion of a company’s revenue is associated with servicing that equipment, and as well as selling spare parts, if you would, right? So when you look at that information flow, when you think about, well, who are the recipients of this information that really matter? Well, they become this service personnel, either third-party or internal, who have to service these machines for many, many years. And of course, they have to sell parts. And so those parts and that service, or those aftermarket parts I should say, and this service become a big part of the revenue, right? The revenue story, company’s revenue story. And so when you’re going into a situation like that, what you’re going to talk about is increasing the sale of spare parts, and that has all the attention of management.
NF: So I’ll give you an example. We’re dealing with a very large train manufacturer, they’re actually worldwide. And I was looking at their business case that they presented, and we’ve been dealing with this customer for about four years, but I remember their case that they presented to management, it was 95% of the business case was focused on increasing the sale of spare parts. Whereas 5% of the business case focused on basically increasing productivity of some 70 plus technical writers. Okay. And that says it all, right? Where’s the focus? Well the focus is in fulfillment, in that particular case. Right? So very different than what we see in the example that I gave earlier, like a software industry. Right? And so the focus has to really be adjusted to the industry that you’re selling into or the industry that you’re in essentially.
SO: Yeah, that’s interesting. And I think we’ve seen that as well, that on the software side, with some exceptions, but in general, on the software side, the focus is on cost savings and also on velocity, time to market. Because software gets distributed electronically. This sounds dumb, but some of us are old enough to remember the literal, we have a contract and our client is required to get this piece of software by close of business on December 1st. And if you miss the FedEx 9:00 PM deliverable, or sorry, you miss the 5:00 PM pickup at the office, that means you have a 9:00 PM cutoff at the airport. And if you miss that, you’re putting somebody on a plane at 6:00 AM to fly them to California, holding a CD in their lap so that they can walk into this business and deliver the software on time. Right?
SO: That’s how it works the olden days. And now you obviously distribute it via a patch or an electronic download or whatever, and that entire shipping process went away. And it took content a long time to catch up to that distribution mechanism. Eventually, we had PDF and we could electronically distribute. But at first it was kind of a big problem. And so software is interested in speed, velocity, time to market, cost savings. And then as you said, manufacturing really has this, it’s more like a two part sale, right? You sell the core product, but then there’s this long lifespan of maintenance and updates and service and spare parts. It’s just a much, much different chain. We’re also seeing an awful lot of companies getting into the fleet management and service management.
NF: That’s right.
SO: So they actually go from being a product like a manufacturing company to being also a software company, because they’ve got the database of all of the equipment that they’ve sold you and think of airlines, when is it due? When is this plane due for maintenance? Keeping track of that is actually a service. So now this distinction between product and service is starting to blend.
NF: Well you know who defined that actually initially? Believe it or not, it was Xerox. Xerox is a big partner of ours and they were for many years and Xerox actually, everybody thought the Xerox was about copiers, right? Yeah, sure, they sold copiers, but a bulk of their revenue came from servicing these copiers. Xerox actually is not a products company, it’s a services company. Right? So it’s true.
SO: Then what about organizations where the content is in fact the product?
NF: Yeah. So those guys have, we see a lot of folks generating learning content, training content in particular. We have a number of customers in those fields and they actually, interestingly enough, they’ve caught on to XML, I should say, early, early on. Okay? And at the time, I say early on, probably about 15 to 20 years ago. Right? And so they’ve paid attention to this stuff and they, for the most part, built their own systems. That’s what we’re seeing. A lot of proprietary systems, a lot of proprietary XML. And so for them, getting into structure was much easier, is much easier I should say. And for them, embracing something like DITA makes sense. The challenge of course becomes how easy is it to use? How easy is it to author?
NF: And this is where DITA, maybe did a disservice to some of us because it’s been presented, it’s so powerful and yet so complex. In fact, I just had a conversation last week with someone that said, “Gosh, we can’t do this. It’s too complicated. We’re going to go with something different.” Right? And so anyhow, I know there’s a discussion around DITA Light and all that wonderful stuff. But those organizations who sell content as their primary business, they’re embracing this and they really are coming on board. The other one is insurance. Sarah, we’re seeing insurance companies. I mean, it makes a lot of sense for insurance, structure makes a lot of sense for insurance. We’re seeing airlines embrace this. Of course, that’s a regulatory industry. We really are seeing an uptake in structured content. There’s no question about it. Last few years have been, in my mind, changing.
SO: Yeah, which sounds like some good news for all of us. So well thank you. I appreciate this because I think there’s a lot of food for thought in here and obviously you’ve not just thought about this, but had to think about this in the course of your business. And I think it’s helpful to me to chew through all these things and contemplate what they’re like. I’m going to, with that, wrap this one up. Thank you, Nenad. I appreciate it as always.
NF: And thank you, Sarah. Thank you for having us on. Like I said, this topic is near and dear to us and should anyone want to discuss further, I’m sure they can reach us at www.bluestream.com.
SO: Yep. And we will drop that in the show notes, along with some other contact information so that you know where to find everybody. Thank you to our audience for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for the relevant links.