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July 26, 2021

The evolution of smart content (podcast)

In episode 99 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Alan Pringle and special guest Larry Kunz of Extreme Networks talk about the evolution of smart, structured content.

“I’m a huge believer in big picture. We really need to stand back and ask ourselves, ‘What is this really all about? What are we trying to accomplish?’ It’s not about the content. It’s about the customer.”

– Larry Kunz

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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 this episode, we talk with Larry Kunz, about the evolution of smart, structured content. Hey everyone. I’m Alan Pringle. And today, we have a special guest on the podcast. I’ve got Larry Kunz here. Hi Larry.

Larry Kunz:                    Hi Alan. It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.

AP:                   Absolutely. And I want to give our audience a little bit of understanding about your background. So would you kindly introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about your experiences in the content world?

LK:                    Sure. I’ve been in technical communication, mostly in the computer industry, for more than 40 years. I won’t allow us exactly how many. I was working for IBM, when structured content came to be a thing, when DITA was being developed. I wasn’t one of the people who was developing it, but I was a very early user, and very quickly came to understand the value of structured content. I really thought it was a good thing, and my opinion has never changed. I have done time in marketing communication. And I’ve done training and consulting. But when the income tax form comes around every year, I still put technical writer as my occupation.

AP:                   And I remember, at one time, I had technical editor on mine. So I totally get that. And because you do have that really deep expertise, and we all know you got started when you were an infant. We all know that you got started very, very, early in this industry. But I think it would really help this discussion. And what I’m going to talk about is how smart, structured content has evolved. And for what it’s worth, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years now. And I will not be more specific than that. You’ve got a little more experience than I do. But I’m glad to be paired up, and to have this discussion, because I have seen things change quite a bit over the years. But on the flip side of that, sometimes it’s say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

AP:                   So let’s talk about that, first, to level the playing field. I want to talk about, basically, what is smart structured content? Now, on the Scriptorium side, this is how we define smart content. It’s modular content with tags and metadata. And the formatting is separate. It’s applied later, based on the intelligence that you build in to that tagging and metadata. Now, I know before we started this podcast, we were talking about ideas. And you said you had a little bit of an issue with the term “smart content.” So I would very much like to hear your perspective on that.

LK:                    Sure, Alan. And I think your definition is an excellent one. I like to swing it around to the point of view of our audience, or our reader, rather than the content itself. And I don’t have a better term than smart content. Perhaps effective content is better. But it’s content that gives our readers the information they need, when they need it, in the proper place, the proper context, and adaptable to whatever format. It helps them complete a task, or make a decision.

AP:                   And I don’t think we’re too far apart, much at all, beyond some semantics there. Because basically, to make that customer facing content as flexible and useful, you’ve got to build in that intelligence.

LK:                    Absolutely right, Alan.

AP:                   So let’s go back, because you’ve already mentioned that you were involved in the early times. And I am not slamming you at all, because I was using some of these same tools, by the way, back in the day. When is the first inkling you got of this smart, structured content? Can you take us back to that moment?

LK:                    Well, I think it was, again, at IBM, when I realized in this new, they called it, it was an SGML format. And I don’t want to throw a lot of alphabet soup out-

AP:                   Yeah.

LK:                    … But that we were no longer talking about, let’s do a line break, let’s change the font, let’s change the indentation. We were talking about, this is a section, this is a paragraph, this is a list. That was the first inkling. And as I said, at the time, it made a lot of sense to me. I took to it really quickly. It wasn’t until later though, that I understood the potential, that by doing things that way, we could, as you said, modularize the content, and apply formatting later. And have a whole variety of uses for it.

AP:                   And my experience is very similar. I started working, early in my career, on projects for IBM. And we used their SGML, which I believe was called BookMasters. Is that correct? It’s been a while.

LK:                    That’s correct.

AP:                   And I used BookMaster. And that was my first job. And I think I’m fortunate, in the sense that my first job was more working with SGML with structured content. So I really didn’t have this notion of desktop publishing, because it was so much in its infancy. The whole, what you see is what you get. I didn’t have that mindset shift to make, because I was thrown right into the structured content pond. Here you go. But later on, when desktop publishing came along, I started seeing people who were much more focused on the formatting, because you could basically make what a page looked like, or a representation of what a printed page would look like, on your screen. How have you dealt with those very different mindsets in your career?

LK:                    I’ve tried to show people the potential of what you can do with structured content. And candidly, it’s been hard, because I think most of us have seen the effects of structured content, and what things it can do in a consumer context. Obviously, e-commerce, shopping on the web. You can break content down by facets. If you’re ordering clothing, size, color, style. The business to consumer, or B2C world, has done a good job of that. And the B2B world has really lagged behind.

AP:                   Right. Right.

LK:                    So that is changing. But-

AP:                   It is.

LK:                    … But I think the one way that I can help people understand, is by saying, “Well, when you go home from work, or maybe while you’re at work, I won’t tell, you’re shopping. You’re shopping for clothes, or gifts, or electronics.” And this is the sort of thing you’re experiencing. This is the customer experience that we can create, using smart content.

AP:                   Exactly. And that’s a really good analogy. To take something so every day and ubiquitous, like online shopping is for many of us, and to turn that on its head, with more of a content-focused lens. Because to me, this is where I really started seeing the value of smart structured content. I was working on the documentation for a very early laser printer for Lexmark, which had just spun out of IBM, by the way. So I’m really dating myself by saying that.

AP:                   But we basically wrote documentation for multiple models, that were very similar and had overlapping features. And we’re able not to have to maintain completely separate bunches of content, for every one of those models. We were able to reuse a lot of that content. And to me, now, I cannot stress how lucky I am, or was, to fall into a job that introduced me to that fairly early on. How you could do that reuse, when you have content that is, has that intelligence built in to say, “This is for model A. This is for model B. This is for model C.” And then, mix and match those parts to create your end product, which, at the time, was a printed manual.

LK:                    Yeah. You were fortunate. And I’m afraid, I see a lot of writers who still struggle with doing that, because you have to understand reuse. You have to know something about metadata and taxonomies. And this is a hard concept. And I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s something that we have to make sure that everyone has enough familiarity with, to really use these tools that are available to us, effectively.

AP:                   I think it’s also worth noting. I think in some cases, people may be so focused on the tool, and using it to its maximum ability, that they’re focused so much on how that tool works. That they’re sometimes can’t see the bigger picture about, especially, if things need to shift away from that tool, because that tool no longer supports whatever business drivers are behind, for example, a smart content initiative at a company, to move away from desktop publishing. If that has been your world, and you’re an expert at it, I can understand why people would be reluctant to want to give that up, because they are a leader in that skillset.

LK:                    That’s a good point. And you mentioned big picture. I’m a huge believer in big picture. We really need to stand back and ask ourselves, what is this really all about? What are we trying to accomplish? And it’s not about the content. It’s about the customer. Helping them get the information they need, just in time. I use the supply chain analogy. So get that information to them, just in time, in the right place, the right content, when they need it.

AP:                   Speaking of bigger picture, what are some of the other business drivers you’ve seen, pushing people and companies, to go to more of this modular, smarter content?

LK:                    Well, this is fairly recent. And I’m delighted that I’m seeing it. But people are understanding more and more, that our content is part of the overall customer experience. The silos are coming down, especially between marketing and tech pubs. Last week, I heard Megan Gillhooly say that our audience is made up of the same people who go home and shop online. And so, even if we’re writing highly technical manuals for a business audience, we can do these things. It’s part of their customer experience. Marketers no longer talk about a sales funnel, where a customer is drawn in, and then the sale is made. They understand that marketing continues after the purchase. It’s about building engagement, building loyalty. And our content can do that. That’s beginning to be seen as a business driver. The content truly is a business asset. And I say, I’m seeing this recently, because it’s been more than 20 years that structured authoring has been around. But really, only in the last four or five years, have I seen this mindset starting to take hold.

AP:                   And I agree with you. And I think it’s very good news. I think the walls really separating content types, some of which, are fairly arbitrary, that does make a huge difference, and is a huge driver for some of these initiatives. And before we wrap up, what’s the piece of advice you would give to people who were just starting their careers in content, in regard to structure? What would you say to them as they’re getting started?

LK:                    Well, first and foremost, I would, again, say, stand back and make sure that you can see the big picture. And there are so many demands on our time and attention every day. Going to stand up meetings, hitting a deadline, putting out all those fires. It’s really hard to remember what we’re doing here, that we are providing information for our customers, again, in that just in time fashion. And trying to build engagement, and build loyalty. I think if practitioners can keep in mind those principles, what we really are doing here, why we’re doing this job, it will help them embrace the possibilities of structured authoring, and look beyond the silos, and really think about what is in the content, that we need to give to our customers.

AP:                   Larry, that is a great piece of advice. And I think it’s a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much for your time and perspective. I think it will be very helpful to people.

LK:                    Well, thank you again, Alan, for having me participate on this podcast. It’s a privilege and a pleasure.

AP:                   And we share that. Thank you so much. 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.