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February 5, 2024

Training content paradox: Standardization = personalization

What if your training content could be seamlessly tailored to a learner’s environment no matter where or how they interact with it? 

Personalized training content is ideal, but learning content is a beast. You’re creating content that could be used online, in-person, in an instructor-led class, in a self-paced course, and more. Add multiple delivery formats and localizing your content for other countries and regions, and you get a logistical nightmare. How is personalized training content at scale possible?  

The answer lies in strategically organizing your content processes to get your learners what they need how they need it when they need it. In other words, to personalize your content at scale, you first have to standardize and structure your content. Thus, structured content has entered the chat. 

What is structured content? 

Structured content requires your authors to create information according to a particular organizational scheme. It makes writing, editing, reviewing, revising, and publishing your content efficient and scalable. 

More specifically, structured content uses templates, tools, and other t-word things to help authors follow your organization’s structure for producing content. Templates are a good starting place for introducing structured content, so let’s use this blog post as an example. 

When I authored this blog, I didn’t start from a blank document. Instead, I created a new document from a template that’s been customized for our team’s unique blogging needs. 

That template immediately gives me more structure than a blank document. It contains all the essential elements our blogs need so I can fill in the gaps. It saves me a lot of time and it’s more accurate than relying on my famously stable memory to include all the required blog post elements. By creating a customized template, I’ve relied on a structure to give me a personalized output while reducing my workload. The structure itself allowed me to create personalized content in a more scalable way. 

“By creating a customized template, I’ve relied on a structure to give me a personalized output while reducing my workload. The structure itself allowed me to create personalized content in a more scalable way.”

— Christine Cuellar

However, this is an example of optional structured content. It’s great for a small team, but for organizations seeking to produce personalized training content at scale, this specific solution isn’t enough. The template gives me everything I’m supposed to include, but I could get rebellious and remove, ignore, or alter elements and still produce a blog post. Nothing (aside from my personal love of structure) is stopping me. Compound this opportunity with multiple authors, individuals who may not understand or agree with the structure, lots of content to produce, tight timelines, and/or limited review processes, and you still end up with a messy content development process. 

Imagine if elements in my template are required, meaning that I couldn’t publish or move forward with my document until everything is included. In this case, I’m ensuring my content is complete. My workflow is streamlined, because instead of trying to remember every element, what type of content was needed here or there, and so on, I get to focus on writing the content to meet the needs of my audience. Additionally, the tool ensures I publish complete content so others don’t have to ask me to fix the content before they reuse or repost it.

As you move towards scalability and efficiency, the tools you use to structure your content evolve from merely recommending content structure to requiring that your structure is followed

How does standardization = personalization?

As content creators, our first reaction to creating personalized content is to write something new that meets a particular need in a particular environment. For example, if someone needs a self-paced elearning course on a particular subject, let’s go write it! Wait, now we need that same subject for an in-person course? Make a copy and change it as needed.

These new versions aren’t needed because you already have the content in your system. The content, however, may not be usable in all environments if it’s been written and formatted with a specific output in mind. When you standardize your content, it can be used beyond one specific instance, making it easier to mix and match for different outputs. If needed, you can also flag unique content that belongs to a specific version. 

Alan Pringle speaks more specifically about this in his interview with Phylise Banner on the podcast episode, Rise of the learning content ecosystem

“Wherever your content is, your source content has to have intelligence built in that lets you do adaptive content on the fly. […] If you don’t have intelligence (metadata) built into your source content, you’re sunk. You’ve got to start this during the creation process and get that intelligence built into that content so you can do the adaptive things that you are discussing.”

— Alan Pringle

Componentize your content

If we take the blog example a step further, we can explore how personalization is possible when you break down training content into topic-based components. Rather than saving this blog post as a whole piece of content, imagine if each section is saved separately as an individual topic.

Say I need to define what structured content is for another piece of content, and I’d like to reuse the What is structured content? section above. If it’s saved in my content management system as an individual component rather than being part of a particular document, I don’t have to manually copy & paste the section—I can pull that component into whatever new piece of content that I’m creating. 

Additionally, if I need to revise the topic, I can find and edit that single component to have the revision appear everywhere it’s referenced, rather than chasing down multiple documents to manually update content in as many places as I can remember. 

Single source of truth

When your content is broken down into components, your content is stored in a repository that serves as the “single source of truth.” Internally and externally, users or systems can request the content they need. The components are assembled to provide the requested content.

Though I’m not diving into the technical details of how this works in this post, this approach is the foundation for Content as a Service (CaaS). You can find more information about CaaS in this white paper authored by Sarah O’Keefe

Seamlessly generating specific content for a desired output without requiring authors to write custom versions makes it possible to create personalized training content at scale.

But for personalization to prevail, standardization has to be the next move. 

If this post sparked questions about standardization, structured content, and more, let’s talk!

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