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June 3, 2024

The challenges of content operations across the enterprise (podcast)

In episode 167 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Sarah O’Keefe, Alan Pringle, and Bill Swallow discuss the difficulties organizations encounter when they try to create a unified content experience for their end users.

AP: Technical content, your tech content or product content, wants to convey knowledge so the user or reader can do whatever thing that they need to do. Learning content is about improving performance. And with your knowledge base content, it’s when, “I need to solve this very specific problem.” So those are the distinctions that I see among those three types.

SO: Okay, and from a customer point of view, what does this mean?

AP: Well, in reality, I don’t think the customers care. They want the information available, and they want it in the formats they want it in. And also, they want the right information so they can either get that thing done, improve their performance, or solve a specific problem.

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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 this episode, we talk about the challenges of content operations across the enterprise. Hi, everyone. I’m Sarah O ‘Keefe. I’m here today with two partners in crime, Alan Pringle and Bill Swallow.

Alan Pringle: Hello.

Bill Swallow: Howdy.

SO: That first one was Alan, and the second one was Bill. Good luck with that everybody. So I have a big topic today. I want to focus on the intersection of technical content, learning content, and knowledge base content. And Alan, what’s the difference between the three?

AP: Okay, let me see if I can break this down, because I’m sure people have very strong opinions about this, and we may hear about them, but this is how I’m gonna break them down. Technical content, your tech content or product content, wants to convey knowledge so the user or reader can do whatever thing that they need to do. Learning content is about improving performance. And with your knowledge base content, it’s when, “I need to solve this very specific problem.” So those are the distinctions that I see among those three types.

SO: Okay, and from a customer point of view, what does this mean?

AP: Well, in reality, I don’t think the customers care. They want the information available, and they want it in the formats they want it in. And also, they want the right information so they can either get that thing done, improve their performance, or solve a specific problem.

At the end of the day, they don’t care what department or what group wrote it. They just want it, and they want it then and there.

SO: So this enabling content is like, here’s how you can get your job done. Here’s how you can do the thing you need to do and move on with your day so that you can generate the report or write the thing or do the code or whatever it is. They need this content so that they can do the thing. So then, we have all these silos, right? We have technical content in its silo, and we have learning content, and we have knowledge base content, and then we have tools optimized for each of those use cases or for each of those sets of authors. So, now, is this a bad thing from a content perspective?

AP: That is possibly the worst leading question I’ve ever heard on this podcast. The worst. 

SO: Okay, I’ll rephrase.

AP: You don’t need to, but of course it’s bad. It is very, very bad. And the reason that it’s bad is because there is so much overlap in this content. Roughly half of technical content, there’s overlap because you’re both dealing with tasks. You’re dealing with tasks. 

SO: Procedures, yeah.

AP: Yeah, step-by-step instructions. So you don’t need two sets, one for each group. Why are we doing this? And when I say we, I mean the entire content world because folks, we are. You’ve also got overlap between your technical/product content and your support content. Troubleshooting instructions, Q&A’s on avoiding very specific problems. Same exact stuff, yet again, we’re often maintaining two different versions of that information. So there you go.

SO: So what we want is shared content, right? But we can’t do it because the tools aren’t there. Is that right? It is right. I know it’s right.

AP: Well, yeah, I mean, but it’s not just the tools. It’s the people that write this content because they often have, shall we say, fairly strong opinions that they need a special flavor or they need a special twist on the content. So it’s tools, but they’re also these opinions that the content creators have that inform these problems as well, I think.

SO: Okay, and then Bill turning to infrastructure, what does this look like from an infrastructure point of view as opposed to a, I mean, shared content is kind of an infrastructure problem, but I think there’s additional ones. What does that look like?

BS: Goodie, it’s my turn. Yeah, so shared infrastructure is a big one, you know, getting everyone to kind of play in that, you know, that same sandbox. But there are other things that really need to be shared across the enterprise. 

AP: Hmm.

BS: So things like taxonomy, you know, making sure everyone is aligning, you know, with the same terms, the same way of categorizing things, the same way of organizing information, their localization workflow, and even the vendors that they’re using, you know, that they’re all going under the same process so that they get a uniform result back. And then, you know, design systems, making sure that there’s a federated search in place, and making sure that anything that’s being produced for customer or reader consumption has the same unified experience might be a little bit different from content type to content type from delivery platform to platform, but in the end, you have a unified experience so that people aren’t relearning how to engage with your content in every context you produce it.

SO: So from an infrastructure point of view, what does it look like today to set up shared infrastructure? Can you tell us a little bit about the software tools that are available that allow you to do all of this in a unified way?

BS: You know, it’s too big of a list. And that list is basically consumed with things like duct tape, string, Bondo, you name it. There is nothing out there that will give you a unified experience across the enterprise for every content type out there. Right now, it does not exist.

SO: So on the authoring side, I think there’s some unified delivery kinds of integrations. But I think we’re talking about the back end. 

BS: We’re starting to see a lot with portals that are starting to collect a lot of information and present them all in one unified space, or at least provide one universal point of access for that content. And we are seeing some tools start to reach out and kind of embrace other traditional content silos. So things like, for example, being able to do develop all of your content in one single place and be able to push to a same branded let’s say knowledge base and documentation portal But I don’t think that there’s anything out there that really grabs everything and says okay. We’re going to do you know manuals We’re going to do other tech content. We’re gonna do web-based references we’re going to do knowledge base articles and tech support guides and training materials, you name it, and produce it all from one source to all these different things. So we have a lot of duct tape and string in place at the moment.

SO: And point solutions like, hey, we’re optimized for learning. Hey, we’re optimized for KB. We’re optimized for tech com. And I mean, it does seem to me that there’s a really big disconnect between what our clients are asking for and what the market has available because our clients are asking for slash demanding unified authoring solutions. And like you said, we have duct tape and string to offer them.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: So, okay, so if let’s step back a little bit and say you don’t do this. So you take the departmental approach and you push your tech com content through your tech com solution to the web and you push your KB to a KB article database thing and you have learning content which goes to a learning management system and therefore some sort of a learning platform. What happens when those are not unified? And I’ll, Alan, I’ll start with you. What happens with that if they’re not unified from a content point of view?

AP: Well, the terminology you’re using is not gonna be consistent or often is not consistent across your content types. For example, you go to your knowledge base, and you find a support article that uses a certain term for some widget. And then later on, when you try to search for the name of that widget and some other content, like on the product side of the content, and that product side uses a slightly different term, you’re not gonna get a search result because they’re using different terminology for what is really the same exact thing. So you have that lack of alignment. And the same thing is true, for example, with your product content and your training content. You may have slightly different how-tos or tasks to accomplish the same exact thing. So you’ve got those contradictions there in how to do things, in terminology, and you’re not getting a consistent voice at all in what you are presenting to your customers because of these departmental silos that we were talking about.

SO: And then Bill, on the infrastructure side, what do you see there in terms of problems that surface?

BS: A lot of it comes around or comes back to user experience, you know, because all these tools have very, I guess, a targeted focus. They have a lot of custom feature sets that are built just for that type of content. And a lot of the more generalized features are built out in slightly different ways. And you don’t have a lot of, or you may have a lot of ability to customize, but generally they’re not customized for whatever reason. Either it’s too difficult, no time, one group likes it one way, one group likes it another way. So you have these disjointed user experiences, just going from one area of the website to another. So being able to navigate manuals online to going over to a knowledge base and seeing a completely different interface and not knowing how to navigate it out of the box. So you’re now asking your customers to learn how to use your content in addition to having to use your content to find information in the first place.

SO: So we’re, I mean, we’re doing a lot of complaining, right?

BS: It’s fun to complain.

SO:  It is fun to complain. But I guess as consultants, our job is, in fact, to take on the complaints and then come up with a solution. So in the absence of the magic system that does all the things, you know, one thing we’ve seen a lot of customers do is make that compromise where they say, okay, we’re gonna take the thing that’s optimized for A, but we’re gonna use it for A and B even though it’s suboptimal for B. And of course, then the B people feel like B-class citizens, which isn’t great, but enterprise-wide, it’s very, very helpful. On the taxonomy side of things and some of these others, it does feel as though you can build that over the top and then just integrate it into all the other tools and push it down onto those. So I guess that part’s okay-ish. But I mean, what does this look like? And I guess my question to both of you is what’s the solution here? I mean, what’s the path forward and where do we want this to land? I mean, for our personal gratification, but mostly for our customers. What do our customers need the solution to look like so that this is, infamously, the line is you don’t want to ship your org chart, right? You don’t want your website to be a reflection of your org chart at a level that is recognizable to the end customer because, again, they don’t care. So what are some of the solutions here? What are some of the options that people have?

AP: Well, I think one thing you’ve got to do and step back and realize this is not just a tech problem. Now, the tech problem is very real in regard to the silos because you’re using different sets of tools, especially on the authoring side and the content creation side to get things done. But I think all of those content creators need to step back and think a little more globally across the company and not just about this is just for my people, this is just for me. Need to take a bigger step back and think, how can other departments potentially use this information? And then you start getting into tech, how can they actually reuse it? And that’s where you slip away from more culture to tech and how it can enable that sharing and that reuse.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: And some of the things like terminology is a good example. If you standardize terminology, you can ask people to follow that across all their systems, right? Like use this term and not that term does not require a unified, you know, content management solution. It’s just a writing practice. And you could layer the terminology management over the top of multiple systems. I mean, it’s more expensive, but you could. Bill, do you have any hope?

BS: Mm-hmm. There’s always hope. You know, we’re starting to get there and especially as, you know, at least systems are starting to be able to somewhat talk to each other via API. So there is a way to share information across. It’s not a, it’s not what I would call anything remotely close to, you know, intelligent reuse, because you’re still duplicating content from one system to another. But at least if you’re consistent about writing in one place, and pushing it out where it needs to go via those hooks, then it’s better than authoring everything separately.

AP: You still have a single source of truth in what you’re talking about and that’s the end goal or it should be the end goal for this problem.

BS: Exactly.

SO: And it might be helpful to look at single source of truth less as the process of doing a task, like how do I change my password in a database, right? There’s a four-step or a two-step or one-step procedure, but there’s a procedure and there’s only one way of doing it. And I think a lot of times the ultimate solution to this is to do some, essentially, forensics on where does that information originate. And if it originates here and I am a downstream user of that information, that’s fine. Just don’t ever modify it. Always go back to the source of the information and modify it at the beginning and then flow it back through. The problem that arises is that in a scenario where flow it back through involves manual processes or copy and pasting, it’s always going to fail because people fail, right? People don’t do the thing. And so you get those inconsistencies and now there’s four different ways of changing your password. One in the tech docs, one in the learning and like two in the knowledge base. And now what do you do with it?

AP: And you’ve got frustration among your users because they’re getting inconsistent information. And then you’ve got frustration with your content creators because they constantly feel like they’re having to go hunt for something or it is not worth my time to go find it. 

BS: Mm-hmm.

AP: I’m just gonna copy and paste and then they forget to update one of the umpteen versions they have. And then they’re stuck in this constant go go go process so it’s bad on both sides of the content equation for your content creators and the people who were consuming that content as well.

SO: Okay, well, this is super encouraging. And with those helpful words from Bill and Alan and maybe me, but mostly them, I will leave you to it. And so 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.