At last week’s STC Summit, I attended a couple of presentations that probed the same question. It’s an old question, but it’s still a thorny one.
How can we integrate content into a unified presentation when the content comes from all over the place? When different teams — communication specialists and nonspecialists — are creating content using different tools and different styles, often with different objectives in mind, how can we present it to customers as a unified whole?
Both presentations showcased successful case studies for integrating content. Both placed the Tech Pubs department at the center of the action. Yet both left me wondering why this whole thing — integrating content produced independently and content produced as part of a collaborative effort — isn’t easier.
How tech writers drive brand language
Rhyne Armstrong and Nate Wolf showed how their Tech Pubs department acts as a focal point for applying consistent branding for content across a division of Cisco Systems. My ears perked up with they described applying consistency to content that came from more than a dozen mergers and acquisitions over the past couple of years.
How tech writers support SMEs
Søren Weimann described a setup, using DitaExchange, in which field-support specialists put content into “topics” that look to them like Word templates. Weimann’s Tech Pubs department then performs its background magic to integrate, review, and apply a consistent format to the topics.
Tech Pubs at the center
In both scenarios, the Tech Pubs department provides and supports the infrastructure for creating, reviewing, storing, and publishing the content. It’s a good fit: Tech Pubs has the expertise and the motivation to take the leadership role. But does it have the time and the wherewithal?
As I prepared to write this article, I wondered what image I could use for an illustration. I quickly hit on one: Atlas carrying the earth, just as the Tech Pubs department carries the whole process for integrating content across the enterprise.
I quickly realized that a company, Atlassian, had already appropriated that image for its name and (until recently) its logo. And that one of its flagship products, Confluence, is built for just the kind of integration and collaboration we’re talking about.
Here, from its corporate website, is how Atlassian describes Confluence:
Easily publish, organize, and access company information in one central location so you can help your customers help themselves….
Confluence combines the speed of creating on your own with the advantages of working together.
That sounds just like what we’re after.
So why isn’t everyone using Confluence, or a similar offering like DitaExchange? Because while the tool might be part of the answer, it’s apparently not the whole answer. (I’m not here to disparage Confluence. In fact, we use it at work, not for cross-department collaboration but for internal knowledge sharing, and it serves us well.)
The rest of the answer
If the tool doesn’t provide the whole answer, why not? I have a couple of ideas.
First, SMEs live in a different world, tools-wise, than technical communicators. Programmers, engineers, and field-support staff don’t talk about content-management systems. They talk about GitHub. They don’t want to hear about authoring systems, although most will deign to use Microsoft Word.
Marketing? They often inhabit a whole other world (or other universe).
That’s too many differences to reconcile in a one-size-fits-all solution. Although multiple teams within a company might agree on a set of tools and a workflow for collaboration, as Søren Weimann described, there’s no single solution that works for everyone.
Second, in many companies I suspect that the Tech Pubs department, even when it has the desire and the technical know-how to set up a system for collaboration, lacks the funding and the political clout to make it happen.
What do you think? What are the barriers to content integration and collaboration at an enterprise level? Is Tech Pubs the right organization to take the lead? If so, how can we do that, given the resources and the limited influence we have?
Do you have a success story for integrating and collaborating on content? If so, I’d love to hear about it.