Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Is Single-Sourcing Dead or Alive – the Debate Continues


I recently wrote a blog post called “Is Single-Sourcing Dead” on the Hyper/Word Services blog (http://hyperword.blogspot.com/) in response to a blog post by Mark Baker called “Time to move to multi-sourcing” (https://everypageispageone.com/2018/04/06/time-to-move-to-multi-sourcing/). Baker responded with a post at https://everypageispageone.com/2018/09/10/is-single-sourcing-dead/.

In this post, I’ll respond to what I think are Baker’s major points. (This debate-by-blog can only go on so long before it overwhelms both of us, so I’m going to propose a live discussion between Baker and I at the STC Spectrum 2019 conference in Rochester, NY. We’ll see where that idea goes.)

Note: My most often-used tool these days is MadCap Flare and many of my answers will be from that perspective. However, I suspect that many of my answers apply to other authoring tools as well.

In some cases, Baker and I are, as he put it at one point, “in violent agreement”. Here’s where I think we disagree.

First, in the big picture – Baker notes that there are problems with the current model of single-sourcing and suggests various alternatives. I agree that there are problems but I think they have straightforward solutions – not necessarily simple ones but straightforward ones. I also think that today’s single-sourcing tools have so much untapped power that it would be a mistake to discard them too early.

Now, more specifically, with Baker’s points in red italics.

Re the single source format/single repository issue:

That single source format/single repository model has several significant disadvantages, however. I outlined those in my original post on the subject. But since the single format/repository model was used in part to enable multi-format delivery and content reuse, does that mean that those things are dead if we move away from the single format/repository model?

In a word, no, since they can manifestly be done independent of it. But we have to think seriously about how we do them if we don’t have a single source format and a single repository. Going back to everyone using their own independent desktop tools and storing the files on their own hard drives has all sorts of well documented disadvantages, and is a non-starter if and when you move to an integrated web strategy, semantic content, or Information 4.0. So, if the single source/single format approach isn’t the right one either, we have a legitimate question about how we do multi-format publishing and content reuse going forward.

The single source format and single repository is an ideal and, like most ideals, we’ll never quite reach it. But we may not have to. Flare, and probably similar tools, let us create content in the tool but also take content created in other tools in other formats, mainly Word, and automatically import it into the tool and convert it to the tool’s format. Authors using tools like Word do have to use it minimally correctly –styles rather than local formatting for headings, for example – but that can often be handled with simple training and motivation.

Re the “appropriate tools” issue:

The solution Perlin proposes is simple: Buy the appropriate tools for everyone who needs them.
But there are a couple of problems with this, beyond the unwillingness of companies to pony up the cash. First, these tools are unfamiliar to most of the people who would be asked to use them and they are conceptually more complex than Word. That introduces a training overhead and adds complexity to the writing task every day. And if the contributors don’t use those tools full time, they will forget most of their skills they are trained in.
Giving everyone more complex tools is not really a sustainable strategy, nor is it one that is easy to sell.
My point here is not to buy everyone new, expensive, and unfamiliar tools but instead to buy whatever tool is appropriate. In many cases, authors already have the appropriate tool – Word – and just have to learn how to use it minimally correctly. In other cases, companies may have to buy real single-sourcing tools. Some companies will balk at this, saying that they already have single-sourcing tools in-house so why buy new ones? But many of those tools were released years ago, no longer meet code standards, and may be minimally supported if at all. I’d argue that it’s a cost-saving in the long run to buy a modern tool for that small number of authors in the company who need them.

Re the training issue:

Perlin argues that many current problems with single sourcing arise because writers are not properly trained to use the tools they have. The solution: more training.

I’m not arguing for more training, although that’s often helpful. Instead, I’m arguing for any training. Too often, authors are thrown into a new tool with no training, just some instructions from a former author that may not apply to the current version of the software or current output needs, and that may contain errors.

Re the inappropriate standards issue:

·         Templates and embedded prompts get overwritten with content, so the structured is not retained and is not available to guide subsequent writers and editors.

Baker is right about the risk of templates and embedded prompts getting overwritten with content. But one feature of templates in modern tools is that they can be added to the tool interface for re-use. That way, creating new material does not overwrite the templates and prompts.

Re the increasing complexity issue:

Documenting all of your complexity is not a good (or simple) solution. Documenting it does not remove it from the writer’s attention. It is better than not documenting it, but not by much. The writer still has to deal with it, still has to spend time and mental energy on it, and can still make mistakes in following the complex procedures you have documented. Much of this complexity can be factored out using the right structured writing techniques.

Another area in which we agree overall but disagree on the details. Some of the complexities can indeed be factored out using structured writing but some can’t. For example, if you’ve defined fifteen different conditions, when should you use each one? What are the rules for clearly naming new topics, graphics, snippets, etc.? And so on. Documenting your projects isn’t the total answer but not documenting them is an invitation to disaster. (My book “Writing Effective Online Content Project Specifications”, available on Amazon, discusses how to document your projects and presents many unpleasant examples of what can happen when you don’t.)

And the authorial motivation issue:

·         With the best will in the world, people can’t comply with a regime that benefits someone else rather than themselves unless they get clear, direct, and immediate feedback, which current tools don’t give them, because the only real feedback is the appearance of the final outputs.

Perfectly true. That’s why, when I show a client how to use some feature that supports single-sourcing, I always emphasize how it will help them. “Remember that white paper you wrote that had fifty subheads formatted using Comic Sans and how you had to change each one individually? How about if I show you how to change all fifty at once by using these things called styles.” Authors don’t always get it right but they’re interested and motivated because the solution is benefiting them and, incidentally, the larger workflow.

·         Management oversight can’t ensure compliance in the production phase of a process if it can only perceive compliance in the finished product. Assessing the finished product every time is too time consuming and error prone (you can miss things). And the effectiveness of management oversight decreases exponentially the longer the delay between when the writer writes and when the manager finds the defect.

Also perfectly true. But problems in the finished product can usually be traced back to and solved in the production phase. We’ll never solve all the compliance problems but we can solve a lot of the major ones. In other words, this is a QA problem.

Turning to the broader point of what can take us beyond single-sourcing:

In Perlin’s model, all of the complexity of making single sourcing work is pushed onto the writers. “the more that this conversion and coding can be pushed back upstream to the individual authors … the easier life will be”. Well, if all that work is pushed to the writers, it is not their lives that are being made easier, since all the work and the responsibility is being pushed onto them. If anyone’s life is being made easier, it is the tool builder’s life.

Here we disagree. I’m not saying that we should push “complexity back upstream to the writers”. I’m saying that we should push tasks that improve the workflow back upstream. For example, rather than authors using local/inline formatting in their documents which then has to be fixed by the information architect, show authors how to use styles from a stylesheet in the first place and, as I noted above, explain how this will benefit the authors. This is a “do it right the first time” approach.

Today there is a rich collection of tools and standards available (largely created to run the Web, which is to say, to build and deliver content systems). With the right roles defined and the right system design, you can construct an appropriate custom system using these components. People do it every day, and at every scale. 

Baker is perfectly right about this. But somebody has to:
  • Combine those tools into a working system.
  • Understand, promulgate, measure, and enforce those standards.
  • Define the roles.
  • Design the system.

However, each one of these tasks has problems.
  • How to combine the tools into a working system? Combined by whom? The tasks may require code-level skills.
  • Driving the standards is hard. They’re often hard to understand without training – what is the CSS standard and what version should we adopt? What is DITA? (“Darwin Information Typing Architecture” tells us nothing about what DITA actually is.) And so on.
  • Roles can certainly be redefined but doing so can be confusing or sound gratuitous. (Yesterday I was a technical communicator. Today, I’m a content engineer. What’s the difference?) Baker is right that there’s a role for content engineers or information architects but there needs to be meat behind the title.
  • Every company has a system, but it’s often one that’s grown organically over years. It may have problems that everyone knows about and knows how to work around but no one has the time or skills to fix. Designing a new system from scratch is a wonderful opportunity but it takes time.

In summary, Baker and I agree in some ways. Today’s single sourcing works, even with its problems. It may not be robust enough to carry us into Information 4.0, but few companies in my experience need to worry about that yet. Most companies don’t have the time or resources to completely overturn their current workflows for a somewhat undefined future. That will happen, but iteratively.

Today’s single-sourcing tools have so much untapped power that abandoning them strikes me as a mistake. If people can make better use of those tools without changing the development model, that’s a simpler approach.

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