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.

42 comments:

cloud dial said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
StrayGoat said...

Hi Neil,

I had a discussion with Mark on this subject on Twitter too. Thought I'd add a few thoughts here:

I speak to a lot of web content creators and it seems we need:

* Content that's written in topics/chunks (done!) for reuse in different content models
* Content that can be written in different tools but added to a single publishing hub
* Content that authors can organise into different content models quickly
* The ability to create our own content models and have them enforced
* Content that machines can understand

Those last three points are where improvements are needed, really. Paligo's taxonomy feature almost nails all three, but it isn't quite there yet. Flare's concepts maybe could come close too and I am told there is a plug-in that lets you do a limited sort of tool-enforcement on template rules. Getting machines to understand the content is going to come down to metadata and maybe taxonomies and concepts could be mapped to schema.org markup or something similar in the future.

Mark argues that we should be moving away from tools for doing this. I can see his point, but I think the onus should be more on the tools to make it easier to achieve what we need. And that means accepting content from different sources too. But there's always the issue of badly formatted content coming in and how to handle that.

nivetha nivs said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Harshita Vyas said...

I really like your writing style, great information, thank you for posting.Business Messaging App

Neil Perlin said...

Hi Straygoat,

Thanks for the comment. Some thoughts in return:

- I think that the last two points are where we need improvement. (IMO, organizing content into different models quickly is pretty easily, at least mechanically. As usual, it's the design side where things get complicated.)

- We can create our own content models now pretty easily. Again, it's the enforcement side where things need work. Modern tools allow us to create templates with lockable content blocks, and that feature needs to be made more powerful and more widespread.

- Content that machines can understand is the real problem, and it will need better metadata and taxonomies, all of which will place increasing demands on technical communicators. The line between tech comm and lightweight programming is going to keep blurring.

- The main area where Mark and I disagree is tools. The GUI tools made such an enormous difference that I can't imagine giving them up except in extreme cases. Somebody will always have to understand the coding in order to fix things under the hood but that will be a specialized skill, IMO.

- Re the importance of tools - in 1991, I was invited to the first online help developer's conference at WexTech in NYC. They invited everyone they could fine who was doing online help - they got 12 attendees. A few years later, after D2H, RH, FH, et al had been on the market, I was easily getting 100 attendees for presentations on online help because the tools had so broadened the field.

- How to handle badly formatted content will be a major issue for years to come. This is, IMO, a situation that calls for lockable templates under the aegis of an information architect as Mark describes.

Regards,
Neil

Josheph Thomas said...

NICE POST!!!!


aol gold download for windows 10

aol gold download center

aol gold desktop download for windows 10

aol gold software download

aol desktop gold

download aol gold software

download aol gold

download aol gold desktop

aol gold software

aol gold download link

aol gold program download

Cxgllc said...

Informative post.. Thanks for sharing.
Compliance Services

Pritam Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
infotechbrn1@gmail.com said...


Thank you for your post. This is excellent information. It is amazing and wonderful to visit your blog.
iPhone job training center in bangalore
Best iphone training institute bangalore
iPhone training institute in bangalore
iPhone app training course in bangalore

Facemyresume 7 said...

Thank you for sharing useful information......
employee recruitment service providers
candidate recruitment services
create your professional video resume online
digital job seeker services

Alex Donvour said...

hello everyone, I would like to share some of my works with you, hope you will like it.

Cheers.

apartments for sale in Istanbul

Dr Purva Pius said...

Hello Everybody,
My name is Mrs Sharon Sim. I live in Singapore and i am a happy woman today? and i told my self that any lender that rescue my family from our poor situation, i will refer any person that is looking for loan to him, he gave me happiness to me and my family, i was in need of a loan of $250,000.00 to start my life all over as i am a single mother with 3 kids I met this honest and GOD fearing man loan lender that help me with a loan of $250,000.00 SG. Dollar, he is a GOD fearing man, if you are in need of loan and you will pay back the loan please contact him tell him that is Mrs Sharon, that refer you to him. contact Dr Purva Pius,via email:(urgentloan22@gmail.com) Thank you.

Hp Printer Help Desk said...

Your blog is really awesome. All information are very useful for me. Thanks for providing me this information. If you having any issues from your hp printers, Call our 24*7 Hp Printer Support Phone Number 1-800-436-0509 (USA), +44-800-046-5700 (UK) and +61-1800-769-903 (AUS)

For more Information visit our websites:-
http://www.printertollfreenumber.com/hp-printer-support.html

Kyra Anderson said...

It’s truly nice blog and we offer activation and support service for MS Office.
setup.office.com
www.office.com/setup

Kyra Anderson said...

It’s such nice blog with good content thanks for sharing with us.

Get how to place the Norton Activation key and apply it to activate your Norton products.
norton installation with product key
www.norton.com /setup

kate technologies said...

Useful Information, your blog is sharing unique information....
Thanks for sharing!!!
best qa services in kukatpally
best qa services in kphb
software testing companies in hyderabad
software testing companies in kukatpally
software testing companies in kphb
software testing companies in ameerpet

Anonymous said...

It is useful data. I like it and appreciate your efforts. Thanks for such information. Booking plugins Top 8 booking and appointment plugins to choose.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing information. I like it. Online Punjabi dictionary

Anonymous said...

Awesome information. Praiseworthy. Information and fun

Anonymous said...

It is worthy information and good contents. I really appreciate your post. Invoicing plugins Top invoicing Wordpress and Woocommerce plugins

Anonymous said...

It is worthy information and good contents. I really appreciate your post. Invoicing plugins Top invoicing Wordpress and Woocommerce plugins

Anonymous said...

It is best ever technology blog, I read. I love all post of this blog. Really appreciative. SEO plugins Top SEO Plugins for Wordpress Websites

alexhales said...

This is a very useful post, thank you! I agree that innovations are the most important thing for most businesses because with today’s fast-changing world we need to stay on top of the changes if we want to survive.


highest cash for junk cars in Vancouve | highest cash for junk cars in maple ridge

vaisakh bharaz said...

Really appreciated article with useful information for business organisation. Thank you for the blog.

Best Technology service company in Bangalore

Epson Printer Support Number said...

Thanks for sharing this post. This post is useful for viewers.

Plz visit:-

epson printer care number 18004360509

business write for us said...

Very nice post this shows your great thoughts,thank you for sharing

Muneer Ahmad said...

Carrom Pool mod APK

Post is able to impress.

Muneer Ahmad said...

TechsTribe

Keep sharing the good information.

Diagnoshop said...

Thanks for your post which is truly informative for us and we will surely keep visiting this website.
top online diagnostic centres in kukatpally
book best doctors in vijayawada
Book Doctor appointments online at ameerpet

Pirate bay said...

My latest post Photoshop License Key
IDM Crack Serial Key

IDM Crack

IDM Serial Key
High CPC Cookies
Top 10 Viral Blog Niche
Stylish demo Download Button
How to write Perfect SEO Optimized article Blogger
Stylish Email subscription widget
start a blogblogger meta tags,meta tag generator tool, meta tag for bloggerblog description generatormeta tags for bloggerblogger meta tag generatormeta tag generator toolblogger meta tag generatormeta tag generator for bloggermeta tag generator toolmeta tag generator tool for bloggermeta tag generator tool

Priya said...

Thanks for sharing this useful information. Are you searching the correct partner to service your desktop? Teksupportsquad is the head supplier of PC specialized help for organizations in the Mid-Atlantic zone and past. For any details.Desktop Onsite Support services company in usa

aol customer support said...

A user either download or upgrade the latest version of AOL desktop gold for window but still the user facing problem to download AOL desktop gold for window 10. If you are one of them just call to aol customer support phone number +1888-809-7444 to assist further

aol customer support said...

Call +1888-809-7444 to Hotmail technical support number recover your Hotmail password
Hotmail is a similar type of webmail service provided by outlook.com. Hotmail provides a different type of service along with mail service. You can also open your Hotmail account on mobile as well as from your desktop. If you feel any problem related to your Hotmail account just call on toll-free number +1888-809-7444

zahid said...

Thanks for sharing the blog, seems to be interesting and informative too.
marketing write for us

aol customer support said...

Aol desktop gold is upgraded software of Aol desktop where a user gets online streaming of movies and audios. You just visit the AOL official website and click on download link. If you face an issue like missing Icon of AOL desktop gold or unable to restore the missing icon of AOL desktop gold just you call on +1888-809-7444

aol customer support said...

Contact Yahoo Mail customer service for instant help & support by Yahoo Live chat related to Yahoo forgot password and hacked account recovery. contact yahoo on their official toll-free 24*7 yahoo customer care phone number USA to fix the problem like Yahoo login, sign in/up, server and other temporary errors

aol customer support said...

Contact AOL customer support number on our toll-free number +1888-809-7444
AOL is a type of mail service provides by AOL.INC. If you find any problem in downloading or installing the software you need to contact
AOL mail customer support number on our toll-free number +1888-809-7444

IShine Trade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
IShine Trade said...

I am really impressed with your writing skills .keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays.
Samsung Parts UK

Ryder Jack said...

Good blog and nice information. Keep sharing such kind of information Files Phone Number Extractor

xyz said...

thank u for sharing this content..nice blog..android app development company

Support Number said...

Is 2fa not working properly in Binance? Are you facing issued while trading due to 2fa? In order to deal with all sort of queries and errors, you can always reach the doors of well-talented professionals by dialing Binance Support Number 1-877-330-7540 and avail all the best solutions in the fraction of time by connecting with the team on the right time. The team is well aware of the dos and don’ts related to Binance and can recover the error quickly without taking much time. Binance Support Number1-877-330-7540