February 26, 2015

How Granular is Your CCMS?

Information re-use is a key feature of all advanced Component Content Management Systems (CCMS). Instead of copy-pasting text or authoring the same content over and over again, publications are built-up from little pieces of information that are created and maintained individually, allowing them to be re-used across multiple publications. Few voice dissent; it’s an efficient way of working, with cuts in authoring and translation costs as the main motivators.

Granularity vs. Flexibility

More plentiful are the models for re-use, with DITA being a popular and widespread example. The main difference between the models is the level of granularity— how big are the pieces of information to be re-used?  Opinions differ when it comes to the ideal degree of granularity in a CCMS. Naturally, there exists a trade-off between granularity and efficiency: A very high degree of granularity will lead to greater complexity in terms of content management and content authoring.

For many companies, the benefits of using a highly flexible model may outweigh the cost and effort required for managing, and authoring within, a highly granular system. Here is a short summary of why that is.

The Highly Granular Approach

When an organization decides to start using or migrating to a CCMS with a more granular XML architecture, many, many working hours and a lot of money have to be invested.

First, you must conduct an upfront analysis of existing documentation to enable the design of a Semantic Information Model (DITA or otherwise) that supports the organization’s needs when creating and maintaining content. In designing the Information Model, many fast and hard decisions must be made. A Content Manager in the organization with a deep knowledge of the documentation process may be able to ballpark current needs. However, for a company with lengthy and complex documentation, it won’t really be possible to anticipate all ongoing or upcoming needs, let alone capture them in the Information Model. The model will have to be adapted and added to later on in increments.

Once the Information Model is in place, you must train your technical writers to work accordingly. As for migrating legacy data from the “old” system—forget it. It will be very hard, if not impossible, to transplant the existing “unintelligent” data into the highly granular Information Model. You’ll have to start over by writing content in the new system; manually migrating the legacy data will mean a mountain of handiwork. Just imagine the man hours and costs involved!

The Flexible Approach

There exists another approach: migrating your technical information to a CCMS (yes, like Skribenta), which allows content to be stored flexibly. With this approach, your legacy data can be converted, and imported to the “new” system without causing a major headache.  No difficult or hesitant decision making regarding  information structure is required up front.  There may, of course,  be instances where a high degree of granularity will be very beneficial and increase re-use. But with a flexible approach, these instances can be identified and the data can be modularized over time,  based on the experience of the technical writers. In addition, you don’t have to force your technical writers to adapt to an information model they might find confusing, incomplete, or illogical.

As a whole, a flexible approach is more in tune with real life; how technical writers in organizations actually work, with vacillating demands and challenges from week-to-week. The world is not static, it’s ever-changing.

Good read?  Browse our blog archives for more articles by Peter and our other technical communication experts. 

About the author

Peter Strömbäck

Super-linguist of the team, Peter has extensive knowledge in linguistics, translation, and technical writing. Plus, he’s positive and hard-working.

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