In December 2020 Forrester published a report that strongly confirmed our thoughts, and the developments we see in our market(s): The Future Of Documents: A Look Beyond The Paradigm Of Paper And Into Opportunities For Innovation – Forrester 2020. Based upon this report, we’ve interviewed thought leaders about the future of documents. In this article, Val Swisher (VS), CEO at Content Rules, shares her opinion.
The Forrester report points out that, although the tools for creating documents have become friendlier, the way workers and organizations think about documents really hasn’t changed since the introduction of personal computers.
What does a real disruption of this way of thinking about documents look like to you?
VS: “A real disruption is a shift away from thinking about content in the form of “documents” and, instead, looking at content as small components of information. These small components can be pieced together to create a variety of outputs (including “documents”). In addition, the components are reusable – write once, use everywhere. This type of change is a real disruption because it is a fundamental shift in the way we conceptualize, develop, and use content.”
According to Forrester, document authoring is ready for its moment of disruption, though information worker habits have yet to change because:
- Friction between cloud-native documents and file storage tools remains.
- The mental model of paper dominates the language of content management.
- Static file types clog up processes and require content fracking.
- Employee preferences are entrenched.
What do you see as the biggest hurdles to changing the way workers and businesses work with documents?
VS: “As we say, “Technology is easy. People are hard.” The biggest hurdle is change management. As Forrester rightly points out, it is difficult to get people to make a fundamental shift in the way they do their jobs. Of course, the technology needs to be simple enough for people to adopt easily. But to date, we have not done a great job of training people how to write in a structured way for reuse and single-sourcing. We have not shown them how it works, how easy it can be, and the benefits they (as content creators) will gain from adopting a new way of doing things. We also have not made a strong enough case to management about the reasons to change the entire content ecosystem.”
Can you name any practical examples where the disruption is already taking place?
VS: “There are a number of verticals where we see the change to component-based authoring. Technology companies, particularly hardware vendors, were early adopters of structure. This makes sense because you can have 3 or 4 models of the same piece of equipment that can use the same base set of content, with a few additions or changes for the different models. Single-sourcing everything that is the same and having separate components for things that are different is a natural fit. Most of the networking hardware vendors switched to structured component-based authoring years ago. Since then, software, manufacturing and even finance have followed. One of the most exciting developments is seeing the shift towards structured authoring and single-sourcing in pharmaceutical content.”
We need to do a better job of teaching authors about structure. We need to do a better job of teaching authors how to write for reuse. We need to train authors from the beginning on how to create content in this new way
Structured data will surround content. Documents that include structured data must become the norm when they’re the input for automated processes, such as invoice processing. Document creators must take an outside-in approach and deliver documents in formats fit for purpose.
How can we motivate authors to take this outside-in approach i.e. change their behaviour. What’s in it for them?
VS: “We need to do a better job of teaching authors about structure. We need to do a better job of teaching authors how to write for reuse. We need to train authors from the beginning on how to create content in this new way. Along with training, we need to clearly enunciate the author benefits of structured content: less content to write, better consistency, the ability to create more and different outputs, and more. We also need to emphasize the improvement in user experience, readability, and findability.”
It is expected that robots will share the writing credits with humans. AI authorship will affect document authoring in the near future.
What developments do you expect to see in this context, and what do you already see happening today?
VS: “At some point in the next few years natural language generation (NLG) will be a viable way of creating content. I expect NLGs to first author content that is mechanical in nature. For example, installation instructions, configuration instructions, things that are rote, predictable, and task-based. NLGs will also be able to create consistent reference information, recognizing where tables make sense, populating tables with accurate information, and so on. Today, we see NLGs create content like real estate listings (number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, etc.), sports scores, and other mechanized content.”
Technology is easy. People are hard.
In the future, documents will be more fluid, componentized, and structured to separate underlying information from its presentation. A strong metadata-first strategy must replace the folder as an organizing principle and become a foundation for automation and AI.
What is in your opinion the difference between ‘documents’ and ‘data’?
VS: “Documents are outputs of data. People create componentized content that acts more like data. The components (data) are output to collections of components. The output can be a ‘document’. The output can be a web page, a training course, or an app. There are many things you can output to when you treat the content in a componentized, data way. In addition, data can also come from outside repositories (databases / datastores). This type of data can be results from testing, or other collections of information that are not necessarily word-based.”
Which content platforms are already evolving in this direction?
VS: “There are a variety of platforms that are already moving in this direction. Many companies have adopted DITA/XML ecosystems that use a component content management system on the backend to store and manage content. DITA systems can output to a variety of content types. For example, online help systems, technical documentation, training modules, and knowledgebase articles can all be single-sourced from one set of components. The components are tagged, stored, versioned, and managed in the CCMS.”
Which industries are leading the way regarding the future of documents?
VS: “Technology has been leading the way in terms of the future of documents, as they pertain to DITA/XML. Hardware and then software companies were the early adopters. Now we see component-based structured authoring being used in manufacturing (particular when catalogs need to integrate content with product information management (PIM) systems). Highly regulated industries such as finance and life sciences, should be the next target for structured content.”