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What Constitutes "Intelligent Content"? Interview with Ann Rockley

Nov 24, 2008 • general

Ann Rockley

A few years ago, I wanted to better understand content management, so I picked up Managing Enterprise Content, by Ann Rockley, and read it through. It opened my eyes to a lot of new concepts.

Ann is one of our field's leading experts in content management. She's now expanding in to something she calls "intelligent content."

Intelligent content is a concept that builds on other concepts you may already be familiar with. I think we're going to hear a lot more about intelligent content. In fact, she and Scott Abel are preparing an entire conference exploring intelligent content. I caught up with Ann over email and asked her to expand on the concept. Below is our interview.

What is intelligent content?

We define it this way: Intelligent content is structurally rich and semantically aware, and is therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.

Let me explain more what that means.

Structurally rich

"Structurally rich" means the content is structured content, and more importantly it is semantically structured content. For example, we can look at the structure and know what type of content it contains (steps contain chronological action-oriented information). DITA-based content is an example of structurally rich content, as is DocBook, XBRL, and RSS, though the content could have a custom structure as well).

If we have a structure in our content, we can manipulate it. For example, we can automatically determine how to publish it to multiple channels (print, web, help, mobile), or we can filter out some content (e.g., tables may not work as well in the mobile environment).

Also, if it is structurally rich we can perform searches and narrow our search to the particular type of information we are interested in (e.g., look for all occurrences of the word metadata in conceptual information).

Semantically aware

The word semantic refers to “meaning.” Semantically aware content is content that has been tagged with metadata to identify the kind of content within it. For example, you might tag your content with industry, role or audience, and product. If the content is tagged with semantic metadata, it is possible to automatically build customized information sets based on audience or industry, for example.

As more organizations start to create personalized content (content which is dynamically assembled upon user request that specifically matches a users need or user profile), this type of metadata becomes extremely important.

In addition, as content is pushed to wikis, integrated through “mashups” or “pipes,” it becomes even more important to ensure our content is semantically tagged. Without semantic metadata, it's difficult to automatically, let alone manually, find the content we need.

Discoverable

If the content has semantic tags and is structurally rich, it's a whole lot easier to find exactly what we are looking for.

Reusable

Reusability refers to content we frequently use. If content is structured for reuse, and I know what type of content it is, I can either easily retrieve it for manual reuse or automatically retrieve it for systematic reuse (automatic reuse).

Reconfigurable

Knowing the structure of the content, we can output it to multiple channels, reconfiguring it to best meet the needs of the channel, or we can automatically mix and match content to provide us with the information the customers needs. We can even transform content (reconfigure it) from one structure to another, but only if we know what the structure is in the first place.

Adaptable

We frequently create our content for a particular need or audience, but content can be adapted (used in a different way), often without our knowledge, to meet a new need.

Is "intelligent content" a new term for our industry? If so, who coined it?

As far as technical communication goes, "intelligent content" is a new term. In some ways, it's a new term in the broader content industry as well.

I coined the term, just like I did for much of the terminology used today for reuse because there wasn't a term to describe something that existed, or there were too many terms, and talking about something or trying to explain something was difficult.

Technical communicators are very focused on producing high quality content that meets the customers' needs, often in a very short period time and often with tools that won't stretch to meet their needs. Many have begun to move to DITA and some are adopting content management, but when you have the conversation with management about why they should move to DITA and adopt content management, it is very difficult to get across the concepts and the return on investment. DITA is a standard, content management is a tool, but how does it help the organization to do what they need to do better?

I've heard some managers respond to a well-presented business case with, “So, why should I care, how does this really help us?” Let's turn it around, let's talk about the goal and what it gives the organization and the customer. Intelligent content allows us to do the following:

  • Automatically publish to multiple channels because the content is structured. Content structure can be recognized and automatically transformed to any format we like. This is not possible with traditional content.
  • Customize our content for customers because we can identify what content is appropriate for what customer.
  • Reduce the costs of translation because content is modular and designed for reuse, etc.

Why is it intelligent? Because it is structured, etc.

How do we support intelligent content? With DITA, component content management, etc.

Now let's take the concept of Intelligent Content outside of Technical Communication. There are huge amounts of information in organizations being provided on websites. For a long time, metadata has been the way that most companies optimized content for retrieval, but now XML is beginning to make inroads into broader organizational content, and that brings all the benefits I've already discussed.

If you try and talk about XML, though, you'll lose most managers because it is perceived as being too technical. However, you can turn it around and say we can create intelligent content that enables us to:

  • More easily find it
  • Deliver it
  • Customize it
  • Personalize it
  • Automatically deliver it to multiple channels
  • Simultaneously release content in multiple languages

And

  • Reduce costs
  • Speed up delivery time
  • Optimize resources
  • Do more with the same resources
  • Increase customer satisfaction

We're creating intelligent content that can be automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable, etc. -- we're not just creating XML-based content.

What's the role of the content creator in creating intelligent content?

The role of the content creator is crucial in intelligent content. It is not enough to just put our content in topics and push it out, although that's a good start. We need to think about all the ways in which we can make our content adaptable. This means doing content analysis, customer needs analysis, and identifying an appropriate information architecture that sits above our content. Content creators are getting a good handle on DITA and structure, but very few use or understand metadata.

What kind of tools do you need to create intelligent content?

We can use the existing DITA tool sets and Component Content Management systems, but if we are interested in helping the organization beyond Tech Pubs, we should consider using XML content servers, and dynamic delivery engines.

What skills are needed for a writer to create smart content?

I'm always looking at where writers are today and where they can go to increase their skills and marketability, so this list reflects a growth curve. To start, writers should look at DITA, but in looking to the future they should gain an understanding of the following:

  • Content modeling
  • Metadata
  • Reuse strategies
  • Multichannel delivery strategies
  • Mashups, pipes
  • XPath and XQuery (not necessarily so they can code these, but so they know what they can do and specify requirements for them)
  • Structuring content for marketing campaigns (the intricacies of campaigns are incredible and they are completely dependent upon intelligent content)

What organizations are employing tactics to make content intelligent?

We are seeing the beginnings of intelligent content with organizations that have moved to DITA, but organizations that are global or that have a broad product lines are really developing intelligent content. They are tagging content for region, product, audience, and more as well as automatically producing content that meets the needs of their customers. We have one client that creates 500 different pieces of content to reflect different products from the same content source, all automatically and all based on metadata tagging and DITA!

Next we are seeing intelligent content in organizations where their product is content (e.g., newspapers, magazines, publishers).

We are also seeing intelligent content in pharma, medical devices, intelligence, and financial industry organizations.

Ann Rockley coined the term intelligent content.
Ann Rockley is part of The Rockley Group, a content management company focused on intelligent content.

For more information about Ann Rockley, see The Rockley Group. You can also follow The Rockley blog.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.