The Breakdown: On Day 1 of the Intelligent Content Conference, Rachel realizes that there’s something major, but essentially imaginary, getting in the way of interdepartmental content conversations.
On the first full day of the Intelligent Content Conference, we were treated with a range of talks about how to create and use intelligent content for different platforms and purposes. As a content strategist who attends a lot of conferences, much of this was very familiar, but with a bit of a twist because many of the people involved come from a technical communications background.
Yesterday, during pre-conference workshops, I found myself wondering why more content strategists weren’t in attendance. I even commented in my wrap-up post that, from the very beginning, the emphasis here has been content strategy. Many of the things being discussed are the same topics that are covered at all of the web content, content strategy, and UX conferences I normally attend.
The fact is that there are several self-identified content strategists here. But as far as I can tell, many of them come from a slightly different realm than the ones I’m used to encountering. Listening to some of the conversations taking place in between sessions, I’ve noticed a recurring focus on “technical documentation” and in the conference itself there’s a lot of emphasis on standards and tools that are specifically designed to support that type of content. It’s the kind of emphasis that brings to mind the aphorism “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Now, please excuse the Stephen Colbert “I don’t see color” moment we’re about to have here, but it has suddenly dawned on me that I’ve been living in a world of content discrimination and I don’t understand it. For a long time now I’ve been hearing people say things like “We’re talking about WEB content” and my brain responds “Right, we’re talking about content.” But the point has just hit home that we’re not always talking about the same thing – some of us are talking about marketing content, or journalism content, or enterprise content, or technical documentation.
I realize there are differences, sometimes important strategic differences, but there’s also much more crossover than people are generally talking about. There’s a lot that these different factions of content professionals could learn from each other, but instead people are reinventing the wheel in distant silos. Often these silos are imposed by the structures and culture of an organization, but that’s no reason why we can’t foster more cross-pollination when we step out of the office and travel to conferences.
Which brings me back to the ostensible topic of this post: the conference I attended today. There were many great talks covering mobile content apps, social content, taxonomy development and usage, the content lifecycle, digital publishing, collaboration, content curation, and the tools that can make it easier to do all of these things. There was a good dose of discussion of structured content, and many mentions of an authoring standard called DITA which is used to structure technical documentation, but aside from that any of these talks would have been right at home at any of the web design conferences I’ve been to.
Towards the end of the day I had two interesting conversations that helped coalesce my thoughts about the things I’ve learned at the conference so far. One man mentioned to me that although he had seen several case study presentations, he still hadn’t seen evidence that any of this was having a broad impact on an organization. I suggested that it wouldn’t be possible to have a broad impact on an organization while viewing everything through the lens of tech docs. In order to have that kind of impact, an organization needs to develop an integrated content strategy that covers all of the types of content they maintain – tech docs, intellectual capital, marketing communications, editorial assets, etc.
The second conversation was with Mark Lewis, contributing author to DITA 101. We discussed the standard and the type of content it supports. I know that DITA can easily be expressed as XML, but I asked him whether anyone is using it in conjunction with other content standards (such as Dublin Core and RDFa). This led to some speculation about how DITA might become part of a wider solution set. One option would be to expand DITA to cover more content types. But retrofitting like that tends to water down the original intent of a technology. The other option, which I prefer, is to figure out how to make DITA interoperable with the other standards already in use. That way it still plays to its strengths, and becomes an integral part of a solution that can cover the entire range of an organization’s content.
There’s a lot of potential for content professionals from different backgrounds to learn from each other. I encourage everyone to go to a conference that seems slightly adjacent to what you normally do. If you’re a design-oriented content person, go to a CMS or technical communications conference. If you’re a tech writer, go to a UX or web design conference. It’s the best way I know to get new perspectives on the things you think you already know.