In this edition of Experts Ignite, we bring you perspectives on Content Management Systems (CMS) and process management in the implementation of CMSs and CMS tools from a seasoned professional, Ralf Wittgen. Ralf Wittgen is the Director, Operations, at Author-it Software Corporation in Auckland, New Zealand. He is responsible for all client facing activities, from consulting and training in implementation projects to client support and assistance.
Ralf started to work with Content Management Systems when the term itself was not yet “invented” by the industry. In 1996 Ralf designed and implemented a repository for technical authors to find content in a database. Just years later, Ralf was involved in leading edge projects such as publishing an interactive spare parts catalogue in HTML from SGML. In the last few years Ralf has focused on process management – certainly a hot topic in Technical Documentation. “A process runs through the entire business”, we hear Ralf often say. “So for being successful on our projects, it is essential to understand the connection between business requirements and processes.” Let’s hear more from him in person.
Tell us about your start in the content management industry and with content management systems.
I actually never arrived in the content management industry, it is more that I was in this industry from the very beginning. One of my first projects after my university time was to design and implement a repository for technical authors to find information saved on a desktop computer. Today, this feels like the “stone age of CMS” – literally this was a very early form of Content Management, with indexing techniques, hyperlink concepts and very smart retrieval functions based on “tagging” documents with meta data. Years later we published one of the first electronic catalogues for an Internet Browser – based on authoring in SGML and publishing straight to HTML. XML existed at those days maybe only in the head of some folks (may be some of our readers recall this time). Since then we have seen a rapid and exciting evolution of the concepts of CMS, and I never left our industry, it’s just too exciting.
What is the role of process management for the successful implementation of a CMS?
Maybe 10 years ago, you could simply install an application on your local machine and create technical documentation, you were designer, administrator and publisher in the same role. Today we have to implement a CMS environment with users spread all over the world. With users taking different roles like translation coordinator, authors, designers or reviewers. Any documentation, regardless if is a technical manual or a training guide, is created within this environment and is part of a “bigger” manufacturing process: The technical documentation is often a legally required part of the product delivery.
Try now to draw a picture and you will soon understand how important process design is when implementing a CMS. In our project clients are often driven by “functions”, especially at the beginning of a project. They express “I need a check-in/check-out function”. We are convinced, that this is a misleading statement – in this particular example you should more consider “If user A has opened a document, other users can open it only in the read-only mode”.
I recommend that you start first with your business requirements. Focus on aspects which are measurable – such as “Reduce translation costs by xyz” or “Reduce translation time by xyz”. Then continue with the design of the (documentation) process – today we’re all talking about the collaborative environment. Ensure, that each process step create value towards the business requirements. Create use cases or user scenarios as a foundation for this design. You will very soon realize that your functional requirement “check-in/check-out” does not really contribute to your measurable outcome.
You have been managing a team spread across geographies in Author-it Corporation. What according to you are the constraints or difficulties?
The biggest challenge we’re facing are the time zone differences: Just imagine to organize a project meeting, with a client from somewhere in Asia, a consultant from the US and the project manager from New Zealand. We even had projects in which we had to include consultants from Europe! Web meetings such as GoToMeeting are great tools to bring teams together. And don’t underestimate the importance of seeing your project partner in this “virtual world”, it makes a huge difference – we’re all human beings and need this “visible” interaction.
A further very important aspect is that we use within our company a standardized approach to implement projects. Although, we have always different client requirements in each project, we follow an internal Best Practice guideline when going through project phases such as “Discovery & Analysis”, “Training”, “Importing Legacy Content” or “Roll-out”. It allows us to “synchronize” all project team members among the different time zones.
Another challenge is to collect and propagate experience we made in our projects for the entire Global Services team. Just recently we have started to design and create a Global Services Knowledge Base (straight from our AIT library!), which will help all our consultants to search for specific topics, results, problems etc. we had to solve in our projects.
Can you share any interesting projects in a CMS implementation that you have worked on recently?
Very often we have the big implementations in mind. But look, we shouldn’t forget that smaller implementations can often benefit from the experiences from bigger implementations. A few months ago we could complete a small project for a client in the US. It was just for three authors with the main request to publish to PDF in different languages. We designed together with the client the documentation process, then implemented together with the client Author-it. With “together” I mean that we follow instead of a simple “training program” a “hands-on concept” which literally means, that we do several onsite workshops with the client. Ultimately with the goal, that our client can make any future adjustments (configurations) on their own. The end result: A great reuse management concept which allows the three users to produce “more output” than before in the same timeframe, despite multiple custom products. It reduced the costs for translation and allows now a faster production of the final documents.
What is your vision of technical communication in the next five years?
There is a very exciting road ahead of us. I am convinced that we will see a “virtualization of our documentation projects” – content contributors and content reviewers are no longer in the same office (or time zone). Print will play only a minimal role and online publication will become a success factor and a differentiator when you compare yourself to your competitors. Authors are no longer bothered with anything like tags or xml, creating the (reusable) content is in the middle of the focus. Links are created automatically based on the content, not on manually created hyperlinks. Publishing changes, maybe instead of creating an online help we publish content to an intelligent wizard providing information to your end users depending on the end user’s current situation and information request. And we hopefully need no longer to publish to paper.
Compiled by an STC India volunteer.