By Eric Kuhnen, special to The Content Wrangler
If you manage a technical publication department, search for the phrase “assembly line” in Wikipedia and study the paragraph entitled “Overview: a culmination of many efforts.” In the middle of that paragraph is the following sentence:
…[T]he way that most manufactured products were made was that a single craftsman or team of craftsmen would create each part of a product individually by hand, using their skills and…tools…, and assemble them together into an assembly, making cut-and-try changes in the parts so that they would fit and work together….
If they saw only that sentence, most technical publication managers would mistake it for a description of today’s method for creating technical content. In reality, it’s a description of industrial manufacturing before the advent of the assembly line. What is in common practice in the early twenty-first century for creating technical content drove up automobile manufacturing costs in the early twentieth century, keeping cars out of reach of working class society. The solution to the problem of cost was the introduction of the assembly line with all of its inherent cost efficiencies and volume scalabilities.
The twentieth-century assembly line is the logical progression of earlier advances in general manufacturing. Technical developments that gave rise to interchangeable parts enabled serious consideration of supply logistics and factory layout. The result was manufacturing process that dramatically reduced automobile production time, unit cost, and human resources. The assembly line was patented by Ransom Olds in 1901, but popularized by the Ford Motor Company in 1913. By 1930, more than 250 automobile companies that had not adopted the assembly line were out of business.
In a similar vein, the rise of structured authoring techniques and standards signals a fundamentally different process for manufacturing technical content. That process inevitably takes on the characteristics of an assembly line, particularly as to segmentation and specialization. Furthermore, it is as unorthodox to today’s technical publication craftsmen as the automobile assembly line was to automobile craftsmen before 1901. Still, it’s a technical publication manager’s job to build content at the lowest unit cost and at the highest volume. You can watch your group’s functions become outsourced to lower-cost craftsmen overseas, or you can reshape the world of technical content manufacturing and turn the technical publication department into your company’s distinctive competitive advantage. To that better end, this article explores how a technical publication manager could set up a publication assembly line using recent advances in structured authoring.
A Few Recent Advances
Recent advances in structured authoring owe much to the groundwork in markup language development laid over a forty-year period. Generalized Markup Language was a 1960’s-era invention by IBM to separate the act of creating text from the act of formatting text. Scribe, of early 1980’s vintage, further extended this separation through formatting styles and a formal grammar for controlling the use of descriptive elements. In 1986, Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) burst onto the scene as a full-fledged meta-language, its flexibility serving as the basis for more useful markup languages such as Hypertext Markup Language, Extensible Markup Language, and DocBook. Naturally, the entire history of markup languages cannot be reproduced here, and some details are still hotly debated around the water cooler. Still, the presence of these later markup languages rests squarely on the shoulders of previous work.
Despite advances in markup languages, the reasons for their current adoption within large organizations occludes their hidden potential to enable highly efficient structured authoring. Here’s why—No one incorporated assembly-line manufacturing into the design these markup languages. Indeed, the principal reason for the development of SGML was the preservation and exchange of machine-readable documents across several decades. No thought was given to enabling efficient text creation. Its more popular successor, XML, was invented to retain the essential power and purpose of SGML while streamlining some of its flexibility. Even DocBook’s design (as an SGML application–now an XML application–for describing technical documents) did not incorporate any notion of text as comprised of interchangeable parts–the foundation of modern assembly-line manufacturing. Naturally, then, there were no serious attempts to re-think the way a technical publications department operates.
The introduction of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) enables a shift in the technical publication paradigm. Its basic design–dividing content into small, self-contained topics–prompts an author to view a document not as a series of chapters and related sections but rather as a collection of separate topics. By drawing upon a supply of these pre-written, self-contained topics, it is arguable that a writer should be able to produce a greater overall volume of content than would otherwise be possible if it was necessary to recreate this material each time it was needed in other documents. Indeed, that is the theory and much of the current practice around the use of DITA.
DITA’s design for content reusability is akin to an interchangeable part in manufacturing. In industrial manufacturing, a part is considered interchangeable if each and every copy is identical to the original. In content manufacturing, an interchangeable part is a reusable, self-contained topic. When the topic is needed in a new publication, the writer inserts a pointer to the archived original; no cut-n-paste; no editing to fit context. DITA gives technical publication managers one of the key technologies to establishing a true content assembly line: the interchangeable part.
Another key “technology” is the practice of minimalism. Minimalism favors short, task-oriented content over long, narrative material. It is surprisingly difficult to master because it requires an economy of words and a conscious suppression of one’s own writing style. The need for word economy gives rise to approved technical vocabularies–a reasonable necessity to maintain accuracy–but also recommended descriptive terms, a point of sharp division among authors. Eviscerating any traces of individualism reduces not only cliches and colloquialisms (these are difficult to transport across countries and languages) but also certain constructions that add variety to otherwise banal technical prose. Technical writers who think of themselves as craftsmen or artists may resist some elements of minimalism, but its foundations are rooted in the science of Instructional Design and its virtues are described extensively by Dr. John M. Carroll.
Minimalism is essential in two ways. First, its two primary elements have analogs in modern assembly line techniques. That is, word economy is similar to the idea of repetitive movements, while suppressed individualism in text calls to mind the factory-worker concept.
Second, a “minimal” topic has a higher opportunity for reuse elsewhere because there is very little extraneous material to become ensnared in mismatched contexts. Said another way, long, narrative material exists to connect one idea to another. Reusing that text means ensuring that the “connective tissue” contained in the narrative matches the context of the surrounding material. Minimalist topics, devoid of narrative text, have almost no “connective tissue” at all. It is comparatively easy to drop this material into new contexts.
Structured Authoring in an Assembly Line
With these technologies now available, a technical documentation manager has the essential ingredients for assembly-line structured authoring. First, agree to some ground rules:
- No single person writes a whole paragraph of text. The work of writing a paragraph is broken up into specialty tasks, one for each component of a well-written paragraph.
- Quality assurance now includes “readability” at the paragraph level to check for semantic problems arising from multiple authors contributing one sentence each.
- Subject-matter experts (SMEs) contribute material only as lists, notes, steps, or design notes. They don’t contribute finished sentences. SMEs are like automobile design engineers and very much unlike manufacturing engineers. Design engineers are very good at describing how a thing works, but it’s outside their training to describe to build it efficiently. That’s what manufacturing engineers do. Likewise, SMEs have great technical knowledge about a thing, but they are not experts in assembly-line structured authoring.
Second, study industrial manufacturing. A modern assembly line is built around discreet, repeatable tasks, not around each author’s knowledge of specific subject matter. This realization drives new thinking about the creative process in writing, who to hire, and how to construct workflow.
Start with the creative process in writing. When content creation is viewed as a manufacturing problem, then the assembly line is the worst place to find thoughtful, creative individuals crafting topics that blend seamlessly into the fabric of the overall document. Why? Because the assembly line grinds to a halt when specialized tools don’t work, or information from SMEs comes in late, or even when the writer misses an important collaboration meeting . What is needed on the content assembly line are writers who know how to build single sentences from a few fragments of information and who can do this all day long. A structured-authoring assembly line is not so much a “creative” environment as it is an assembly environment. In fact, the whole “line” is really just a collection of assembly tasks where each task introduces an interchangeable part into the partially constructed document. There are tasks for:
- Building document outlines, sub-outlines, sub-sub-outlines, etc.
- Massaging SME input into standard forms (i.e., building the beginnings of an interchangeable part); standard forms might be lists, paragraph fragments (no topic sentences), figures, images, tables, etc. There would be a separate task for creating each standard form.
- Writing topic sentences based on standard technical forms
- Writing concluding sentences based on topic sentences
- Writing captions for figures, images, tables, etc.
- Writing section, chapter, and document titles
- Building tables of contents
- Building indexes
New Skill Sets; New Hiring Needs
All of these are highly repetitive tasks requiring distinct skill sets, which requires new thinking about whom to hire. For example, a document manager would look for someone with outlining skills to perform the document-outline tasks. Since his only job would be to build document outlines all day long, it would be best to hire someone who is good at recognizing topic “flow” even though he may not be very good at punctuation. A similar line of reasoning would inform the screening policies for other roles and tasks. The need for expensive craftsman who can perform every function would be replaced by the need for inexpensive laborers who understand enough of the source language to be competent in their jobs.
Defining New Workflow
Finally, reexamine workflow. The manager of a content assembly line needs to rebuild the workflow to favor the assembly of information components, not finished topics. Finished topics are what come out of the assembly line. There would have to be a multiplicity of quality assurance steps to ensure good “fit and finish” in the writing and adherence to overall “manufacturing” quality standards. There’s nothing revolutionary about building workflow, except that what constitutes a “step” in the workflow would be very different than what is typically found today.
Naturally, documentation managers have to weigh the benefits of a content assembly line against the needs of their individual contributors. Creatively minded authors would balk at the suggestion that they conform to this kind of assembly-line structured authoring; I would, too. Business, though, is about fielding the best team, and there is no arguing that the level of control, accountability, and efficiency found in a structure-authoring assembly line would improve dramatically even as the unit costs to produce technical documentation would drop and the scalability would increase. The result would quite probably be a distinctive competence in the market because the technical publications department integrated with the overall product creation process without relying the institutional knowledge and limited production capacity of irreplaceable craftsmen.
Conclusion—Content managers know that structured authoring is by no means new, but they have yet to realize the full application of its invention. These untapped benefits reside primarily with content manufacturing, or the application of assembly-line manufacturing techniques to the process of content creation. Content manufacturing remains an unexplored subset of content creation because it represents a fundamentally different style of thinking by content managers. However, if the current rise of DITA and minimalism are to have lasting benefits, it will be through innovative technical documentation managers recognizing the suitability of these technologies to the problem of content creation to build some of the world’s first true content assembly lines.