For centuries, humans have shared information through documents. We’ve used digital files, printed paper, illuminated manuscripts, parchment scrolls, and clay tablets. Regardless of form factor, a document has traditionally been created as a single monolithic entity, authored in the same format in which it was intended to be consumed.

When companies replaced their IBM Selectric typewriters with desktop publishing and WYSIWYG authoring tools, they were using the latest technology available. Unfortunately, the technology of the time (1980s) merely replicated the monolithic document paradigm. Thus, the idea of creating and managing documents was perpetuated.

Funny enough, the 1980s also saw the creation of SGML, the Standard Generalized Markup Language for digital content. With SGML, component-based authoring became possible. Our modern markup languages – XML, JSON, and HTML – are all based on SGML. 

However, rather than moving away from documents to markup components right away, it took an entire decade for companies to consider component-based writing. Even today, some 40 years later, many companies have failed to update their mindset. 

The truth is that the document paradigm has not served the best interests of a business for decades.

How Documents Hurt the Business

I’ve seen the effects of the document paradigm in every industry from pharma to finance and high-tech to manufacturing. 

Here are some common consequences of using documents: 

      • Employees cannot find the information they need because it’s so hard to search and retrieve information across a collection of documents
      • Content creators continue to create redundant content because they cannot find or reuse existing content; this duplication increases time spent on review, approval, and publishing cycles 
      • Nobody fully trusts the content they find, because it’s so difficult to update or retire outdated content from a document
      • People within and outside the enterprise find too many versions of the same document and they do not know which one is accurate
      • Translation costs and the time it takes to translate the content skyrocket

Meanwhile, customers experience these same problems. Content consumers cannot easily find the information they need. When they do find it, they often find several versions and don’t know which one to trust.

Information cannot be exchanged seamlessly when content is trapped in documents. Systems can only consume information from other systems when that information follows a defined structure. Manual processes – such as running conversion scripts, reformatting information, or employing copious amounts of copy and paste – prevent a business from adopting new technologies that could otherwise give them a competitive advantage.

Documents Are Not the Real Problem

Documents are not the problem. Documents are still a useful way to exchange information from human to human. They just don’t work well as components.  

To provide the right information at the right time, that information must be created and managed as modular components, not as monolithic documents. The components are created according to a defined structure and tagged with metadata to make it possible for systems to identify and use the content in various ways.

These components can then be combined in different ways to create different documents from a single source of truth. They can also be delivered as stand-alone chunks of information when that information is the only thing that is needed.

For example, in a healthcare setting, a clinician might open a mobile app to search for information about a medical procedure. The search returns a single, focused chunk of information describing that medical procedure. There is no need to provide an entire document when the user only needs that one piece of information. In fact, a document would just get in the way.

Documents Are an Output

Documents aren’t going away anytime soon. People still read and digest information in the form of documents, and they probably always will. Most companies need to manage their completed documents, especially in regulated industries such as life sciences and finance

However, documents are the result of publishing a set of components in a specific order. They are an output that can be generated from the content. They are also not the only way to output content. Webpages, chatbots, video, audio, and applications are other ways you can make information available for people to consume. However, if you keep your content locked in documents, if you write, manage, and store content only as documents, you cannot use the same information in any other content experience.

The document paradigm has served us well for centuries. Now, that paradigm is holding us back. When content is locked into monolithic documents, it becomes impossible to deliver the right information to the right person – or to another computer system – at the scale required by today’s global business environment.

Content Rules has decades of experience helping customers modularize and structure their content so they can provide the right information at the right time. If you are considering breaking free of the document paradigm, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We can help you avoid the pitfalls and achieve success in your journey to structured content.

Regina Lynn Preciado