I’ve been in this industry for a long time and since the beginning we have complained about content silos. “Just think,” we’ve said, “if only we could break down these silos, we’d be more efficient. Our content would be more consistent. We could reuse content, so that we have less to write, manage, store, and translate.”
It’s a great idea. After all, multiple departments in an enterprise often create extremely similar content. A few examples:
- Technical documentation and knowledgebase articles
- Technical training and technical documentation
- Content marketing and product training
Often, the overlap is so dramatic we essentially have two departments writing the same content. We all agree this is wasteful and it is inefficient.
And yet here we are decades later and the silos have not disappeared. I know of exactly zero companies that have consolidated all, or even most, of their content creation groups to truly “write once, use everywhere.”
Why is that? And what can we do about it?
Why Silos Won’t Go Away
There are many reasons that silos still plague us.
A good case can be made that different content types serve different purposes and, therefore, need to be written by people who have different skillsets. And to some extent, this is true. People who create marketing campaigns don’t usually have the same training or skills as people who create context sensitive online help systems. People who write knowledgebase articles don’t usually have the same training or skills as people who create website copy.
However, there is plenty of content that could be created once and used multiple times. For example, an overall product description could be written one time and incorporated into marketing content, sales content, technical content, and even training content. Installation instructions could be shared by technical documentation, technical training, and knowledgebase articles. The list goes on and on.
Around the shared pieces, content specific to marketing (for example) could be written and used only where applicable. Installation information could be augmented with different types of content for technical documentation, training, and knowledgebase.
Mature tools exist that provide an infrastructure for single-sourcing content this way. The technology has been around for a long time. People in the industry also know how to set up an ecosystem to support content reuse.
So why won’t silos go away? Why can’t we seem to bust out of them?
The answer has little to do with content or technology. It has little to do with skillsets or content types. The reason silos are not going away is people. Between the inertia of not wanting to change and the power struggles involved with a possible reorganization, breaking down even one silo is not a simple task.
Once we decide to share content, whose content should be kept and whose content should be discarded? Content creators tend to have a personal relationship with the content they create. Being told that the content you’ve worked on for weeks, months, or years is going to be replaced with content that someone else created in a different department on the other side of the building or world is not usually handled with the greatest of ease. People feel ownership and pride in what they produce. They do not want to see it replaced or discarded.
Each group believes that only they can produce content that will work for their purposes. You have no idea how often I must break it to people that their content isn’t so special. We all want to believe that our content is unique. It cannot be replaced. It is important. As hard as it is to admit, most of the time your content can be swapped out for similar content written by a different person or group.
It is a given that content silos are not going away any time soon. I don’t think they will ever go away.
If we can’t eliminate silos, we need to do the opposite. We need to embrace silos. We need to find ways to maximize the effectiveness of multiple silos while enhancing the user experience. We need to ensure that all content looks like it comes from the same company. We need to eliminate the confusion that users experience when they consume content created by various people in different departments.
There are many things we can do to make silos successful. We can make changes to people, technology, and content. But most of all, we can make changes to the content itself.
Standardization and Consistency
One of the problems with siloed content is that it usually lacks consistency. Consistency is a key factor in making siloed content successful. Consistent content looks like it comes from the same company. It eliminates confusion for the content consumer.
To create consistent content, the enterprise needs to standardize two fundamental things:
To create consistent content, everyone needs to use the same words to describe the same things. When terminology is not standardized, content is simply a mess.
Terminology must be standardized across the entire enterprise. We cannot have one silo call the widget by one name and another silo use a different name. If we do, our content consumers will get confused.
It does not matter what type of content you are writing. It does not matter what tools you are using to create your content. If everyone uses the same terminology, the content will be more cohesive, and the user experience will be improved. The content will look less siloed and everyone wins.
It’s not enough to use the same words in the content. You also need to standardize the organization of the content. Using consistent taxonomy and consistent metadata helps people inside and outside of your company find the content they need.
You should study the words people use when they look for your content and apply the taxonomy across all content types, departments, and silos. That way, people do not have to read your silo’s mind when looking for information.
Remaining Dimensions of Standardization
Terminology and taxonomy make up the foundation of standardized content. They are the foundation upon which consistent content is built.
There are additional content aspects to consider for making your content look less siloed. A few years ago, Content Rules created the Five Dimensions of Standardization™ framework. The framework includes:
A word is the smallest standardized content unit. Terminology standards improve clarity, enforce accuracy, improve readability, and more.
Grammar and style rules govern how words combine into sentences. Following the rules is particularly important to standardize siloed content.
Paragraph standards guide authors in how to provide information in accessible units. Paragraph standards include criteria such as voice and tone guidelines, target reading level, and so on.
A component is an independent unit of content that can be combined with other components to create an output. Component standards include criteria such as the type of component, the order of content within the components, what content is mandatory and optional, and more.
- Output types
An output type is an assembly of content that is delivered as a complete unit. A standardized output type provides a model to ensure that all requirements for a particular output are met.
The more you standardize these five content dimensions, the more cohesive your content will be. The more cohesive your content is, the less of an impact the silos will have on the user experience.
For more information on the standardizing content, download our whitepaper, “The Five Dimensions of Content Standardization: Making Your Automation and Reuse Strategy a Success.”