Vocab Lessons

As a content management strategist, I've helped clean up some pretty big content messes. Almost all of these content cleanups were motivated by business disasters such as lawsuits, regulatory action, public relations nightmares ... you get the picture. And almost all of these expensive content woes could have been avoided if the organizations involved had realized one important fact: Content is a business asset worthy of being managed efficiently and effectively.

That's right, content-words, images, multimedia, and all the other so-called creative work that goes into fueling an organization-should be managed just like the parts in a manufacturing plant or the dollars in an investment portfolio. What's needed is a coherent, repeatable set of processes designed to control the production, delivery, retirement, and archiving of content. It should be supported by standards and implemented using software tools designed to enforce rules and automate manual tasks.

Most organizations that realize they have content problems are woefully unprepared to address them and solve the bigger problem: content silos. According to ECM guru Ann Rockley, "Silos result in increased content production and delivery costs, reduced content quality, and potentially ineffective content. Content created in silos is often confusing, riddled with errors, and lacks standardization and consistency, thereby driving up costs and increasing risk unnecessarily."

So how does a content-heavy organization start to clean up its content mess? A good place to start is examining the content itself.

For instance, most content created by organizations today is text-based and created in an uncontrolled free-for-all. Even organizations that have writing, style, and branding guidelines don't enforce them. Because writers are viewed as creative, their work is often perceived as something you cannot control without "taking away their creativity." This may be true of advertising copywriters or writers of novels, screenplays, and other entertainment content. But for every other type of writer, a little control in the creativity department can provide big benefits.

For instance, take the move toward controlled vocabularies such as Simplified English, a standardized language that provides a general dictionary and a set of writing rules. Organizations can add to Simplified English dictionaries to define and allow their own technical terminology, or they can extend the vocabulary to include industry, science, medical, or corporate terms.

The use of Simplified English ensures that everyone is using the same word to mean the same thing instead of allowing writers to use synonyms that have similar meaning for creativity's sake. Ambiguous content has been responsible for lawsuits, failed business dealings, customer service nightmares, property damage, severe injuries, and even death.

In our litigious society, organizations that value their content as a business asset worthy of being managed do not allow their writers the freedom to use whatever words they choose based on personal preference and creative desire. Instead, they limit the words they can use, which not only helps minimize unnecessary risk but can also drastically reduce expenses.

In today's global economy, content is often created in English and then translated into target languages. It is not uncommon for a pharmaceutical, manufacturing, or software company to translate its content into 15, 30, even 60 or more languages. When writers introduce synonyms, they not only introduce ambiguity to the translator (unnecessarily increasing the risk of miscommunication of the translated content) but they also introduce additional translation expense-as much as 25 cents a word, per language.

Organizations serious about controlling costs and reducing risk enforce their content rules automatically by using tools, such as HyperSTE from Tedopres International, that enforce vocabulary standards and writing rules as content is created in authoring tools such as Microsoft Word and XML authoring environments such as Adobe FrameMaker, Arbortext, and XMetaL.

For organizations that value their content as a business asset worthy of being managed efficiently and effectively, managing terminology is a no-brainer and a good place to start. It's always wise to seek the help of a knowledgeable third-party, vendor-neutral consultant (or internal resource with similar experience outside of your organization) to audit your content life cycle and production processes and to provide recommendations for improvement. Be cautious not to rely too heavily on the software vendors you select; they are often very knowledgeable about controlled vocabularies and the software they sell, but they may not have the domain knowledge and previous experience needed to guide you in the right direction.