Mark Gross, President, Data Conversion Laboratory, appearing in Manufacturing Business Technology
Manufacturing today is a complicated business requiring a lot of information to be maintained and distributed to all who need it. You have a lot of content in the form of design documents, repair and maintenance manuals, training materials, OSHA documents, parts catalogs, to name a few. I think we can all agree that, besides being critical to running a business, easier maintainability and availability of all this content would contribute greatly to the overall value of your products, services and business — and make for happier customers. But, do you have a strategy to manage it, update it, and make it easily available to all who need it? If you haven’t thought about this, or the answer is a resounding “No,” then I hope this article will help guide you in understanding better the importance of a content strategy.
With a focus on strategy, let’s kick off with a quote from someone who knows something about the subject. Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Indeed, those are some deep musings, but taken as a more general idiom it is applicable to business and more specifically to the benefits of having a strategy for your content.
The first question we can answer here is, Should your content be digital? In this day and age, the answer to that is easy: Yes. To go further — do you need to move to XML? Again the answer is almost always yes, but it’s worth digging deeper into that one. Extensible Markup Language, or as it's or more commonly known, XML, is a standardized format that allows for more flexibility, speed and efficiency when updating documents. XML, after 20 years, is no longer a novelty, and provides a standard method and set of tools to enable you to support more products, faster and at a lower cost. What follows are common challenges and “best practices” examples from my company’s experience.
Take AGCO for example. The Fortune 500 agricultural equipment manufacturer faced concerns that their information was buried across individual departments. There’s more. The company is global, with facilities and dealers around the world, necessitating that they author content in five languages and publish in 32 languages. So besides the ability to support documentation which can be sliced and diced to support many kinds of equipment, translation is a big cost — and supporting an efficient translation memory is key to keeping costs down, and accuracy and speed up. In other words, when a line changes it’s not efficient to re-translate the whole document. Ideally, you would change that one sentence. Translation memory is how you keep it all organized. And maintaining documents in XML allows you to keep content organized so that it can coordinate with a translation memory.
Of course, translation efficiency was just one benefit. AGCO is also now able to easily reuse content among their groups, able to simultaneously publish in many formats — including online and mobile — and are able to get new products to market faster.
When we worked with AGCO, about 15 of their locations were authoring content, with several unstructured and structured tools like FrameMaker, Word, XML, DITA and InDesign. The variety of locations and tools made things very complex but we worked together to formulate a strategy on how to best convert their content. Truth be told, without a strategy for a conversion process the project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. The results speak for themselves. We were able to keep their original materials in a format that allowed them to maintain 90% of the translation they previously had done, which saved a lot of time and money. A carefully engineered conversion process got them up and running quickly. A smartly planned review process assured that everything transferred accurately.
Besides technical documentation, manufacturers have other needs that gain from conversion. Take training documents. For one of our premier clients we were able to take existing training materials done for internal use — videos, slides and so on — and reorganize, re-edit, and recertify the thousands of hours of courses into a form that could be used externally for customer education. This turned a very limited internal resource into a customer pleaser, and a profit center.
Then there are catalogs and parts lists. With content conversion and a sound strategy you can turn them into databases. Not only can you reduce costs, but maybe also create a lucrative profit center. Instead of constantly having to review and redo each catalog, the data is stored and maintained centrally, and then used to create electronic catalogs. These can be printed, but also distributed electronically over secure networks to customer computers and also to mobile networks. They can be cut up to be more flexible for the customers’ particular needs. All this makes it easier for your customers to buy parts. And when things change, updates can be immediate.
Lastly, there’s Cybex International, a leading manufacturer of premium exercise equipment for gyms and private homes. Their product line includes more than 150 unique strength training and cardio training machines and their team faced an urgent need to streamline and modernize the documentation production process. How did they accomplish this? You guessed it — XML. Actually, we helped them convert to DITA, which is a specialized version of XML designed to support instruction and technical manuals.
Cybex’s content conversion strategy was built to achieve very specific goals like accommodating constant updates to its manuals, adding new languages, and providing current information to its suppliers, vendors, sales, and service technicians. Moving to DITA allowed their team to double their throughput, increase document count, improve documentation consistency, and add languages — all with existing staff.
If we go back to Sun Tzu, let’s think of your content as tactics. If they are not digital then that presents a whole new set of problems to solve. If they are digital but are not standardized to be flexible when making changes internally or not easily findable to customers externally, then maybe it’s time to develop a strategy to make all of this more efficient and even profitable.