Thursday, February 07, 2008

The idea of a content assembly line is so American

In "Content Managers: Extract the Full Benefits of Structured Authoring", Eric Kuhnen describes how he imagines DITA can be used to create technical manuals in a manufacturing fashion, much like building anything today by finding the smallest possible part, then getting the best deal for its production, and finally reassembling the parts to a whole.

When facing objections of content authors, Eric counters with "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."

This whole issue is so American to me. I have spent a lot of time in the US lately, and one of the things that struck me most is the fact that anything gets broken down to the smallest bits, and optimized out of context. If I call Citibank because I have a question, I need to answer a number of security questions to establish my authentity. I then get redirected to another department, where I have to answer the same set of questions. Recently, that has happened 5 times in a row, sending me once around the globe, from Indian call centers to US bank counters to wherever.

This is such a bad experience for me, the "user", "client" or "reader". Yes, maybe each part is efficient and cheap, but what remains is worthless.

I have found this pattern everywhere in the US. I walk under a bridge in Manhattan and I am amazed about the monstreous ugliness of the sewer system installed under the bridge. Surely, the developers of that bridge did not care how the bridge looks from below. All they wanted is the cheapest guy to provide the sewer system. But as a pedestrian, I do care how my surroundings look.

Things in the US simply do not fit together. Anywhere you look, the smallest parts maybe efficient but in their completeness, they are inefficient, unfriendly, unusable or simply do not work at all.

Now back to Eric's article. I have written a lot of content, and I have read much much more. Maybe you argue a technical manual is not a Purlitzer Prize winner. OK. But splitting things into tasks that are individually assigned to the person best suited (he talks about hiring people that are good at writing captions!) does not make the result a team effort that works. If someone writes only captions without knowing what the picture's intention is (something that only the author of the actual content knows) will at best result in description of what I see on the picture (a.k.a. "the Microsoft Help Page Syndrom"). I doubt the result is efficient. It will simply be unusable. Not to mention the fact that I cannot imagine anybody being proud of her job, but that is a fundamental issue again found in the US - as a friend recently noted "The difference between European and American craftsmanship is that Europeans are proud of what they produce".

And, I might add, if you are proud of what you do, you like to do it. If you like to do it, you are better, more efficient and healthier. But of course these are no factors you would look at if you just want to outsource writing 1000 captions.

PS: Maybe Eric finds the time one day to research how Volvo builds cars. Hint: not the way anybody else does.


  1. Hi Boris,

    you are undoubtedly right, but then everyone seems to write books around there by exagerating the reach and validity of too small bits of logic out of any meaningful proportion. "The world is flat, "The end of History", "IT doesn't matter" and more last words. I don't know if it's the authors or the publishers, or both, but if it sells, that seems to be good enough for them.

    Anyway, it sounds like you are pretty fed up with staying in the US. Alas, that is only because I am not there to go for dinner with you at the Buck's Camping & Fishing in DC, or something of the sort in NYC :-)

    So give me a reason to come and visit (dang) !


  2. Daniel,

    thanks for your comment. "more last words" should be the title of a book we co-author, then ;-)

    I am actually really happy being in the US, though, and will be in DC on the 27th for the Open Source CMS panel

    CU there?