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The demands for content creation and delivery today often necessitate far more than the simple desktop publishing programs of the 80s and 90s. Instead, companies must invest in a full content ecosystem that might include authoring tool, content management system, automated quality control, translation management, taxonomy management, and dynamic delivery. The time, effort, and cost of choosing and implementing such an ecosystem is significant, but so also is the risk of getting it wrong. As a result, the process should be akin to finding a life partner, taking adequate time to get to know each other and to determine that you are compatible and have the same goals in the relationship. Between them, the panelists have guided hundreds of companies in locating their perfect match. In this session, they give advice about the considerations and process needed when replacing or expanding a content ecosystem.

Potential discussion questions:

  • What are the most common mistakes organizations make when choosing their content ecosystem?
  • What are the key differentiators to consider in choosing or building an ecosystem?
  • What “intangibles” should also be considered?
  • What compromises should an organization be prepared to make?
  • What is reasonable to expect a vendor to provide during the “courtship” phase?
  • What are red flags that might indicate a tool is not a good fit for an organization?
  • What are the risks of approaching a vendor without a chaperone (consultant)?
  • How much time does it really take to get through the selection and implementation process? How long does it take to stabilize in a new environment?
  • What steps should organizations take when their tools aren’t working as expected or needed?
  • How do you know that you need to move on and find a new solution?

Panelists included:

  • Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services
  • Val Swisher, Content Rules
  • Sarah O'Keefe, Scriptorium
  • Liz Fraley, Single-Sourcing Solutions

Presented at: ConVEx 2021

Where are the slides and the video?

The session was a live panel at ConVEx 2021. The video recording was only available to ConVEx attendees via the conference portal during the conference and for six months following.

Although we don’t have the transcript of everyone’s answers, we have decided to post Liz’s answers. As you might imagine, we have very different answers than you'd expect a consultant to give. Settle in, read on, and enjoy!

Question: Introduce Yourself

I'm Liz Fraley. I’m with Single-Sourcing Solutions. In case you don’t know who we are, we're a consulting company that specializes in product information creation, publication, and delivery. We are known for our unique approach to solving the challenges faced by those in the technical and professional communications field. We love what we do and our passion is in empowering others. We have several free Public Works Projects that serve the community through webinars and podcasts. Projects like the Room 42 and TC Dojo.

Question: What are the most common mistakes organizations make when choosing their content ecosystem?

The first mistake is in thinking that “process should be akin to finding a life partner, taking adequate time to get to know each other and to determine that you are compatible “  Many of the vendors are lovely people with very interesting offerings and they all care about their tools and they all want to be wanted.

Tools are tools are tools. They are similar and some have unique features, but tools are tools. As a company you have a loyalty to your ecosystem and not a tool. The tools keep the engine running but they don’t drive the car, they don’t design the car. Nor are the tools the consumer of the car. They are the inspiration for the vehicle. As content creators and deliverers we have far more important things to focus our energy on. Tools should just work and support us. Once they cease to do that, we need the agility to find tools that do. To find the tools you need, the ones that will serve your business demands.

Question: What are the key differentiators to consider in choosing or building an ecosystem?

Let's be clear you're talking about building a toolset (or toolchain), not an ecosystem. You don't choose an ecosystem, you create it. It's your product, your team, everyone involved, and the people using it too. If you're considering cultivating your ecosystem, these are the things to keep top of mind: How do I cultivate and move forward?

But if you're talking about building a tool solution, I’d say it’s important to make sure the tools support your ecosystem. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way around.  Consider:

  1. How do you get out when it no longer serves you? You might take a stair step. As sophistication and demand grows you may need another tool. Tools change. Features change. Some keep up, some don't. What's in your prenup?
  2. Your analysis of what it is you're doing, what you’re trying to accomplish, now and in the near future (3 yrs, maybe 5, depending on size of org). Larger orgs have a harder time pivoting; smaller organizations can be more agile.
  3. What is your bench strength? What is the team like? Is it made up of highly technical staff members? Do you have a mix? Some who are and some who aren't as keen to go that direction? Some solutions may require more. Product cost isn't total cost.
  4. What do you need now vs in the future? What has the potential to help your ecosystem grow to the next level?  Is where you are now where you need to go? Not everyone has to max out levels. It’s ok to max at the level you're at.

Never let cost dictate your solution. Your solution should be based on the return not the price tag. No board ever wants to shoot their company in the foot.

It's a delicate balance. As you cultivate your piece of the ecosystem, you're serving a larger organization, not the needs of the few. You need to understand what's coming and do things with your eyes open.

Question: What “intangibles” should also be considered?

I think we talked a lot about intangibles -- and they're not “alsos.” They're integrated, not separate. Consider the intangibles first. Don't let yourself be swayed by a brand. And don't let other people's comfort with a brand or a tool dictate your solution.

Here’s an example: Automatic transmission. I know how to do that, so I have to have that. But I want a sports car, so I'll get one that's automatic. The car is the tool, the enjoyment is the driving activity. If you get auto and fail to learn something new, then you're missing out. When we're comfortable, we're confident. No one likes feeling uncomfortable or incompetent. Until we’re proficient, we feel awkward. You can't let that dictate your cultivating a supporting ecosystem because you can't grow.

Question: What compromises should an organization be prepared to make?

I can't think of any compromises anyone needs to make. If it's a compromise, you're accepting a limitation. Either it wasn't that important to start with or you're preparing to shoot yourself in the foot.

A few years ago, Angela Brown gave a presentation that basically focused on how important it is to uncover the premises of any question and understand what the requirement really is.

Trends that I'm seeing for content creation and delivery in the near future? There are tools out there to meet those needs. Roadmaps give you indicators where a vendor places priority, and those can serve as clues for you. Prioritize, sure, and that goes back to the intangibles and the previous question on key considerations.

What is reasonable to expect a vendor to provide during the “courtship” phase?

It’s reasonable to expect that it is a courtship.

Understand they are courting you. That's what they do and that's what you can expect. You don't discuss your exes. It's your best foot forward.

It’s true for anyone on the outside. Even if you've hired a consultant: they're also courting you. There is a courtship bias even for consultants and you have to appreciate it and evaluate things at that level.

You're being shown the best side. To expect anything else is unfair and unreasonable on your part.

This is why an analysis -- without consideration of tools -- is critical. And why having questions ahead of time is critical. Chances are you're looking at more than one and you want to evaluate them evenly. Ask the same questions the same way of each one.

Question: What are red flags that might indicate a tool is not a good fit for an organization?

If you’re not getting what we should from a responsive vendor. If they’re not willing to answer questions truthfully and every answer is “'yeah, yeah yeah, we can do that.”

Every tool has both strengths and weaknesses. If they're not open about both, then you need to be more cautious and ask the follow on questions of “How do you…”.

No tool vendor will be completely candid, so don't think they are. It is not that they are trying to deceive, they want a win-win and they want to impress you.

We're not talking about consumables, transactional purchases - We're talking about enterprise purchases and longer relationships.

If you are not being honest with the vendors, that's a huge red flag. Vendors want their tools to work for you. As you evolve, they're evolving too. You need to let them disqualify you as much as you're disqualifying them.

Question: What are the risks of approaching a vendor without a chaperone (consultant)?

You should never need a consultant to introduce you to a vendor and sometimes consulting firms are vendors, so there is that. With affiliate commissions and sales commissions and partner programs, don’t think of consultants as impartial people at the tools selection phase.

Where you can really benefit from an external consultant is in the analysis and pre-planning stage and again at the back end to evaluate the research you and your team did in evaluating the tools. A consultant can help offer objective viewpoints from outside in, at this phase as well.

In the end, you own the solutions you choose and the tool vendor is the one who fields the calls when things go wrong. Consultants can help you shortlist tools to evaluate but make sure they are listing the pros and cons and, when they eliminate a choice, they tell you why.

Question: How much time does it really take to get through the selection and implementation process? How long does it take to stabilize in a new environment?

You can make it hard or you can make it easy. How prepared are you? This is what makes all of the difference. Pre-prep and planning. The rest is just execution.

The rest is an implementation question and many factors fall into place here. Your internal IT, your team, training, commitment, workload, how “out of the box” the solution is, how customized are you trying to make it? All these questions and more impact how long.

Question: What steps should organizations take when their tools aren’t working as expected or needed?

Get help or get out. If the tool creator or magician making it work was that really cool employee who had a keen interest in programming? Get out! If the tool vendor is not willing or able to help you with their product? Get out!

We know many of the tool creators out there, even though we were in the PTC ecosystem, and I can tell you that each and every one of them cares about their product and wants happy customers. But sometimes their tool won't meet the needs of the customer and they may not be candid about it.

This may be a good time to ask a consultant. “Can I get to where I want to go with my current solution?”

Question: How do you know that you need to move on and find a new solution?

What are the signs your shoes no longer fit? How ripped can those ripped jeans be before too much skin is showing? Are you constantly running into a wall?

This is another time it may be a good time to ask a consultant. “Can I get to where I want to go with my current solution?”

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