This week, I participated in a stimulating and lively discussion on LinkedIn.  Here's the question that was asked:

What's the best toolkit or set of tools for use by a team of content creators to automate the process of getting content from differing sources and file types (text docs, media, graphics) online?

The experience of answering questions on LinkedIn has been interesting—and a lot of fun. This particular question generated a lot of conversation that was stimulating to everyone involved. Before I address the question itself, I want to talk the nature of these kinds of questions that show up frequently on LinkedIn and elsewhere. They're what I call slacker questions.

As you might expect, for a question like this there were a lot of opinions and a lot of suggestions. But there are always two things that never fail to have me shaking my head when people answer slacker questions on LinkedIn:

  • Almost no one asks the question asker questions to find out exactly what their situation is. Context is meaningful to vendors. It's just as important to find out when you don't fit as when you do.  On LinkedIn, you always get vendors saying, "Try mine!" with no qualification whatsoever. How can a question asker know if the product being suggested applies to them at all when a vendor doesn't take the time to ask about their business, their goals, or their requirements?
  • The impression that "open source" solutions are free.Open source is not as free as it sounds:
    • You're responsible for independently validating the products you're stringing together when it's time to upgrade (any one of them).
    • You've got to build the tools to join systems together (if you do it the wrong way, it'll be harder to upgrade than you think).
    • You're at the mercy of other people to implement that one feature that you really need (unless your company is sponsoring someone as a developer on that open source project—which nearly no one does).
  • It often requires a software developer in house who can manage the open source products you're using. Especially, if you're putting an OS project in a mission-critical position in your business. Don't forget all of these other costs need to be factored in before you jump in.

As an aside, here's how professionals buy a tool...

But back to the question

Here it is again:

What's the best toolkit or set of tools for use by a team of content creators to automate the process of getting content from differing sources and file types (text docs, media, graphics) online?

The first thing I do when I see a question like this is find out more about what's behind the question. There are a lot of assumptions (and corresponding implications) built into a question like this.

I want to know whether the asker is talking about multi-channel publishing or automating the hand-work of posting content to a web or portal location. These are two very different goals.

Here's what I asked in return:

Are you looking for "lights out" publishing that can be completely automated to more than just PDF output? If that's what you're looking for then a true XML publishing system (not afterthought, bolted-on one) is your best bet here. We work with Arbortext and have customers who are completely automated, achieving 90% reuse, and can guarantee the quality of their information because they've certified their publishing system so that they can pass FDA audits.

In addition, they've been tracking translation costs the last seven years across multiple business units that have both XML and traditional publishing systems and have data to prove that translation costs can be an order of magnitude lower once you go to a true XML publishing system like Arbortext.

Not everyone needs that level of quality guarantee, but being able to reduce cycle time, increase quality, and save money all at the same time is good for everyone. Happy to follow up with you offline.

Sure, I'll mention my product line. That way the questioner has somewhere to go to get information about whether what I'm talking about applies to their situation and goals.  But I'll also push to move the conversation about vendor-specific features, tools, etc offline and out of the public discussion in a place like LinkedIn.

I'm not there to advertise, I'm there to lend expertise if it's appropriate.

Many of the suggestions that followed encouraged the asker to do some automated script handling via XSLT in order to bring the content into a manual, desktop publishing application like InDesign. It's a suggestion that still boggles me. If the idea is to reduce the manual effort and shorten cycle times, then you really want to avoid introducing the manual steps required to flow XML through InDesign.

Arbortext provides the full system of products available to produce multiple output formats without having to build the tools to bridge applications from multiple vendors. All products are tested and delivered together, so the burden isn't on your team to validate upgrade paths of individual tools or individual products.

Arbortext does all of that for you.

Arbortext has a history of success in the publishing industry. We have several magazine customers who automatically produce pages that are derived from very complicated layout rules. For example, Arbortext can auto-fill advertising content. it's very common for us to see customers implementing rules like these:

  • if one side of the page has dark print, then we want a similar dark ink image on the reverse side of the page because the pages are thin
  • If Advertiser A is on the left hand page, then Advertiser B cannot be on the right hand page; and/or it must be N # of pages away.

Also, if an editor wants to hand-tweak the page before the deliverable is finalized, Arbortext the capability to do this: editors can move graphics and reflow text if they want to. All of this is available from within the publishing engine. There's no need to step into yet another design tool to make changes.

And do I need to mention that there's an Arbortext Content Manager that includes workflow capability—completing the full single-vendor solution picture ? You might say that Arbortext Content Manager is a late comer to the publishing industry. It wasn't originally targeted and publishing. However, we're starting to see it unseat traditional partners because of performance issues and globally distributed teams. It was a great conversation. Everyone on the thread contributed real technical information rather than just product mentions designed to confuse the issue—and add more work—for the questioner.

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