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Information Architecture

Educating authors for content management

Ann Rockley
The Rockley Group

Authors are the primary users of your content management system. It is imperative that you teach them how to use the system and how to effectively reuse content. This article identifies the areas where authors need to be educated and provides some guidelines for supporting authors in their tasks.

The article Educate, educate, educate for successful content management touches on the topic of educating authors during implementation of the content management system. This article expands on that topic. Authors are your primary users of the content management system; they author new content, search for and reuse existing content, store content, and route content throughout the content lifecycle using workflow. Content management, and in particular, content reuse, may be a paradigm shift for your authors and they will need your help to teach them how to perform their tasks. Much of your training material will depend on your information architecture.

The key areas of education are:

  • Structured writing
  • Collaborative authoring
  • Reuse
  • Metadata
  • Overcoming resistance

Structured writing

Writing components consistently ensures that reusable content can in fact be reused, that their reuse is transparent, and that all content appears unified, whether it is a reusable component or not. While many authors have worked to guidelines or to templates in the past, it doesn't compare to the rigor that is required to write structured content that follows an information model. If you are using XML or forms driven models, the structure of the content is explicit, providing guidance to the author; however, if you are not using these you will need to explain the model requirements.

It is important to train the authors in the models so that the structured editor becomes an assisting tool rather than an enforcing tool. If you choose not to use a structured editor, you need to formalize the structure of your models in a detailed style guide and educate your authors in understanding and using the models.

There are many aspects of structured writing that need to be taught including:

  • What is structure?
  • Why structure content?
  • How to write to models
  • How mandatory elements should be written
  • When to select optional components and how to write them

Best practices examples of content written to the models help authors to understand the models in context and style and model guidelines help authors to adopt structured writing.

Collaborative authoring

When authors work in isolation on content, they focus on the effectiveness of their content without an awareness of how their content may impact other documents if it is reused or how they are increasing costs through content differentiation. In a collaborative authoring environment authors work together to create a document set. When authors work together to create reusable content, they ensure that the content meets all the requirements for reuse. Teaching authors how to author collaboratively is more of a "soft" skill, as it requires learning interpersonal skills. Help authors to understand:

  • the commonality in the work they do with the work that others do: it will help them to work towards a shared understanding of content
  • conflict resolution skills, so that if there are differences of opinion they can work through the differences constructively


Content can be reused opportunistically (by choice) or systematically (automatic reuse). To reuse content effectively, authors need to understand:

  • your content reuse strategy
  • how systematic reuse works
  • how to opportunistically reuse content
  • when derivative content is acceptable and when it is not

Content reuse strategy

It is important to communicate your reuse strategy to authors to help them understand:

  • where content should be reused
  • how it should be reused (identically vs derivatively)
  • goal of reusing content (e.g., improve quality, reduce costs, increase productivity)

How to reuse content systematically vs opportunistically

The concepts of systematic reuse are relatively easy to teach, all you need to show is how content is systematically reused. For example, content in a brochure for a particular product is automatically reused into training material for the same product, or generic content is created that is systematically reused for all geographic regions, but specific content is added through building blocks to differentiate the materials based on regional requirements. Authors only need to understand what happens and if they have an option to delete or modify systematically reused content.

However, teaching authors how to reuse content opportunistically includes:

  • what content should be reused when
  • how to determine if reusable content exists
    • searching
    • use of metadata to improve searching
    • navigating the repository
    • checking similar/related content
  • how to clone content to reuse large groupings of content

When derivative reuse is acceptable

Reuse is most effective when content is reused identically. Derivative reuse creates another version of an element. Authors need to understand that creating a lot of derivative elements results in many of the problems the organization is trying to eliminate, including:

  • increased cost of translation
  • increased costs of content creation
  • multiple versions of essentially the same content
  • inability to effectively determine where content exists so that common changes can be made
  • increased content to manage

However, authors also need to understand that sometimes reusing content identically results in:

  • compromising the message
  • compromising the quality of the information
  • reducing the usability and readability of the content

Content which must be reused identically (e.g., legal information, safety information) can be locked, which makes it impossible to change unless you are the owner of the content or have equivalent content permissions. When content is not locked, authors need to be taught to that they should not create derivative content to:

  • change the style unless style is important (e.g., marketing material vs support material)
  • differentiate a product. Teach them the concept of "building blocks" which enables them to reuse the content identically and add another component to different the information.
  • improve the writing. Every author is an editor; however, if content has been reviewed, edited and approved (which should be the case if content is available for reuse) then they should make recommendations for improvements, not make the changes themselves and create derivative content


Another big area of education is the application of metadata. Failing to add metadata, or adding metadata incorrectly, can result in content becoming "lost" in the repository. Adding metadata is like creating an index, authors rarely enjoy doing it. A good content management implementation should automate the addition of metadata as much as possible and minimize the amount of metadata that must be added manually, but there will always be some metadata that authors have to add. To educate authors in the use of metadata explain:

  • what is metadata
  • why use metadata
  • how the metadata was arrived at
  • what metadata is automated
  • what metadata is manual
  • how to determine the correct values for manually added metadata

Overcoming resistance

There are a few areas of resistance that you should design your education to overcome including:

  • Separating format from content
  • Loss of creativity
  • Writing elements not "documents"
  • Ownership of content

Education in these areas is more a matter of persuasion, rather than teaching them tasks or concepts.

Separating format from content

Most authors have "grown up" with WYSIWYG editors and have spent a lot of time acquiring skills in tools and formats (e.g., HTML, FrameMaker, Quark) as these skills have been highly valued. We are saying that the final presentation doesn't matter to the content, something many authors will argue differently. It is a very difficult concept to grasp and one of the changes that authors resist strongly. To help authors become comfortable with this concept:

  • illustrate how content can be used in multiple "documents" and in multiple formats
  • take them through your models to show how you have designed the content so that it is optimized for each media (e.g., use of building blocks)
  • Review the stylesheets so that they understand how the content is "rendered" (displayed) in each media

Loss of creativity

Authors often feel that they will lose their creativity if they are forced to write structured content and write to models. Frequently, creativity is the work authors put into the layout rather than the content. You need to identify what they consider creativity and what value is being added to the content through that creativity.

For authors who enjoy the content creation process, point out that they can be more creative since they no longer have to worry about format and layout. Their creative efforts can be put into designing the most effective information products possible and ensuring that content is readable and usable.

For those most interested in the effectiveness of the content, point out that structured content and models frees them up to do what they do best-creating content-what some consider to be their "real" job.

For teams such as marketing or instructional design, where unique design and layout are integral to the effectiveness of information products, consider teaching them how to modify stylesheets (not structure) or teach them how they can pick from a series of format elements so they can specify to a certain extent the "look and feel" of the content by media.

Writing elements not "documents"

This issue is really not an issue, rather it is a misunderstanding. Authors write content in context, they almost never write individual elements of content, certainly not very small elements. For example, if they are creating a brochure they write the brochure using reusable elements where appropriate. The content is then "burst" apart into elements as it is stored in the content management system. Assure your authors that they will continue to write in context and show them how the system stores the elements.

Ownership of content

Many authors are concerned about losing ownership of their content. Assure them that they will continue to own the content they originally author, but they may no longer be responsible for creating and "owning" entire information products "documents". An author still "owns" a particular element of information, in the sense that he/she is the creator of the content and should be the only person who changes that content; the author actually has joint ownership with everyone else responsible for creating the information set. Describe your new content structures and ownership, but assure them that they will continue to own the content they create. No-one can change it without permission.


Authors require a lot of education to enable them to effectively create and manage content in a very different way then they have before. Plan to educate authors in new content creation, reuse, and management and ensure you address their concerns or areas of resistance.

Copyright 2004, The Rockley Group, Inc.