In recent years, it's been the utopian scenario for managing information in your business: the ability to create a piece of information once and deliver it to many different channels effortlessly, ultimately reaching the content consumer through the exact media and format they prefer.
Imagine, for a moment, that you're a product manager for your company. You've been receiving questions daily from the sales, marketing, and manufacturing departments about the available features of the product, as well as fielding queries from resellers and customers from all over the world. You decide to create a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document to send to anyone who might think of calling you in the future-if you can supply them with answers up front, you'll save hours of time every day. You author your FAQ in Microsoft Word, a popular birthplace for most modern enterprise content.
Your FAQ is so well written, in fact, that marketing wants to use it for an e-mail marketing campaign, sales wants a CD-ROM to use for training, manufacturing wants it posted on the intranet, the call center wants it for its portal, and you know your customers would be happier if they could just get answers themselves on your company Web site. How can you easily deliver your FAQ to all of these groups, through the channels they demand?
In many organizations the same information is often continually recreated to meet presentation requirements. For each output channel, you or someone in your organization will most likely use a different tool to publish the same information to different channels, a wasteful duplication of efforts. What happens when you append your FAQ with a new piece of information? All of the FAQs published in the other channels become obsolete.
Let's step back and define the term channel: it's the medium, not the file format through which the content will be delivered. In other words, your company's Web site is a channel through which you communicate with your customers. Your intranet is a channel for internal company information-sharing. In most companies, standard delivery channels include an intranet, the company web site, the call center knowledge base or CRM application, and traditionally printed materials. For others, e-mail marketing systems, syndication feeds, and customer or supplier portals take precedence. For some businesses, PDA and wireless applications are important.
Sensing this growing trend in business, enterprise content management (ECM) vendors are providing new ways to deliver content stored in their products' repositories, with minimum effort required to render a document from its native format to a specialized format based on the demands of a particular channel. Content may be created in one format, and be delivered, or presented in any available channel.
It's important not to confuse an ECM application's ability to transform content with its ability to deliver content. Transformation generally refers to the conversion of one file type to another-for example, a Microsoft Word document, being converted to portable document format (PDF). This converted file is then delivered through one of many channels to the content consumer, perhaps the corporate intranet, or Web site.
Multiple channel output technology can increase productivity, reduce the number of human errors, and lessen legal and litigation risk. Insurance companies, financial services organizations, and other highly regulated industries, for example, are discovering that managing a single, core version of contracts, prospectuses, and other binding documents, and delivering them to outbound channels, offers far less risk than recreating them repeatedly from scratch, where each iteration introduces the possibility of inconsistencies and error. Not to mention that when one channel's content is changed, all of the others have to be updated, too, usually by the person who created the original.
Until the widespread adoption of the extensible markup language (XML) standard, multi-channel output was difficult. XML provides a way of expressing document structure in a defined and repeatable way so that ECM applications can access its components, and make them available for use as building blocks for other content needs. XML does not define the presentation of the content, just the structure. Most leading ECM applications are supporting the creation, conversion, and output of XML from a variety of source file types, allowing the content of these files to be re-used and viewed through a different presentation layer, and output to different devices (e.g., creating your FAQ in Microsoft Word on your desktop PC, and then outputting it to the Web server that hosts the corporate intranet, a CD-ROM, and the company Web site, all at once).
The Theory in Practice
For example, in its latest version of Rhythmyx, Boston-based Percussion Software demonstrated best practices in separating content and presentation via XML. XML content is stored in a central repository, where it can be used as needed across multiple channels.
Rhythmyx has a "decoupled" delivery model, in which content components are mapped to the native schema of the delivery target, eliminating the need to customize the destination channel itself. For instance, to deliver your FAQ to your company's CRM system, you'd instruct Rhythmyx to insert the data into the destination database, as opposed to making programmatic changes on the CRM side. Again using the example of your FAQ, which was created in Microsoft Word, it could be distributed to the call center knowledge management or CRM system, the Web site, and the intranet. When the FAQ was modified, the change could be pushed out to the call center CRM system, assuring that call center telephone representatives can answer the widest range of customer inquires with the most up-to-date answers. The change could also be pushed to the Web site and the intranet simultaneously.
Tridion, based in Amsterdam, is a relatively new player in the U.S. market, but has a unique approach that is worth exploring. Its product, Tridion R5, contains the Content Distributor component, which is the transport and distribution mechanism that follows the same XML-based philosophy.
Users of the Tridion Content Manager can initiate a publish action that will assemble XML content into the right presentation formats and transfer it to the Tridion Content Distributor. The Tridion Content Distributor transports the content to multiple channels and delivery platforms like Web-, application- and portal servers, and e-business applications.
Other ECM vendors are building this functionality into their products, or if they aren't, they're partnering with companies that already offer it. FileNet has enhanced its integration of Arbortext, providing XML document support to enable users to add XML documents to the FileNet Panagon Content Services repository. Once added, the XML documents become intelligent documents. Intelligent documents enable end-user applications to access specific sections within a document based on information that is contained within the document's XML tags, reuse those components, assemble new content from those parts, and publish to multiple channels and formats.
While some vendors focus on XML as the center of the multi-channel universe, and others remain proprietary for the meantime, one thing is certain: Having the capability to write content once, and publish anywhere is an attractive proposition. Taking it one step further, it's easy to see that by managing content independent of its channel, you can leave existing custom applications as they are (such as e-commerce catalogs, application server-based components) and publish content out to these systems as a "channel," extending the useful lives of these custom systems and applications.
But have we realized the utopian vision? Not quite. While we're getting closer to seamless multi-channel delivery, problems still exist. One of the biggest problems associated with multi-channel delivery is in creating content that retains its level of richness, as if it were created independently in its native application and displayed in its native environment.
Although you may be able to create a document that is publishable across multiple channels, it doesn't mean that it's a one-click solution, or that it will look as nice in other channels, or that it's always much less work to prepare. To create a FAQ in Microsoft Word that will ultimately end up in other channels-such as the Web site or PDA device-requires the preparation of templates for each channel, and sometimes, the sacrifice of some capabilities.
It is also important not to overlook the context of the content you are publishing. The wording of your FAQ, for instance, written for your company intranet, may use internal company terminology or jargon that may be confusing to a retail customer.
Lastly, preparation for multi-channel publishing is always a bit of work-there is no silver bullet. In order to publish content to different systems, you must configure one or both systems to accommodate your content presentation needs. When properly planned for, though, multi-channel publishing can have a dramatic impact on the freshness of information across all channels. And the never-ending stream of telephone calls-asking when your foreign language-speaking refrigerator magnet will hit the market-should abruptly stop.
JEFF PHILLIPS is a senior analyst and BETH KUJAWSKI is a technical editor with Doculabs, a research and consulting firm that helps organizations plan for, select, and optimize technology for their business strategies.