STC 2008: Day Four, June 4

June 10, 2008

After a few days of travel and other diversions, I’m back home and settling into the old routine. The last day of STC 2008 flew by pretty quickly. I saw two talks, plus the closing keynote. The first talk was Results of a Survey on the Usage and Impacts of Single-Sourcing and Content Management, by David Dayton of Towson University. Dayton’s objective was to see to what extent people actually realize the benefits of Content Management and Single-Sourcing (CMSS).

According to Dayton, there is a “meme” in Technical Communication literature:

“XML-enabled CMSS heralds a bright future for those willing to learn—

  • Structured authoring
  • More collaborative workflows
  • New tools that break with WYSIWYG to enforce structural rules and use meta-information”

In his view, there is a “Strong current of technological determinism in the literature on this subject.”

However, there is very little good data on how widely these technologies are used or what their impact is on those who use them. His study, supported by STC, attempts to provide a “cross-sectional statistical view of SS and CM methods and tools.” The study, which is still underway, includes a survey of STC members, which is complete, but not completely analysed; interviews and site visits; and a Web 2.0 website to collect first-hand reports.

He will be publishing a full report early next year, but he did discuss some of the results, some of which are very interesting. Here are some highlights:

  • The majority of IBM DITA users don’t use a Content Management System, but do single-source; I expected more users at IBM would use a CMS.
  • About two out of five respondents use single sourcing, but only one in five uses single sourcing with content management.
  • About one in three uses content management without single sourcing.
  • Only 1/3 of respondents said that CMSS had made their work group more customer-centered.
  • 18% said that their work group had been involved in an effort to switch to CM or SS that failed; seems lower than expected.
  • Adoption appears to be in the “Early Majority” phase of the innovation adoption curve; i.e., still well ahead of a tipping point, and he can’t predict when that point will be reached.

I’m looking forward to his full report; it will be nice to have a more quantitative look at how these technologies work in the real world.

The second regular session I attended was Editing Modular Documentation: Some Best Practices by Michelle Corbin of IBM and Yoel Strimling of Comverse. This was an excellent presentation; the presenters had a clear sequence, good examples, and clearly stated conclusions. I went to this presentation because I’ve rarely had real editors on my staff, so I thought it would be interesting to see some, plus I was curious about what it’s like editing in a modular methodology.

To me the biggest surprise was the extent to which the presenters’ editing teams got involved with structure. In fact, it looks like the major value of editors in their environment is to ensure consistent chunking, labeling, and linking; i.e., the three basics of modular documentation. Issues of writing consistency and style are distinctly secondary, though not ignored. Given the propensity of organizations to undervalue editing and the tendency for technical communicators to rename roles every few months, I’m surprised that this particular role, which has evolved considerably from what I’ve always thought of as editing, hasn’t been renamed to something glitzier.

Regardless, the talk did give me a new appreciation of this role, and a better understanding of how it can add value in a modular methodology.

The last talk I went to was the closing keynote, by Richard Saul Wurman, who was best known to me as the originator of the Access travel guides. This was a relaxed, informal talk that almost went off the rails a couple of times, but kept me engaged. Wurman has a strong pragmatic streak and is someone who is able to get to the heart of an issue. His current focus is on a project called 192021 (http://192012.org), which looks at 19 cities in the world with over 20 million in population in the 21st century.

In his view, the “rise of supercities is the megatrend of the 21st century.” As of last year, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050, 2/3 of the world’s population will live in cities. 192021 is a five-year comparative study of these cities, looking at things like health, education, demographics, infrastructure, and culture. By using a consistent methodology, it will be possible to compare various aspects of these population centers and track trends. Like his other projects, 192021 strives to make complex information consistent and understandable, and sounds like it will be a worthy project.

While I would have liked to see a little more about how he thinks and how he approaches a topic, I thought the talk was a nice cap to the program and left me with a lot to think about.



  1. I’m thoroughly enjoying your writeups, esp. this one. You showed me some value that I hadn’t seen before (esp. with Wurman’s talk).

  2. Namaste!

    Glad to see that you made it safely home. Hope the trip wasn’t too exhausting!

    It was a pleasure meeting you at the STC Summit in Philly. Hope we’ll be able to keep up our conversation over this long distance!


    — Rahul Prabhakar

    PS: You are encouraged to join my technical writing listserv called TWI (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/technical_writers_india/). Your presence on the list shall be highly cherished.

  3. Glad you enjoyed our presentation – we had fun giving it! 🙂

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