By Scott Abel | STC Associate Fellow
This month’s installment of “Meet the Change Agents” features my interview with John April, content strategy advisor at Eli Lilly and Company. April has agreed to share insights, lessons learned, and practical advice for teams planning to move from traditional desktop publishing-based content creation approaches to structured authoring.
SA: John, thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your experience moving to structured authoring. Your LinkedIn profile indicates you have deep experience helping your organization tackle all sorts of complex content challenges. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself—who you are, what you do, and why you do it?
JA: I was trained to be a journalist. Over the past two decades, I’ve focused my skills on scientific communications supporting Lilly, mostly on regulatory content intended for study sites, regulatory bodies, or both. Nearly everyone I collaborate with is scientifically trained. In other circumstances, my input might not have been considered. But Lilly has leveraged my differences to help change the way it creates content.
I currently lead the implementation of structured authoring in Lilly’s development organization. I also lead a team responsible for deploying content reuse software. The software will enable Lilly to increase its information integrity and realize time and cost savings. By making the content development process more efficient, I hope to honor and further Lilly’s mission.
SA: When organizations understand the value of investing in structured content, it’s often because they recognize the benefits of doing so can provide them. One of the main reasons why organizations start creating structured content is to develop new capabilities that will allow them to overcome impediments that prevent them from accomplishing business-critical work. Help our audience understand the conundrum facing your authoring team. What types of content-related challenges was your team facing?
JA: The initial challenge was to improve the user’s experience with our content. The unstructured writing methods most of us were using didn’t make the mental process of consuming content easy for our customers. Unstructured writing methods result in long, dense documents with repetitive content, important messages buried, numbers within copy that are difficult to interpret, parenthetical content that interrupts sentences, topic changes within a paragraph, different terms for the same concept, complex grammar, missing subjects, and other problems. These problems lead to a poor user experience where the customer wastes time reading and must re-read or ask questions about the content to understand it.
SA: I have found that selling the value of structured content to leaders usually involves more than just convincing them to buy new software. Often, it requires helping them appreciate the capabilities that adopting structured content can provide their organizations. What capabilities are you aiming to develop by creating structured content?
JA: I advocated that the organization use structured authoring as a means not only to improve the user experience with our content, but also as a step of standardization necessary to achieve future automation. Structured content is not only easier for machines to consume but also to model, review for quality, translate, componentize, tag with metadata, associate with a unified taxonomy, repackage for multiple channels. In a word, structured content is easier to reuse.
SA: Moving to structured authoring is a change management issue as much as anything else. Can you talk a bit about the types of change challenges that our readers might face as they attempt to move their writers to a structured authoring environment?
JA: We started by training the organization’s content development experts. At Lilly, these experts are medical writers. While medical writers are often scientifically trained, their primary expertise is the ability to write content well. Trainers must take these writers’ skills apart and retool them so that their new reflex instinct is to adapt their writing to their audience’s needs. I’d estimate it takes a good writer six to 12 months to become proficient in structured authoring. Once an organization’s writing experts understand the methods and can advocate for their use, then you can begin to train people in other functions on the basics of structured authoring so they can better support the writers.
The biggest challenge in this transition is getting people who have been using unstructured writing methods all their lives to see the value in changing their ways. But isn’t this the issue at the heart of all changes? Changes must be implemented in a certain order, and each person goes through the change at their own rate. First, you must make individuals aware of the problem or opportunity. Only once they have this awareness can they have the desire to participate in or support the change. Once they have the desire, the training effort is relatively straightforward. Most organizations won’t have an in-house structured authoring trainer. Instead, they may leverage the vendor market’s rich offerings. After training, constant reinforcement is necessary, so people adhere to the standard.
SA: When content teams adopt structured authoring, and they start practicing it daily, they almost always report experiencing a few a-ha moments—sudden realizations, inspirations, insights, recognitions, or comprehensions. Can you share with me one of your team’s biggest a-ha moments?
JA: Once we began applying structured authoring methods, we saw massive page reductions in some of our documents. The content was much more useful and fit for purpose. People enjoyed reading the content because it was so consistently structured and easy for their brains to process.
SA: Common challenges can be difficult to avoid if you don’t have someone to guide you toward content best practices and away from painful mistakes made by others who came before you. Did you bring in an external consultant to help your team develop your structured authoring program? If so, can you tell us a little about that experience and the benefits and drawbacks of working with an outside advisor?
JA: We hired a vendor specialized in structured authoring to design our training program and deliver it. The main drawback was their lack of expertise in our field. That resulted in the initial workshop being rather generic, particularly the training exercises, which focused on content our participants had no experience with. However, the benefit of using an experienced trainer far outweighed the drawbacks. Subsequent training workshops were easier for participants to consume because the vendor was willing to put in the time to work with us to tailor the training materials with our content.
SA: There’s no shortage of best practices sessions at content conferences and online events. These types of sessions are popular with practitioners and usually provide some guidance on how to achieve success. It’s also important to understand what not to do. Can you share any lessons learned from your adventures leading to the adoption of structured authoring?
JA: I think it’s a good idea to train people on how to structure content before deploying a content management system.
Getting people to follow structured authoring methods in an authoring environment they’re accustomed to, such as Word, might be a smoother ride than to try to introduce two big changes at the same time: change in writing method and change in the authoring environment.
SA: What books or other educational resources would you recommend to content teams who are thinking about moving to structured authoring?
JA: Hire a structured authoring trainer who has codified their methods into a manual they give to workshop participants. That manual should always remain on the writer’s desk and be their go-to resource on a day-to-day basis.
SA: Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. If you could start your project all over again from scratch, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently, and if so, what?
JA: Many of the concepts being offered by engineers of content management systems are not ready for scale, or organizations are not ready to scale with them. I would have performed more proof-of-concept testing and empathy sessions in my organization’s current authoring environment to better understand the users’ perspectives and needs. I also would have assembled a more comprehensive program strategy so that I had a clear roadmap showing me all the things I needed to change to ensure the project’s success. Content strategists must change people’s mindsets, and they can’t do that overnight.
SA: We’ve talked a lot about structured authoring in this interview. Let’s switch gears for a moment and chat about the most exciting thing you see in the world of information and knowledge management. What are you most excited about?
JA: I’m looking forward to more intuitive authoring systems that employ gamification principles to make the process of content development more fun. We need to expend more mental energy on design thinking and data interpretation and remove some of the stress that arises when we write. If reuse systems and automation tools could be more playful and approachable, I think people would be able to relax a bit at work and become more effective at their jobs.
SA: I want to thank you on behalf of our readers for taking time out of your schedule to share your insights, advice, and lessons learned about structured content. You’ve been very generous with your time, and I appreciate you sharing your expertise with our members. Thanks!
JA: Thank you for the chance to discuss these matters with you and address your readership.