When people first started creating software to automate their business processes, it was natural enough to think of it as a kind of simulator to imitate what was already happening on paper. So in accounting, for example, you got these massive spreadsheets that basically just simulated the ledgers accountants were working with at the time. In its way it was marvellous because it meant you could use formulas to add stuff up and automate a lot of the work that accountants previously had to do manually. Even so, it didn’t take long to figure out that working with your data in its final form really restricted the way that you could manipulate and control the data itself.
From there you got the database-driven systems. These offered best-of-breed solutions in very specific areas, so you had your human resources programs and your accounts receivable programs and your inventory programs. But while they were really good for what they did, you had to integrate them all if you wanted them to talk to one another, and eventually you ended up with a strip-mall of products from all sorts of different places. Not only did businesses have to spend a lot of money on integration consultants but they also tended to get stuck with the basic versions of the platforms because they’d put so much work into integrating them that upgrading just wasn’t worth it.
The third generation of software was the end-to-end systems, which could take care of absolutely everything your business was doing in one tidy package. While these were a lot easier to get going, the downside was that the single modules tended not to be as sophisticated as the best-of-breed products. Still, that was hugely outweighed by the fact they were a single product, and over time it all improved and now the best-of-breed products have all but disappeared.
That brings us to Software as a Service (SaaS), which has of course changed the game completely. Because all the SaaS products have their own API, they’re very easy to integrate. So as a customer you have the freedom to go with consolidated systems or best-of-breed solutions, whatever suits your needs. It’s flexible, it’s scalable and it’s just going to keep growing.
So, accounting software has gone through those four generations, Customer Relationship Management software has gone through them, everything has gone through them – except documentation. Documentation has remained stuck solidly in that first phase, where we’re just simulating what we’d do on paper. Even when we create Web pages, we’re still just simulating what we’d do on paper. No one has moved past that first step into a more database-driven model where you can store content and produce a variety of deliverables from that same information. The format the document is saved in has changed – maybe instead of saving in .doc we’re now saving in .docx – but fundamentally it’s still the same idea.
In fact, we’ve had to develop software around the problem, like smart search engines that can search a document to dig out the knowledge that’s stuck in there. But that doesn’t solve the problem that if you make a change to that document, you have to make an entirely new copy of that document, so you have version 1.1, version 1.2, and so on.
The solution: an Enterprise Authoring Platform
Why hasn’t documentation followed the path of other technology? I think it’s because it just hasn’t been an important part of running a business. In financials the more information you have the better the decisions you can make.
But when it comes to documentation there are only two reasons to change: when it gets in the way of running your business or when it costs you a lot of money. What a lot of business owners don’t realize is that it’s doing both of those things right now.
It’s costing a lot of money because every time someone wants to create a new document they’ve got to start from scratch and hunt around for the information – information that may be written out 10 or 20 times a day, not to mention the time spent messing around with formats. It’s also getting in the way of business because people don’t want to work that way anymore. Take training – people don’t want to sit around for a week watching videos or reading manuals; they want to learn as they go, figuring it out for themselves when they can and looking for help when they get stuck.
So what’s the solution? A mindset change along with adoption of an Enterprise Authoring Platform (EAP). We’ve got to stop thinking of the document as a store of information and start thinking of it as a deliverable that you can produce from text stored in a pure state, in the same way that a financial report is something you can produce out of figures stored in a database. You have a user interface that makes it appear that the user is working on a document; but when they type something in, the system analyzes what they’re typing and offers suggestions for what they want to say. That way everything is uniform; you can make updates without having to create new files and the same information doesn’t have to be written out over and over again.
The technology is there – we just have to change the way we think. To fix the document problem, we have to kill the document. Starting now.
Paul Trotter is the founder and CEO of Author-it Software Corporation and the architect of the Author-it product, an Enterprise Authoring Platform (EAP). Author-it was born out of the frustrations that Paul experienced producing documentation in the Telecommunications industry. Author-it is a product built from the ground up around principles such as topic based writing, single sourcing and separating content from format. Over a decade and five major releases later, these principles remain true of Author-it today and are the basis of the success of the company. Paul is a popular speaker at events all over the world on topics ranging from technical writing and help authoring to content management and localization.