Remember that old saying, "There's no need to recreate the wheel"? When it comes to documentation, many organizations are trying to do just that, recreate something they already have. However, "single-sourcing" - the practice of creating documentation once and using it repeatedly for a variety of purposes - can stop those duplicated efforts thus saving time and money.
The Status Quo
Most companies have several different departments who each create the documentation they need to support products and/or customers. For instance, field technicians create maintenance and service guides (MSG) to maintain, repair, or replace your customers' products. The training department creates training materials (such as computer-based training (CBT) modules and e-learning systems) to train employees and customers on how to use your products. The customer service reps need reference material to support customers who have questions about your products. And of course, the technical publications group creates the online help and user manuals that your customers need to install, configure, and operate your products.
Granted, each of these departments has a specific need when it comes to documentation. But if you'll look closely, you'll find that much of the material they have overlaps. For example, a repair and replace procedure in the MSG may also be in the reference manual, or operating instructions for your product are also in the users' manual and training material. The practice of single sourcing allows this common information to be effectively shared between all departments who need it, creating a quick and reliable flow of data.
Single-sourcing also plays a vital role with updates of information, ensuring all departments get the right information they need in a timely manner.
What Exactly Is Single Sourcing?
Single-sourcing, as mentioned briefly above, is the practice of managing and using information so that all parties who need that information have ready access to it. Single-sourcing works to eliminate time and money wasted by re-creating what already exists. It is the epitome of efficiency.
There are varying levels of single-sourcing that provide differing types of services based on your company's needs and/or budget. Each requires an initial setup period, and a financial investment. However, the results (i.e., increased effectiveness) more than outweigh the cost.
Practical Applications of Single-sourcing
There are generally three basic levels of single-sourcing low, mid, and high. Each level provides different solutions, and has different advantages and disadvantages based on cost, setup, and the content structure itself.
Perhaps you have a product that works on various platforms (i.e., Windows, Linux, and Unix). Three users' manuals are needed for the three platforms. Eighty-percent of the content is the same. Rather than writing and maintaining three separate manuals, a low-level single-sourcing solution would allow you to write the content once and "code" it for each platform.
Using a software application, such as Adobe FrameMaker, you can code the content using a feature called conditional text. The rules of conditional text determine what content will be used when each manual is produced. The limitation with this solution is that you can only create portable document files (PDFs) for print, Web, or CD-ROM.
Continuing with the previous example, a mid-level solution might consist of a Windows-based or Web-based online help system in addition to the printed manuals or PDFs. You would need to structure the content to read well for both the user manual and online help. You would also need additional tools, such Omnisys mif2go or Quadralay WebWorks Publisher to create the online help.
A high-level solution consists of a content management system, such as Arbortext Epic or AuthorIT, which uses database technology. The highly structured content is stored in the database not as a manual or online help file, but as raw data. You create the content freely without worry of the final output. Then you pick and choose what data and format you need and output it at the press of a button. Information is up-to-date and available in real-time.
Content management systems have many additional features that are of great benefit including permission-based access to the data (limits who can access what), dynamic check in and checkout of the files (always have the most recent files), and document version control (control access to the data throughout its life cycle).
The greatest benefits of single-sourcing remain its ability to reduce costs and improve efficiency through the use of organized content management, and its propensity for keeping all information across diverse corporate lines in sync. To quote another old saying "the left hand will know what the right hand is doing" - and that makes life easier for everyone.