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Getting Smart About Content

By Clark Quinn / March 2014

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The Intelligent Content Conference is a marketing and technical communications conference. So why should eLearning folks care? Because this crowd is creating digital experiences that are customized and adapted to the individual, respecting both existing knowledge about users and their ongoing behaviors in the system. And this is done systemically, with collaborative workflows so it's manageable for updating and revising. Compare this to our hand-cobbled and monolithic content production. Strategy, engineering, and management are the future of content, and we can, and should, be using it for learning and performance. So I wrangled a press pass to see what I could learn.

The big concern for the 400 attendees at the sold-out conference in San Jose, CA is creating custom user experiences in a manageable way. They want to accommodate different media including video, different types of customer needs, and do so in ways that leverage technology to be efficient as well as effective.

The approaches here are still in a state of flux. While the industrial strength approaches are robust, the adaptation approaches and the terminology are still in negotiation—to the point where a new book was released at the conference. The Language of Content Strategy by Scott Abel ("The Content Wrangler") and Rahel Anne Bailie, both well-known names in the space, is interesting not just for the content, but in it's own right. The authors used the book as a case study in developing content processes at the same time as developing the content. The associated card deck and website leverage the same deep architecture that also delivered the book. The book itself, with 52 terms defined, makes clear that there is a lot going on here. Content inventories, audits, flow, models, migration, and more are terms covered within.

The overarching model to deliver on this capability uses layers of systems to manage content. The production flow goes from development that separates out content from appearance, into systems for management, into channel distribution flows. Content is created by combining chunks on the basis of rules, governed by parameters based upon the audience, needs, and more. The approaches touted at the conference were to start with your audience and experience goals, and focus on content before technology. The goals are findable content and personalized experiences.

Content considerations are multiple. As just a small list, topics about content include:

  • how will content be created,
  • where will it be housed,
  • how will it be delivered,
  • how will it be found,
  • who's the audience,
  • what's the need,
  • what controls will be needed,
  • what oversight will be needed,
  • what measures will be used, and more.

These issues turn content from the output of an asset to a systematic process of development, housing, lifecycle management, and delivery channels. Metadata is assumed, with a clear message that investment now pays off in the future.

Several recurrent themes echoed challenges facing eLearning. There were messages about the need for measurement and governance, starting small, and breaking down silos. Practioners showed how they were evaluating both the content and the impact. They were worrying about content lifecycle, maintaining responsibility for each element. They advocated starting small and moving fast, rather than massive industries. And they recognized that doing this well meant crossing traditional organizational boundaries.

There are also shared issues. Amongst the concerns were distinguishing between strategy and implementation, team composition, content volatility and appropriate levels of chunking and layers. Much of the discussion focused on distinguishing "content engineering" from content strategy, and there was much overlap with design considerations. The issues of what skills were needed and how they were distributed across team members was shown to be widely divergent. The need to deal with content volatility was also a problem. As business is changing faster, I asked The Wrangler how the intelligent content approaches would adapt, and his advice was to use such approaches on relatively stable and large content structures. However, it also seemed clear the industrial strength tools would, once in place, make content maintenance and adjustment possible in systematic and efficient ways.

These concepts are key to taking eLearning forward. Any organization designing content for online learning experiences needs to get their minds around how these systems work. Publishers are faced with new competition from organizations generating content into content models supporting flexible business models. Learning providers are challenged to adapt to devices and users. Corporate learning providers are getting phased out of the content loop in their organizations.

To get started, the XML press bookstore representative recommended Alan Porter's The Content Pool.This was described as the book to convince folks of the opportunity. From the learning perspective, I recommend Reuben Tozman's Learning on Demand. This is an area eLearning organizations need to understand and engage with.

Further Reading

Abel, S., and Bailie, R. A. The Language of Content Strategy. XML Press, Laguna Hills, CA, 2014.
Porter, A. J. The Content Pool: Leveraging Your Company's Largest Hidden Asset. XML Press, Laguna Hills, CA, 2012.
Tozman, R. Learning on Demand: How the Evolution of the Web is Shaping the Future of Learning. ASTD Press, Alexandria, VA, 2012.

About the Author

Clark Quinn, Ph.D., helps organizations use technology aligned with how we think, work, and learn to achieve better outcomes. An internationally known consultant, Dr. Quinn has authored four books on learning technology and keynotes regularly. He previously taught at the University of New South Wales and has served in leadership positions in several new media and learning organizations. Clark works with Fortune 500 companies, education, government, and the not-for-profit sectors through Quinnovation, tweets as @quinnovator, and blogs at

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2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/14/03-2591671



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