Manager’s guide to single sourcing: What’s the problem, why is there a need?

I thought it might be useful to look at a simple question: Why is there a need for single sourcing technical documentation? For people who aren’t technical authors, it’s often unclear why technical authors talk so much about “single sourcing”. Isn’t that just cutting and pasting? What’s the problem?

In later posts we’ll look at the possible solutions, but this post will focus on the need to change things.

What’s the problem?

Many documentation departments produce detailed and well-designed documentation. Increasingly, however, one manual is often not enough.

Users are rarely all the same. They have different product knowledge, different backgrounds and they may have different reasons for using the product.

Customers don’t want to search and scanning through lots of information that’s irrelevant to their situation. They often need specific documentation rather than a standard one-size-fits-all document.

In addition, as companies expand their product offering into new markets and strive to broaden the product offering and stretch the lifecycle of existing products, so the producers of the technical information must manage, at the same time, more than one edition of their documents.

Internationalisation intensifies the burden even more, with the need to provide translated versions of documents. Indeed, it’s illegal to sell a product in the European Union if it doesn’t have documentation written in the language used in that country. That’s not to mention the  risk of out-of-date legal, safety and compliance information being sent out to customers.

This means there is often a need to produce lots of documents that are only slightly different from each other.

If these new documents are created by cutting content from one document and pasting it into another, you do not have an automatic way of keep each version of these documents up to date and consistent to each other. Someone has to remember to change “Document B” whenever “Document A” is updated – and have the time available to do it.

When many versions of the same core document exist, they have a habit of becoming more and more different from each other. Differences in wording and content start to creep in, which can lead to confusion in the minds of both your customers and your document authors.

It also means that same information can be written and translated more than once. Translation costs, even when “translation memory” software is used, can be very very expensive, so it makes sense to re-use existing content as much as possible.

In short, poor and inefficient management of content is expensive. Staff can spend hours dealing with content that’s unstructured, disorganised and unable to be reused. The company can waste money on unnecessary translation costs. As for the poor old customers – they can end up with  documents that just don’t meet their needs.

7 Comments

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Steve

Nice summary. Have you got a reference for “Indeed, it’s illegal to sell a product in the European Union if it doesn’t have documentation written in the language used in that country.” This may be pertinent to my future!

ellis

I’m pretty certain I read it in a report from TCeurope, and I think it was their SecureDoc report. The Directive related general product safety (GPSD)

“For comprehensibility a language that is understood
by the consumer is essential. This is stipulated for example
in chapter 5 of the council resolution of 17 December 1998 on operating instructions for technical consumer goods.”

Copy of SecureDoc report

Larry Czaplyski

I’ve been watching the introduction of single sourcing happen at different companies over the past few years here in the states. For whatever reason, I haven’t seen work neatly yet. Tools, while getting better, are still cumbersome and difficult for the average writer.

Vinish Garg

Thanks for the brief and nice summary. The benefits of single sourcing are clear; it saves (time, effort and money). However, the challenge is sometimes to make a business understand these benefits. A case study helps but sometimes it does not. I guess a case history with facts and statistics of how (and how much) single sourcing can help an organization save, can help. I am trying to work on such a case history. 🙂

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