DocTrain West 2009 – Day Three

Day three kicked off with a keynote by Stewart Mader on (surprise, surprise) structured content and wikis in the enterprise. More to the point, the unstructured content that exists in an organization in various forms.

Mader started his talk with a story about the near-capsizing off Alaska of the ship the Cougar Ace. The thrust of the story was that the situation is a perfect metaphor technology and business: the cargo of the ship us a metaphor for the people in an organization, and the ship’s ballast is a metaphor for the content in an organization.

When things go well with all those factors, all is good. When they go wrong with people and content, then a business runs into problems. Mader focused on the problem of unstructured content such as email and Word files.

What happens when you have unstructured content and want to structure it? With the way things are done in most organizations, you get chaos — too many versions, too many files spread across too many hard drives and servers. A wiki, on the other hand, can be a useful tool to structure content.

Using FLOSS Manuals as an example, he illustrated how a wiki can help people collaborate and reconcile various bits of content into a cohesive and structured whole.

Mader then asked whether the final goal of reuse is to regurgitate or remix? Both are important, and you really can’t look at one without looking at the other.

Stated that wiki shouldn’t be used if you need an approval process. Wikis are for gathering information, collaborating on that information, and reusing that information. If you need an approval process or to create more forms of output then you need to look closely at a CMS.

In a great example of reuse, Mader discussed writing a book using a wiki — something he discussed in a session at DocTrain West 2008. You can read more about that here.

The point of the example was to illustrate that you could have arom relatively unstructured content (a brain dump, more or less), and move it to a more structured form all within a wiki. Then, with a little technological legerdemain you can move it out into another document format.

Mader also advocated the use of templates, but allow the templates to be a bit more free form. When need to lock them in, he said, take the content out of the wiki and put it into a CMS or publishing system. He also pointed out that you’re not locked into a wiki; when you’re ready to take the content out the wiki will not hinder you.

One misconception that Mader tried to burst was that mass collaboration isn’t the goal of an enterprise wiki. The goal is individual group collaboration. Mass collaboration just doesn’t work — he pointed out that people who never worked together before a wiki don’t work with each other after a wiki is introduced. If cross-departmental collaboration grows thanks to a wiki, that’s great. But it shouldn’t be the measure of success of a wiki.

Shareware and freeware tools for tech comm

Back in the day, I was given the nickname Batman by some colleagues. Why? Because I had a whole whack of freeware and shareware tools — my utility belt — for working with text and HTML files and graphics and a whole lot of other things. Those tools saved us a lot of time and effort.

In the intervening years, my reliance on those kinds of tools has waned. Partly because I found other ways to do things (including writing my own Perl scripts) and partly because many of my subsequent employers had restrictions on installing unapproved software on desktops.

Still, those tools are on my mind. Which is why I attended Ed Marshall‘s talk on using freeware and shareware tools to increase your productivity and accuracy. That, and I had to get to one of his sessions after missing three previous ones (Ed teased me about that at the cocktail reception the night before).

The talk was a good introduction to the tools, and the concepts and potential uses of those tools. It was specific to Windows, but since that’s the dominant desktop platform right now there’s a good reason he did that.

Marshall’s philosophy is a good one: let the computer do the working. With the right tools, a computer can do things faster, more efficiently, and more accurtately than you can by hand.

He talked about several types of tools, including:

  • Search, replace, comparison, and merge
  • Text editors
  • Desktop search
  • Backup and security

All of them cost nothing, or are very affordable. And they’re useful for a variety of tasks like working with developer/API documentation (Marshall’s area of expertise), comparing binary and ASCII files (and doing searching and replacing with them), and even just managing your files.

Marshall focused on the tools he uses most frequently, like NotePad Pro (an old favourite of mine from the days when I used Windows), Beyond Compare, Araxis Merge, Funduc, Copernic Desktop Search and many others.

In addition to discussing and demonstrating the tools, Marshall also weaved in some examples of how he used them on the job. One example was when he and the director of engineering at a company at which he was consulting were working (in parallel) on identical sets of Help and Manual source files. For two weeks. Imagine trying to manually reconcile that much information. What Marshall did was generate two sets of WebHelp then compared them with a tool called Beyond Compare. He was able to do the job in a few hours thanks to the tool.

When he discussed security tools for the desktop (and those are a must for the independent consultant), he offered a good strategy: go with layers of applications — a firewall, an anti virus tool, a couple of anti spyware tools, and the like.

Marshall gave a great piece of advice: think about what you need to do and find the right tool to do the job. Chances are that:

  1. You’ll need more than one tool — a single app can’t do everything you need
  2. You can find one that’s free or very cheap

(A quick note of thanks to Ed for giving me that materials for his API session. Yes, I do want to take the full one, and will one day …)

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