Technical writing supported by a PLM system – A better approach for the creation of product documentation

In this article you will learn the concept of PLM-supported authoring and single-source publishing, as well as the benefits compared to a stand-alone authoring solution or isolated Content Management Systems.

Technical writing and the creation of quality product documentation is a complex field with many pitfalls that have been eliminated with modern tools. Unstructured authoring and mishandling of files on network drives are issues of the past. A modern Component Content Management System (CCMS) offers the functionality and controls necessary to support the author during the editing and publishing process.  

You’ve just implemented a new CCMS …

Today’s systems on the market bring these rich features:

  • Database supported content management
  • Separation from content and form (XML authoring)
  • An information framework which defines structure, content elements and rules (DITA, S1000D just to name a few)
  • Translation control
  • Single-source publishing to different layouts and formats

Strengths and weaknesses are often revealed during the implementation process. The CCMS of your choice most likely comes with its own database, a proprietary file server, needs to be integrated with other systems, has its own user management, has its own support for release processes and workflows, etc. In short, you’ve just created another island-solution within the growing IT landscape of your company.

Getting down into the details

To further streamline and automate the creation of product documentation, data from other systems is needed. Because the CCMS is not connected to any other systems in the company, you need to consider building interfaces to push, pull or synchronize data. Once this is done, you’ll need to constantly monitor these interfaces to ensure everything is functioning smoothly until the next maintenance window …

Because the CCMS also has its own user management facility, you’ll be adding another user credential system to the growing list or you’ll have to once again enhance the configuration of your single-sign-on environment.

Consider your document approval workflow. The CCMS is not directly connected to your company’s Document Management System (DMS). This often means you’ll need to duplicate the output and keep copies in both your CMMS and in your DMS.

Let’s summarize

The CCMS, without doubt, supports and enhances your authoring process. Moving from (unstructured) writing in a word processor and managing files without version control to structured authoring in XML and controlling files in a modern content management system is a quantum leap in efficiency and control.

However, decision makers should be familiar with the downsides of a stand-alone system, especially when evaluating a new company-wide solution for technical documentation:

  • It increases complexity of existing IT landscapes
  • It creates additional costs associated with the setup and maintenance
    • Additional servers
    • Additional databases
    • Additional storage space
    • Integrations with other systems
  • It creates additional running costs associated with additional systems and tools needed
  • It incorporates different processes and workflows which often minimizes the new time-savings
  • It (still) creates redundant content