Navigating the Road to a Business-driven Data Conversion Strategy

Interview with Tammy Bilitzky, CIO, Data Conversion Laboratory, Inc.

Tammy Bilitzky, CIO, Data Conversion Laboratory, on data conversion strategyEquipped with years of program management and product management expertise, Tammy Bilitzky came to Data Conversion Laboratory, Inc. (DCL) in April, 2013. Her goal:  to expand the company’s successful focus on high-quality, efficient conversions to best meet its clients’ present and future needs. She enthusiastically articulates her strategy as DCL’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) with a few keywords:  big data, analytics and enterprise mobility. To her, while data conversion is complex and navigating a road toward a data conversion strategy is challenging, getting there is anything but boring.

Tammy has spent her entire career in technology, most of it “leading teams focused on document imaging, content management, and more recently ECM and product management.” The move to DCL has proven to be a good fit, because as CIO, she knows her focus must be on business drivers, and at the heart of the business is data—that has to be discovered, converted, structured, analyzed, and tailored in ways that support business decisions and strategy. And what’s true for DCL is true for their clients.

“When I doubled as a PM, I became very familiar with how quickly training manuals became obsolete, and why they became obsolete,” she says. “Looking back I realize that if we had leveraged structured authoring, we could have built help systems that were core to the product, without the problems of them becoming dated so quickly.”

DCL and data conversion strategyTammy looks to help DCL clients figure out how to move quickly, to make content mobile and purposeful by inventorying and organizing, using, and securing the data stored throughout the enterprise in a structured and business-driven way. “The quicker you take advantage of the technologies, the quicker you can move,” she claims, “and the more advantage you can take and differentiate yourself from the competition.”

Road to Data Conversion Strategy: Discover What You Have

data conversion strategy - discoveryThe first step, and often one of the biggest stumbling blocks, for any organization embarking on a data conversion strategy is to figure out what data they have. Organizations have a wide variety of shared repositories such databases, flat files, websites, content management systems, wikis and shared drives, but Tammy cautions that data ends up in many more places. “Do you know what’s on your file and print servers, attached to email, hidden away on local hard drives, or locked in file rooms and filing cabinets? No matter what the format, that data has some potential for the organization, and your strategy defines how, and if, you unlock and use it.”

DCL recently partnered with CIDM (Center for Information Development Management) to survey practitioners who have had some kind of experience in data conversion, and found that while most acknowledge the vast quantities of data produced within their organizations, 61 percent state that their current content will not support customers’ future requirements, and 74 percent fear they don’t have the bandwidth to convert the content. That’s a huge challenge for most organizations.

Tammy looks back to her time in digital imaging to advise companies starting to grapple with their legacy content. “We used two concepts to plan: first, how to handle your new content and make sure it is viable for the future; and second how to address your back-file, the masses of legacy data you have accumulated over time in a wide variety of formats. Define your vision for the future and implement best practices to leverage your new content to achieve the vision. At the same time, don’t forget your back-file, your existing content that may have high-value data required to drive your business forward.” This means keeping business concerns front and center as the organization gets started with inventorying what they have. “Prioritize your content inventory based your core business, your clients’ or customers’ needs and tackle it in that order,” she explains. “What is it; where is it located; and, what format is it in? are key questions to ask when organizing that information.”

Road to Data Conversion Strategy: Determine What Data Drives Your Business

data conversion strategy - driversThe CIDM/DCL 2013 trends survey also found 25 percent of information development practitioners said they lack support from senior management for data conversion, despite the fact that nearly three-quarters expect to publish content electronically by the end of 2013, and more than half say that their company’s content is not ready for publishing electronically.

Tammy argues that this points to a common disconnect. “CIOs understand that they need to differentiate, to understand business drivers, etc., and that they need data to do that.” Content teams should focus on these business drivers, and how the data locked away in legacy content can be collected and used. “It can’t just be about the technology. They need to build a business case—one that articulates business needs, resonates with management, and points out the road map.”

DCL encounters many organizations that have passing familiarity with the concepts of “big data” and “analytics,” and need a way to use these tools to get to the “enterprise mobility” that most management teams strive for.  The data conversion strategy must account for what devices will present data to what customers or employees, as well as the format, delivery methods and criticality of content to present on those devices. “Do people really understand where they will get the data? Is it buried in documents in a DMS, hard copy, shared network drives?” Tammy asks. “Then they should be asking ‘where is it,’ ‘how do I get it,’ ‘how do I structure it,’ and ‘what format should I use to ensure its continued value?” For many organizations, this analysis leads to the classic “buy or build?” question to implement a solution for data conversion.

Road to Data Conversion Strategy: Choose the Right Solution

Tammy recommends that clients think carefully about the buy-or-build question in terms of the business drivers, the existing content, and structure. “Content conversion is a complex industry, with patterns and anomalies that you can miss without the expertise and understanding of experienced professionals and proven tools.”

“Every client has a way that they prefer to operate, some want to do in-house; some want to throw it over their shoulder and have us get back to them when it’s finished; and others are fully engaged every step of the way. We leverage our methodology, focusing on quality and value. If someone comes to us for an end-to-end solution, we adhere to our proven methodology to deliver a high-quality, efficient solution.”

In the real world, the smaller the company, the less likely they are to have the budget for outside resources. Tammy counters that objection by pointing out “the more important it is to do it right the first time. We give the same level of service to smaller clients, and we capitalize on the products we’ve already developed and put in place… For these clients, ‘buy versus build’ is answered simply by buying usage of the products in our conversion suite, where we share proven, measurable results.” She points out that DCL’s “On-demand offerings are great for small clients” who have short-term needs or smaller projects.

Road to Data Conversion Strategy: Take the Agile Approach

data conversion strategy - agile solutionAccording to Tammy, today’s organizations need to look at “agile documents and agile data” in the context of developing and implementing a comprehensive “strategy about documents, data, usage, and the ability to flow data in ways that facilitate enterprise mobility.”

During her stints in project and delivery management, Tammy became a Certified Agile Scrum Master, and she advocates the approach in developing and implementing the organization’s data conversion strategy. “Agile is the way to go in 2013. Companies are no longer willing to let you go away and develop content in a vacuum, and come back hoping that it matches their business needs.”

Agile is a particularly useful methodology for data conversion and content development, she says, because “it’s not always possible to define all requirements up front.  In product development, we define objectives, develop framework, reach out to SMEs, and develop incremental conversion products that support normal variations in content and quality. The same is true with documentation—it’s incremental.”

“Conversion lends itself to an agile methodology,” Tammy notes, and DCL has been able to easily incorporate agile into its quality management approach to client engagements. “We produce a sample, quality check and revise. Then we can do production sample sprints, incrementally moving to production sprints.  This process lets us quickly address issues and changes as they come up and adapt our approach as warranted.  It is a terrific tool for ensuring that our final product truly meets the defined business objectives.”

Road to Data Conversion Strategy: Leverage Outside Expertise

Tammy describes the one area that surprised her as she ramped up with DCL. “I did not appreciate the extensive quality control aspects that DCL has mastered. Sometimes it makes sense to do pre-conversion editing, such as [MS] Word styling, to improve the initial conversion results, and an automated quality check after the conversion to detect and resolve anomalies. Tables and figures, as well as math equations in general, don’t always convert so easily.” In fact DCL employs a dynamic and diverse team of experts, such as those that specialize in converting tables and editing mathematical formulas.

This kind of expertise usually can’t be found inside of companies looking to do data conversion, and Tammy points out that it rarely makes sense to plan conversion of complex content solely with in-house resources. “Why divert resources from your core business to focus on something that’s a specialty?”

Instead companies should leverage outside expertise to do the heavy lifting, as evidenced in the survey results, which show that 23 percent believe they don’t have expertise in house. “Understand what you have, identify a methodology, and partner with the right firm to guide you through the process, so you know you can support business objectives,” she recommends.

Road to Data Conversion Strategy: Other Signposts

data conversion strategy - expertiseTammy pointed out several other important factors to keep in mind as companies move down their own road to implementing a data conversion strategy.

Change Management

Often data conversion plays a dual role in the organization, providing critical support for change management and business process transformation. Tammy suggests that organizations focus on their business drivers and key processes. “Remember that much of business process transformation is workflow-centric, fueled by data and documents.”

She reemphasizes the need to build a business case, especially if the company plans to work with a content conversion partner. “Look at how it addresses overall business needs, productivity, compliance, enterprise mobility, big data analytics. Estimate your ROI, and the risk of NOT having the data that you need to drive your business forward.”

Tackling the business case for data conversion is both “top-down and bottom-up, because everyone appreciates the value of data,” Tammy says. “A strong partner can help you make sure that people understand that there’s a clearly defined path to achieve your business goals and maximize productivity. All of this is integral to your business model.”

Legal and Regulatory Concerns

In today’s global business climate, privacy, discovery, and other legal and regulatory concerns underscore a complex data challenge for businesses. Teams involved in data conversion and content management should recognize that “Documents stored on unsecured storage media may have PI [Personal Information] data that should be protected. Retention periods are critical. You need to ensure that that you have the information you need, and don’t have the information you don’t need,” she warns. “You must build relationships with internal partners—Legal, Records Management, Audit and Compliance, and so on, to understand the specific implications for your organization. Ignorance is not bliss. You have to know the requirements so you can manage your content appropriately.”

For teams that are wrestling with executive buy-in, Tammy suggests that the “group in the position to drive the data conversion solutions most effectively is often the Legal department, due to the risks of litigation and penalties.” Couple that with the need for enterprise mobility and analytics, then “find executive sponsors in these two areas, and everything tends to fall in place.”

Quality Requirements

Tammy notes that clients should be aware that more stringent quality requirements may translate to additional costs, which can vary according to the type of content. And some data may not justify the additional conversion costs. Working with your conversion experts, you can select the right solution that works for your firm and is both high-quality and cost-effective.

She also points out the importance of content conversion and the quality inherent in using reusable formats such as DITA. “Obviously there are different ways to organize information, and businesses should concentrate on structuring their data for the future, in a way that promotes quality data, such as building topics.”

In the survey, 61 percent believe current content won’t support customer requirements. “I don’t think that means content exclusively, it also means format.” She recommends simplifying by implementing a format that’s reusable and structured. “We don’t know what the future will bring, and structured data provides management with organized information and the benefit of not having to do this twice.”

Conclusion

Tammy believes that the road to building a data conversion strategy is unique to every organization, but that they all share some common navigation points:

  • Identify business drivers. “Sit down with your business and understand what your data needs are.  What do you have, what is useful to the business?”
  • Inventory the content. “Once you know your sources and your targets, you can determine the best formats.”
  • Choose the right approach and solution. She recommends agile because it delivers incremental conversion products with appropriate quality metrics. DCL offers end-to-end solutions as well as smaller scale on-demand data conversion options and every flavor in-between.
  • Partner with the right people. “You’ll want to partner both with your business experts and with conversion experts to get from point A to point B.” She notes that DCL team spends a significant portion of their time on quality control software, detecting and resolving anomalies.

“Once you have a data conversion strategy and are delivering on it, you’re no longer in the world of redo, you’re in the world of reuse. And the key is the quality of the data,” Tammy says.

“Content is at the core of all it. Data structured properly is reusable, positioned for the future. Data that drives your business, available in formats that you can leverage to differentiate yourself from the competition is the foundation for growth. Those that understand how critical this is and jump on the bandwagon will be heroes at the end of the day.” And Tammy aims to make DCL customers heroes, by becoming “a one stop shop for conversion needs and expertise.”

Tammy Bilitzky, CIO of Data Conversion Laboratory, invites TechWhirl readers to check out the DCL webinar schedule at www.dclab.com and to join the conversation in the company’s LinkedIn group, Content Conversion Strategies. She welcomes feedback on the issues and challenges related to data conversion and enterprise mobility.

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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