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How Do You Connect Content Silos? Crosswalks!


Marketing silos, tech comm silos, customer service silos, and so on – they must come down, say content professionals everywhere. Bust them! Bash them! Break down the walls!

The impetus to bust silos makes sense. As Ann Rockley says in Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy” (2nd edition, Page 6), “Content silos result in increased costs, decreased productivity, reduced quality, ineffective content, and unhappy customers.”

Unfortunately, terms like bust  don’t help us. What can we do with a busted silo? Let’s talk instead about connecting  silos, as Cleve Gibbon urged Intelligent Content Conference attendees to do.

This tweet quotes Cleve’s keynote talk at the Intelligent Content Conference in March.

Or we might borrow this phrasing from the same conference (Don Day quoting IBM’s Michael Priestley): “Make silos permeable.”

Long-time technical communicator Mark Baker puts it this way:

“We talk about breaking down silos, as if everyone would be able to transparently talk to and understand each other if only we pushed all their desks together in one big room. But that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the differences between us are deep, based on years of focus on different domains of experience. And [silos] are necessary, because those different domains of experience are based on real jobs that need doing, and the language that we develop that enables us to do them. Diversity of language may be a barrier to communication, but it is an absolute necessity for us all getting our respective work done. (Diversity of experience, not language, being the real barrier.)

“We should be focusing, therefore, not on breaking down walls but on building bridges.”

Doesn’t that sound ideal? Permeable silos connected by bridges. I can practically hear the rasp and tumble of content flowing, like so many corn cobs, from one silo to another.

Who is connecting silos?

I wonder how many enterprises are building these kinds of bridges between silos. IBM is, at least to some extent, as Andrea Ames notes in a recent interview.

Beyond wondering who, I wonder how. How do we content professionals make silos permeable and connected? Where do we punch the holes? How do we build the … connector thingies?

In search of an answer, I flipped back through Managing Enterprise Content. Those connector thingies, it turns out, have a name.


What is a crosswalk?

For starters, let’s look at how Managing Enterprise Content  describes this term. I’m lifting this section verbatim with Ann’s permission from a sidebar that appears in the book (Pages 196–7) entitled Crosswalk:

“In many large organizations…different departments often use different terms for the same thing. Marketing and sales may share data in a customer relationship management (CRM) system. Service may store their own information (with their own internal relationships) in a knowledge management (KM) system, and the product content department may have a content management system (CMS) of their own.

“A crosswalk can help you compare these competing information sets. It’s not without its challenges, but completing one can give you a great start in organizing your own information so it meets a wide variety of needs and can tap into the shared knowledge in the company.

“A simple example of the differences in the three systems is in how a document is named. The CRM system refers to the name of a document such as a brochure with the metadata tag Title. The KM system calls it Subject, and the CMS uses a combination of Information product and Title. The CMS introduces further complexity: it uses Title in multiple ways, because a title can exist at many levels in an XML document—for example, document title, section title, and subsection title are all considered titles, but are clarified by their location in the document hierarchy. [This figure] illustrates a sample crosswalk.


“The first purpose of the crosswalk is to identify shared and diverging usage of information between different information systems. Once this has been done, you can use it as a basis of rationalizing the information in them, either by renaming the different elements, or by linking them together—using a system to equate the Title in the CRM system and the Subject in the KM with the Information product and Title in the CMS. If you do plan to set up a crosswalk to link information, be sure to clearly identify the rules that were used to make the connections and track the decisions that were made.

“You can also consider using crosswalks when your metadata terms change. For example, a product may have had a specific name for a year, but is renamed in a new product offering. You don’t want to have to try to retrieve both the old product name (particularly when new people start and don’t even know the old product name) and the new product name. Instead, you can use a crosswalk to map the old product name to the new product name.”

More on crosswalks

Crosswalks. What a promising concept. Color me intrigued! Unfortunately, my Google searching turned up only a few articles, old ones written in academic language that means little to me (like the language found in Issues in Crosswalking Content Metadata Standards).

So I wondered. How well do crosswalks work? Who owns them? How do decisions get made? Can crosswalks be as simple as a spreadsheet, as illustrated here? What other forms might they take? How might an organization prove their value?

Enter the co-author of Managing Enterprise Content, Charles Cooper. Having worked on projects involving crosswalks, Charles clarified for me in an email (bolding is mine) that crosswalks “can indeed be as simple as a spreadsheet or they can be seemingly infinitely complex.”

Charles goes on to say,

“The thing is, in the words of Stephen Covey, ‘begin with the end in mind.’ Why are you considering a crosswalk? Are you attempting to document everything for all time? Or are you using it as an examination and discovery process? Simple manual crosswalks are fantastic exercises to examine your content or to understand how it has been created, used, documented, or tagged.

“More often than not, we just don’t know what we don’t know, and so a cross-disciplinary crosswalk can be just a tool to help us learn more about our content. It could also teach us more about the different facets of our organization and how these different parts work (or don’t work) together. We can’t really talk to each other, much less share content, if we are all calling things by different names. The crosswalk is a great tool to help us understand what’s in each other’s silos.

So far, so good. But who owns the crosswalk? Who runs it? Here’s what Charles says:

“It’s different for different companies because each company is distinct, but in general the people who are most often in charge or regarded as process owners are those who want most to share the content.

“This is usually the group who is responsible for creating public-facing content: technical communications, marketing, labeling, etc. Sometimes marketing is the driver here because they know that they have to get their source information from somewhere and are tired of looking for information and either not finding what they’re looking for or finding too much contradictory information.

“It might be the people who are responsible for publishing information rather than creating it. In some companies they are responsible for the final QA. They are frustrated with inconsistent information from different departments. ‘Don’t you people talk to each other?’ was one comment I heard at an initial crosswalk discussion!

“Sometimes, if the crosswalk is focused on the behind-the-scenes stuff – the metadata or controlled vocabulary that is managed by an IT group – IT will be the owners since they have a greater ability to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and figure out what some of the problems are. In some cases they (like the publishing people) see a lot of content for a lot of groups and can recognize the inconsistencies between terms used.

“In many cases, of course, it is the technical communication or documentation group that becomes the crosswalk owner.”

One of Charles’ “most interesting cases” was a large telecommunications company. He describes this case as follows (bolding mine).

“Upper management was keen to improve their processes and to get the benefits of consistent content, but they were reluctant to spend the money for a CCMS [component content management system] or to change the way they created content.

“The company had a number of divisions that produced similar products for different markets. Each group could see that they were doing too much work creating and managing similar content for their own markets, but due to political pressures within the company, there was strong pressure not to work together.

“But we (and they) found this frustrating, and we quickly saw that it was going to be impossible to align the content in a formal manner in a short timeframe. We could also see that a well directed crosswalk could be used to examine and harmonize the content so that the writers could share content more easily without an expensive system.

“If they could demonstrate how informal cooperation could help, they felt that their ability to get an actual CCMS in place would be more likely in the future. And that’s what happened.

“I worked with them and conducted a series of customized content and metadata crosswalks. We looked at the content they were creating, how they named or described products and processes, and, where possible, we looked at the metadata they used in their separate systems to find their content within their own silos.

“We found out (not surprisingly) that there was a huge amount of overlap, in the content and its metadata. If they could link the terms and metadata they were using, and agree (where possible) on using shared descriptions rather than creating highly customized, very targeted ones, they could indeed reuse more content to produce information more quickly and save money – all compelling arguments.

“Indeed, when the technical communications department (who were the owners of the crosswalk) were able to show upper management what could be accomplished by harmonizing content, and what they had accomplished in cooperation with the other two departments, they were given the go-ahead to implement a CCMS.

“The results of this manual, informal crosswalk were used as a baseline for a more complete crosswalk – a full investigation into their content strategy, metadata harmonization, and controlled vocabularies.

“In short, the crosswalk worked!”

How about you?

Have you ever seen a crosswalk in action? Can you attest to its value in “harmonizing content”? What tips, metrics, or examples can you share with your fellow content pros? Please share your story in a comment.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute