The great promise of XML, and SGML before it, has always been to enable organizations to create content once -- in an open, vendor-neutral format -- and then use it in as many formats as possible, including print, CD, the Web and more. The stumbling block, traditionally, has been that business users and markup languages such as XML have not always been an easy marriage. Because the average user is comfortable and productive with other tools (and often proprietary ones), content-management initiatives involving business users have often languished.
Merrill Lynch, however, discovered that some of its technology initiatives were going to force the issue of having business users coming face to face with XML-based content.
"We are in the process of turning all of our applications into Web services," says Robert Kovacs, assistant vice president, marketing technology group in Merrill Lynch's United States Private Clients (USPC) Retail Brokerage Division. "Our goal is to have both vendor independence and platform independence."
A key part of this push to Web services is the implementation of what Merrill is calling the Content Publishing Management System -- a Documentum-based initiative that will store all content in XML modules that will then be used to produce all print and electronic products. Kovacs' group embarked on this project in the summer of 2002, had a beta version of the system in use by December and plans to roll it out to all the users by this spring.
According to Kovacs, a Web-services approach for content means breaking down content into XML and then providing automated processes for delivering content to different channels. "XML is a logical form for the content capture and distribution," he explains. "It allows us to distill the content to the least common denominator."
This standards-based approach has several practical benefits for Merrill. "Besides not being tied to any vendor," says Kovacs, "our content is not tied to any channel. An author creates the content once, and it is then distributed in multiple channels. In the past, we had different content creators for each channel. Not only is this a duplication of effort, it makes it more difficult to control the marketing message."
Merrill has reorganized recently to put all the marketing content creators in one organization; the XML-based content management initiative "helps us solve the operational problem," Kovacs explains.
To overcome resistance among the hundreds of analysts and other financial professionals who would be interacting with the XML content, Kovacs' team focused on the user experience. The group developed a user interface for content creation and editing that combines the form-like (or template) elements that have become the standard in Web content management applications with an XML editing program that provides WYSIWYG editing and XML validation.
"Our users are not technologists, but they need to get the content into XML," noted Kovacs. While some aspects of content entry and editing can be accomplished with templates, Kovacs says the company needed "a familiar authoring process for free-flowing text."
So while some content elements could be handled with a Documentum-content entry template, which could use fields to map to the XML elements, Merrill still needed to solve the problem of how to provide a WYSIWYG editing interface for longer text blocks.
To provide a word processor-like experience while still creating and working with XML, Merrill Lynch is using eWebEditPro+XML, a browser-based XML editor from Ektron, Amherst, NH. The tool combines full validation of XML with WYSIWYG display and editing features such as tables, images and style sheet handling. Once content creators have finished a document, Merrill Lynch developers can isolate chunks of text for free-form editing while still providing the XML validation their publishing operations require. Kovacs says the mix of ease of use and content validation has advanced the organization's goal of storing content in an open, standard format.