Single source of truth (SSOT) describes a state of being for company knowledge. In this state, all company knowledge is stored and managed centrally. The knowledge is arranged and delineated in a way that avoids all overlaps and duplication.
In this post, we’ll explain what SSOT means, how to “get” a SSOT, what other people mean when they talk about a single source or single-sourcing, and the characteristics of a great system for SSOT.
It’s Like Zen
A SSOT is not a thing, it’s a state of being.
You can think of a single source of truth as zen.
Practitioners of zen say it’s an enhanced state of being. It is tough to achieve because it requires a process of practiced focus and effort. However, the process is valuable, even if the practitioner never becomes a guru.
In the same way, a single source of truth requires a process known as normalization. This process is also valuable even if the result isn’t a perfect SSOT environment.
Maintaining a SSOT is important because without it, information and data get siloed. You rely on data to make informed decisions for your organization, but what happens if you can’t find the data you’re looking for. Or if that data isn’t updated?
You’ll spend needless time tracking down the right data or end up creating inaccurate content.
But when you implement a SSOT, the right data is accessible to the right people at the right time.
So how do you get started?
First, let’s take a look at normalization and why it’s a valuable effort.
What is Normalization?
Normalization is spring cleaning for company knowledge. It consists of three primary steps:
- Componentize content
- Eliminate redundancy
- Reuse (reference or link) all content instead of copying/pasting
Componentizing content means that we break down the content into “building blocks” of knowledge.
Typical content management systems allow content creators to write content linearly. Writing in this linear manner means that ideas intertwine and overlap. This blog post is a perfect example. It addresses several topics, but if someone asked about any one of the topics covered, a single paragraph wouldn’t make much sense out of context.
Componentization of content means writing so that the content is independent of the surrounding context. Building blocks don’t depend on surrounding building blocks to “work.” Builders can rearrange and build fluidly.
Componentized content should work like building blocks.
Componentization is essential in a single source of truth. If you look ahead to steps two and three (eliminate redundancy and reuse content via referencing and links), you can see that if your content is not componentized, the other two steps are simply impossible. (Learn more about components and what a component content management system even is.)
Once an organization replaces linear documents with self-contained components of content, you can eliminate duplicates.
The exact data matches are easy to identify and eliminate, but similar components take effort to evaluate. With similar components, it is vital to determine if the differences are necessary.
However, many (if not most) of the differences between similar components are superficial. For example, two writers may communicate the same idea using different words. When the idea and the intent of the components are the same, those components should be consolidated.
Reuse Content (Not Copy and Paste)
After an organization has componentized and consolidated its content, there will be gaps in places where duplicates were eliminated.
The third and final step of normalization is to fill those gaps by reusing components.
In the context of a single source of truth, to reuse means to link or reference, not copy and paste.
Copy and pasting will undo all the progress made by eliminating redundancy.
Instead, organizations should reuse and link their existing componentized content. Developing a linking strategy is an essential discussion that your organization should have, mapping the linking plan out in a visual way that everyone can see is beneficial.
There are many “right ways” to do this, but there are also wrong ways.
A poor linking strategy will collapse under the weight of its interdependence. Content management will become undone, and the organization will be back where it started.
A clear linking strategy is crucial to maintaining a system that avoids duplicate content.
So, we know that a single source of truth is an elevated state of being for your company’s knowledge and that this state promotes consistency, but what if we can’t attain a perfect single source of truth?
Not everyone who meditates achieves zen, and not all who normalize their content achieve a perfect single source of truth.
In practice, a componentized topic written in a technical document should work in any setting, be it a pop-up in a walkthrough app, the FAQ at the bottom of a website, or the response for a customer-facing chatbot.
Unfortunately, we often construct documentation in a way that prevents this seamless reuse. Instead, it requires that we tweak or even re-write for the different outputs and publishing scenarios.
Is a Single Source of Truth Possible?
A perfect SSOT ecosystem is entirely self-contained, every point of data exists once, and there is a fully developed linking strategy.
Is it possible? Yes.
Is it realistic? Not for most organizations.
So what should those organizations do?
A Single-Source System
When we talk about a single source in the modern workplace, we are rarely actually talking about that zen-like state. Many organizations use a single-source system to help them achieve a SSOT.
A single-source system maintains many of the SSOT characteristics. It is a system that:
- Is component-based (not page, document, or file-based)
- Enables reuse via linking across departments or the entire company
- Manages company knowledge centrally
These three characteristics are crucial. Often, content systems will claim to be single-source systems, but they don’t enable componentization of content or even proper reuse management. These systems fall short of providing the bare minimum required to claim this status. They aren’t single-source systems.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the third characteristic. “Manages company knowledge centrally” is simple to articulate and simple in theory, but somehow, this effort falls apart in practice.
Despite the adoption of a single-source system, companies regularly find content silos popping up, continuing to cause knowledge gaps throughout the organization, and they find themselves right back where they started.
Why are content silos so difficult to eradicate?
Centralizing company knowledge is difficult to maintain because content naturally collects at its creation point. Too many systems allow creators to construct content in an editor and then upload the content to the system.
This kind of workflow isn’t sustainable. And it’s why many single-source systems fail. They enable good practices, but they don’t limit the harmful practices.
What works better is a system where content is created in the same system in which it is managed.
A Great Single-Source System Centralizes the Process
A great single-source system doesn’t just centralize the management of content; it also centralizes the process by which that content is developed.
Most content has at least four lifecycle stages:
A great single-source system allows users from across the organization to work on the same content within the same system.
Content strategists can plan based on what content already exists within the system. Rather than duplicating or re-writing, they can strategically reuse existing material.
Planning and reusing within the system improves accuracy and dramatically reduces the amount of time spent creating new materials.
If this single-source system includes a content editor, authors can focus on writing new components of content to fill in the gaps of knowledge. These new components can then be reused going forward.
Thanks to reuse, reviewing and editing content takes less time. Reviewing is one of the tasks that can often undermine a single-source system.
The system must enable collaborative reviews directly within the system so that content is not scattered and disorganized through outdated review cycles like printed PDFs or emails. A great single-source system should keep everyone working from the same material to avoid questions about the version history of the content.
Finally, a great single-source system enables publishing straight from the system. To maintain the content’s integrity, the system must be able to publish to multiple channels without the source content leaving the system.
Multi-channel publishing is the ability to turn a single deliverable into multiple, unique outputs without manually formatting the outputs.
So, the best single-source system should enable you to create, review, edit, and publish an idea from the same system. The publishing should be push-button simple without manually adjusting the formatting for different output formats.
These are the hallmarks of a great single-source system:
- All content exists in one place.
- All content development and review occur in that one place.
- All publishing occurs from that one place.
When you work from a single-source system, you can write once and publish everywhere.
Understanding a single source of truth is a crucial first step. It arms you with the knowledge to make an informed decision for your organization.
But how do you select a system to help you reach your goals?
Heretto is the leading tool on the market for true start-to-finish content development. We’ve helped many organizations transform their content from a huge, time-wasting headache, to an organized and easy-to-use asset.
This blog was updated in June 2022.