Use a fog index to clear up enterprise content confusion

If the word processor I’m using to write this has a fog index, I can’t find it.

A colleague recently asked me about fox indexes, believing that it used to be a feature embedded in an early version of Corel’s WordPerfect. For the uninitiated, a fog index refers to a way to measure the reading level required to understand a piece of written content. Developed by American businessman Robert Gunning in the 1950s, it usually relates to the comprehension of grade school students. A newspaper like the Globe and Mail, for example, is probably written for someone with a grade 10 education. A supermarket tabloid is probably aimed several notches lower. You can probably already guess the implications for content management in the enterprise.

Right now, a lot of content is being managed according to its use within the organization. If it’s a sales report or strategy document, for example, it might be stored in a corporate intranet or feed into a data warehouse. If it’s customer information such as contact details or transaction record, it could wind up in everything from an ERP system to a CRM system, and probably both. We don’t normally think of such software systems as content management repositories, but as the raw data becomes more annotated – and therefore more useful – it will increasingly be treated as content.

We tend to manage content the same way we do people. We assign content priorities, based on the kinds of people who would have access to it and where it is used within the enterprise. We give content deadlines (for how long it is stored.) We evaluate a piece of content’s performance – how well it helps to make a decision, or whether people take notice of it at all. What may be missing in many cases is any measurement on how well content is really understood by those who encounter it.

You can assume that most people working in a corporate enterprise have at least a high school education, and probably some post-secondary degree as well, but that doesn’t mean the playing field is all that level. There are many people, for example, who command better oral than written skills, or who don’t spend much of their free time reading. This is in part why a fog index was useful to media companies. By figuring out who their audience was, they could try and craft content that would best match the level that would be straightforward to an average member of that audience. Not surprisingly, the more broad your audience the lower the fog index level needs to be. And as countless bloggers know, writing clearly is not as easy as it sounds.

IT professionals often deal in obtuse jargon that creates a barrier between them and their enterprise counterparts. Many of them work on that, coming up with a way to discuss technology problems in layman’s terms. As IT facilitates more information-sharing in companies, however, the needs of particular departments may become more granular. A CFO could make much better sense of certain regulatory documents, for example, than someone in marketing. The fog index in that case should be adjusted. Senior management strategies in particular are often drafted in “highbrow” terms that mean little to the admin staff on the ground who are expected to carry out their wishes. In their case, the fog index should be fairly low.

Future software will demand a way to automate (or perhaps “translate” is a better word) the details of enterprise content to match intended recipients. These features will not come overnight, nor will they come without considerable error, especially in the early days. For now, we still have to work a lot more manually to see through the fog as best we can.

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