Sabine Ocker, Comtech Services
December 1, 2019

Moving to DITA from an unstructured publishing environment is no small feat.  The project has many workstreams and the average migration and implementation project can take up to two years. The main aspect of any migration project is the conversion of existing content into DITA XML files.

There are known costs associated with converting source content to DITA. Some choices will impact that cost. For example, whether to hire a conversion vendor or do the conversions in-house. This article delves into costs that may not be identified at the onset of the conversion project, namely writer and other team member cycles.

As one CIDM member stated during the October Roundtable: “Conversion is a productivity hit,” because writers are learning new tools and processes, but the productivity hit could be greater because of hidden time requirements. These hidden costs can take multiple forms.

The first is the pre-conversion clean-up.  How well your content aligns with topic-based writing guidelines and how consistent it is will determine your level of effort. Pre-conversion cleanup activities might include:

  • Rewriting and restructuring the new DITA XML
  • Applying topic-based writing or minimalism principles
  • Adding additional semantic intelligence via inline or metadata markup

Each of these will require an investment of writer time, either before or after moving the content to DITA. There are advantages and disadvantages to either strategy. You may have pragmatic realities such as a tight conversion timeline or a phased project influencing when it makes the most sense for you to invest.

Even if your conversion content cleanup becomes a part of your Content Creation Lifecycle, additional rewrite tasks could add 30% to writer time per release.

Making new versions of your documentation available on your delivery platform is the second potential hidden writer resource cost associated with content conversion. If you engage a vendor to convert the content for you, they will deliver the DITA XML files to an FTP site or file sharing service. Someone from your organization will need to complete these tasks:

  • Migrate the content into the cCMS
  • Add metadata as needed
  • Create publications
  • Apply keys, variables, or conditions
  • Apply transforms
  • Republish

Completing each task for every document in your content corpus will necessitate extra resource allocation. One CIDM member succinctly noted, “There is more to conversion than just a tool flip.”  Identifying a responsible person and a timeline is an important consideration when you are planning your conversion project.

Project management can be another hidden cost of conversion. Most conversion vendors will manage only their portions of a conversion project; creating the conversion specification and resulting conversion software, running the source content through the software, performing QA, and making the converted content available. However, there are non-vendor tasks to be managed, such as creating a content inventory, uploading content to the vendor, answering questions, and post-conversion content republishing.

The last writer cycles potential hidden cost is reviewing of the converted content. Even if your content is reasonably consistent and topic-based, it is still important to conduct a  visual inspection when the content is returned from the vendor. Some examples of mission-critical checks include:

  • Verify images and tables appear as expected in terms of size and alignment
  • Ensure all links within a topic or map are functional
  • Validate the DITA XML is in alignment with your information model
  • Confirm that metadata needed for permissions, access, or location on your delivery platform are in place
  • Establish conditionalized content has been excluded

Proper planning is the best prevention for incurring hidden costs during your content conversion. Creating a core team and defining what is required for each step of the process decreases the likelihood something unexpected will pop up. One CIDM member’s comment underscores this point —”Planning and standardization of conversion are really important for not painting yourself into a corner.”

Planning for conversion generally involves the following steps:

  • Establishing a team
  • Creating a content inventory and conversion prioritization (if you aren’t converting everything in your content corpus)
  • Deciding whether to convert in-house or to hire a conversion vendor
  • Determining how much pre-conversion work to invest in

An accurate up-to-date content inventory is a must-have for any successful conversion project. Assembling a robust set of details about every content object on your delivery platform can take up to three months to develop, especially if you need input from other organizations such as Product Management or Engineering.