Dare I “Do DITA” Without a CMS? You could but…

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August 2008

Dare I “Do DITA” Without a CMS? You could but…

CIDMIconNewsletterHoward Schwartz and Chip Gettinger, Trisoft

Well, you could “Do DITA” without a Content Management System (CMS). But it wouldn’t be the brightest thing you ever did. At least that is the consensus that seems to be emerging from a shift in how technical communication organizations are now approaching the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). This new approach, which deploys a DITA-enabled CMS much earlier in the process of moving to DITA, represents a shift from the best practice only two or three years ago. At that time, it was commonplace to start DITA with just authoring and publishing tools and perhaps a directory system, delaying any decision about content management until much later. But the thinking about methodology and best practices has now changed, and it is really no surprise. After all, the goal of DITA is in part to achieve more flexibility and agility as a business. Yet, trying to implement DITA without a content management system is like trying to bake a cake without all the ingredients. It defeats part of the purpose. That at any rate is the conclusion reached by more and more recent adopters of DITA. They have deployed the DITA-enabled CMS much earlier in the process of moving to DITA. And they have done so because they believe that they will reduce the time to DITA adoption and achieve their ROIs and other long-term benefits faster.

There are of course still some skeptics. Some very large, visible organizations are using DITA without any CMS. And they have various tricks for solving the problem of not having a CMS. They copy directories when it is time for new versions, or they write scripts to rename files and try to write applications on top of their source control system to turn them into DITA repositories. They have various creative ways to manage links for topics, maps, and images. But all this is now changing among the broader community that is adopting DITA. Organizations moving to DITA are now adopting a DITA-enabled CMS much earlier in the process of moving to DITA.

Just As Corporate Web Sites Require A CMS, So Too DITA

To understand this trend, an analogy is illuminating from the now familiar and well-established domain of Web site management. Today, companies that are serious about their Web presence never think twice about needing a content management system, which is regarded as a standard requirement for Website management.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the beginning of the Internet, companies threw up their corporate Websites, and their individual Web masters first used only Notepad and then HTML editors to create Web pages. They also used directory systems to store content. That worked for a time for the first generation websites. But it was not too long before Web masters and their larger marketing organizations discovered two important facts about their websites that drove them to adopt Web content management systems: 1) the manageability of the site was impossible without a content management system and 2) the website had become a critical business tool by which the corporation interacted with customers and thus a key platform for establishing a brand and selling products. Both of these factors drove the growing adoption of a new type of CMS specialized for the Web.

These realizations about websites evolved hand-in-hand. Corporations realized fairly quickly that websites were more than simply “nice to have” information sites but were in fact becoming robust tools for interacting with customers, articulating corporate brand, and driving product sales. But with that realization also came the problem of manageability. Organizations were quickly learning that corporate Websites (at least good ones) were dynamic, evolving creatures needing serious management by a collaborative team and not simply a Web master. While HTML editors were initially good for hiding HTML code and thus some complexity, they couldn’t support the website as a critical business process and platform. Without the CMS, marketing organizations couldn’t track versions of files, update headers and metadata across hundreds of pages, and set permissions on who could and could not edit areas of the site. In other words, using only HTML editors and directory systems, the Web marketing teams couldn’t easily track all the changes, manage updates, links, and images, and integrate into back-end Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and e-commerce systems. Finally, the business drivers for expansion into global markets pushed the limits of many Web marketing teams with the requirement for micro-sites supporting multiple languages with content tailored to local markets and a need to keep websites synchronized across global audiences.

These were the drivers that led to the specialization of and wide adoption of the now ubiquitous Web content management systems. But in the early days many asked the same question that adopters of DITA are asking now. Do I really need a specialized CMS? The case of the Web suggests an unequivocal “yes.”

Indeed, factors similar to those in the Web evolution are now driving the adoption of specialized content management systems for DITA. Some are calling these “DITA-enabled” or “component” content management systems. But the clear impulse is to adopt specialized content management systems that specifically address the problem of managing DITA.

Figure 1 illustrates how the adoption of a DITA-enabled CMS early in the process of DITA adoption can speed time to productivity.

NewMethodologies -- Trisoft

Figure 1: Adoption of DITA-CMS Speeds Time To Productivity

DITA is evolving the same way as the Web

The business drivers leading to the adoption of DITA are similar to those that drove corporate Web adoption. Corporations are moving to DITA because they see the significant business benefits that can be achieved. In addition to providing proven efficiency gains of 30-50 percent in some instances, and a significant reduction in translation costs through the elimination of Desktop Publishing costs (the dreaded “DTP”), DITA provides much more business agility. Indeed, efficiency benefits have taken a back seat recently in comparison with the benefits of business agility. Organizations are reporting business paybacks in a variety of ways:

  • One large corporation adds new features at the last minute to product releases, giving it a competitive sales advantage against its main rival.
  • Another is reducing the number of product returns by keeping product documentation updated more easily.
  • Still another is using DITA to exchange information with resellers and OEM partners, thus driving easier channel sales.
  • Others are producing documents tailored to the right customer profile increasing customer satisfaction and driving down call center costs.
  • Still others are reducing time of delivery to global markets.

As in the case of the corporate website, the benefits of DITA come with a similar manageability challenge. Since DITA breaks content into bite-size topics, the management of information in this new world very much resembles the management of a corporate website. To address the specialized needs of

DITA management, the new breed of “component content management systems” are addressing the following challenges:

Content is authored in small components
Because content is authored in components or topics, many smaller pieces of information are going through revision cycles all the time. A CMS is needed to track all the revisions and versions and how they fit together.

Final output is an aggregate of content from many different writers
Since individual writers write only topics, not everyone sees how the information fits together into the whole. A planner or information architect needs to have a view of the whole to envision the context of the final deliverable. A good DITA CMS should provide a way to model how the topics fit together into final deliverables like help files or books.
Topics and maps go through constant revisions
There must be some mechanism to track the various versions of the maps, the evolving revisions of topics, and all the associated conditions and variables. Managing the links as topics and maps go through revisions is notoriously difficult in DITA. A CMS designed for DITA can do this link management, providing a rich, automated audit trail of information.

Managing relationships between topics grows more important over time
Reference integrity of links is critical, especially at publishing time. A DITA-enabled CMS provides rock-solid management of links as content changes over time, a process that easily breaks on a file system. A CMS is not impacted by changes to the location or names of topics, maps, documents, folders, or images, instead maintaining links using internal database capabilities transparent to users.

Need to manage between work-in-progress and approved content
A DITA CMS provides handy methods to easily identify what is still work-in-progress and what is approved for external publication. This content identification is a key requirement especially in regulated or highly competitive environments where time-to-market is critical.

Automating workflow process methodologies
Collaboration is critical especially with workgroups distributed in different offices or in different regions and time zones. Managing collaboration across geographies and time zones is challenging without a CMS but particularly so when content is managed at the topic level.

Finding and reusing existing topics is more important than writing new topics
A major ROI for DITA adoption is to increase the reuse of topics within an organization. A DITA-aware CMS provides advanced search capabilities so writers can easily find and reuse topics that are already written (and also already translated).

Tracking metadata for images as well as topics
DITA incorporates a rich metadata process where attributes are tracked along with the content. A CMS provides rich metadata for graphic images to increase reuse and minimize rework when products are updated.

Reporting provides clear answers on adoption benefits
Measuring the benefits of DITA adoption is important for evaluating progress and demonstrating success to management. A CMS provides reporting tools to quickly identify benefits as well as areas that need improvement.

Managing true persistence of content changes over time is a requirement
A DITA-based CMS provides a database which manages all versions of topics as they change over time with important capabilities for approval, rollback, and audit trail.

Viewing changes between versions reduces review times
A CMS user can compare any previous versions of topics (i.e., compare version 2 with 5) to quickly identify differences. This capability is more powerful than a typical track-changes feature that only accumulates changes.

Permissions need to be set to limit who can edit which pieces of content
Not everyone should touch everything. Managing rights to topics and content is critical to ensure only the right content gets updated by the right person. A CMS provides the ability to define users, groups, and roles, and links those to topic-based review, providing clear access controls for collaboration.

Content units need to be reviewed and approved
Workflow is more complex than previously, as topics or components move through workflow approval processes and, as they become ready, generating a conveyor belt of information moving towards the market.

Content development is iterative
One of the goals of topic-based writing is to make content development more iterative and to enable information development to keep pace with agile development. Releases are coming more often and in shorter bursts, which is difficult to manage without automation.

Translation Processes Become More Complex
With source content in components, the management of multilingual content becomes far more complex. Tracking which topics should be translated into which languages presents a significant management problem without a CMS that is target-language aware. Tracking the flow of topics out to multiple vendors and reviewers and tying these processes into translation memory assets also becomes more complex.

Last minutes changes must be managed
Engineering Change Orders (ECOs) can wreck havoc on the most carefully planned releases. A CMS rapidly isolates the impact and quickly identifies where updates are required, including the impact on translation.

Content must be shared and tweaked for various customer profiles
The same content must be shared across multiple products potentially for different types of customer profiles. A CMS tracks all publishing conditions (filtering) so multiple users can manage profiles to automate publishing of unique and targeted customer deliverables.

A CMS Can Speed Time to DITA

Two years ago, it was standard practice to move into DITA in a sequential process that could take a year or more. First learn DITA and download the Open Toolkit. Then learn the authoring tools and use a directory system or source control system. Spend a year on information architecture. Two years into the process, organizations began to consider the CMS question. But with that methodology, time to full productivity was delayed, and DITA was often a “skunkworks” project by a couple of “techie” individuals. And then after learning all the ins and outs of DITA, the CMS would get deployed, and the team would have to unlearn some of the methodologies it has already learned.

For the reasons described here, that methodology is now being compressed, in part because DITA has come of age and standardized the methodology and is now understood to be a critical business capability. We are seeing more and more organizations adopt the DITA-enabled content management systems early in the process of adopting DITA. These organizations realize that DITA requires and is deserving of serious management. To achieve the business benefits of DITA, it makes sense to “do DITA right.” Organizations that are adopting this new methodology are finding that they speed their time to DITA. The CMS deployment, if done with a smart information architecture and change management procedures, can simplify learning DITA and significantly reduce the manageability problems that otherwise would have to be done manually with workarounds.

To adopt this new methodology, of course, requires management support and buy-in. But with the proven successes of DITA now in the market, it is becoming easier for organizations to prove the business benefits to management. Most deployments pay for themselves in efficiency gains or translation savings in a year. But the gains in business agility are now justifying many projects on their own terms. Management is coming to understand that topic-based writing as a “must have” the same way it did with corporate websites only a decade ago. And as DITA continues to become a critical business platform for communicating with global customers, so the need for a specialized DITA-enabled content management system is better understood. CIDMIconNewsletter

To contact Howard or Chip, email them at info@trisoftcms.com.

Howard SchwartzHoward Schwartz



Howard Schwartz, Ph.D., is VP of Enterprise Content Management and responsible for the DITA and component-based content management practice of SDL and Trisoft in the United States (www.trisoftcms.com). Howard has more than ten years experience in enterprise content globalization and content management and has provided consulting expertise to global organizations improving content processes. Previously Howard was VP of Enterprise Solutions at SDL since the acquisition of Trados where he was VP of Business Consulting and responsible for Trados’ enterprise globalization solutions. Howard joined Trados through the acquisition of Uniscape, where he was VP of Business Consulting and Marketing. Prior to that, Howard was a manager of technical publications for Genesys Telecommunications. Before joining the software industry, Howard was a professor at Stanford and published and edited a number of books and academic articles. His Ph.D. is from Brown University.

Chip GettingerChip Gettinger



Chip Gettinger is Vice President XML Solutions, at SDL and Trisoft (www.trisoftcms.com). He is responsible for managing successful customer deployments of the Trisoft Component Content Management System using DITA as an information model. He has over 20 years’ experience working with component content management and publishing applications in technical sales with direct and partner sales efforts. Chip has held management positions in sales, product marketing, training, course development and technical writing at Astoria Software, Document Management Solutions, Harlequin, XyEnterprise and Agfa Corporation. He received his bachelor’s degree in Graphic Arts Technology, Business Emphasis, from Northern Illinois University.