December 2013


Adopting a Standard—What Exactly Should That Mean to You and Your Organization?

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

You certainly don’t have to adopt a standard to help you manage your technical content more efficiently and effectively. You may want to go it alone or use a proprietary design that you’ve developed internally or was developed by one of your vendors. However, if you do go it alone, you reap none of the benefits of using a standard developed by a community of information-development professionals and available for you to use at no or little cost.

You benefit from having a standard that is being updated every few years by people just like you, by people who are listening to your needs and responding. You benefit from a standard developed by the community that you don’t have to pay an internal staff to develop and continually update. You have a community of product vendors who up date their systems with the latest versions of the open-source DITA Open Toolkit at no cost to you. You have the community behind you. You don’t have to go it alone.

I’ve been a member of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee for more than 10 years by now, working to first introduce the DITA standard and then to improve it. We are nearly at the end of our proposal process for the 1.3 version of the standard and hope to have it approved and published before the end of 2014.

As many of you already know, OASIS, or the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, is, according to the website a non-profit consortium that drives the development, convergence and adoption of open standards for the global information society.

OASIS members are generally corporations who assign one or many individuals to serve on one or more of the 85 standards committees that develop standards, including DITA, DocBook, XLIFF, Open Document, and myriad other standards that affect XML-based data and content. You can find a complete list of OASIS committees at

I’m also a member of ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. ISO has over 250 technical committees that are made up of members from industry, government, non-government organizations, and others interested in formulating international standards on everything from screw threads, medical devices, Chinese traditional medicine, and information technology, which is the area in which I serve. ISO publishes more than 19,000 standards.

According to ISO’s definition, “a standard is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.” For example, you use country codes to identify the languages into which you translate your technical content, like en-US or en-UK, you are using an ISO standard.

Using a standard managed and controlled by a standards organization means that you are taking advantage of the work of many individuals to produce the standard and the entire voting membership of the standards organization to review and approve the standard. That management by an internationally recognized body ensures that the standard you are using is not the intellectual property of any private company or individual but is open and available for your use and is maintained following the rules and regulations of the standards body.

For the DITA and DocBook standards, that means that the standard is maintained by the committee, discussed and voted on by representatives of all the OASIS members, and maintained for public use. You can download the latest DITA standard (1.2) simply by going to the OASIS site and finding the file for download in PDF, HTML, or DITA. With ISO, you can go to the ISO website and find the standard you want. However, ISO does charge for downloading an ISO standard. The cost of the country codes is $238, which includes a database of the codes and a PDF copy of the standard.

Unfortunately, in content management, you are likely to encounter claims that certain documents that specify how to create particular types of technical content are standards, when in fact they are not standards at all.

For example, an individual or group might create a DTD (Document Type Definition) for developing software documentation and either sell the DTD and accompanying information or make it available openly as long as you acknowledge its origins. That group may consist of responsible and knowledgeable individuals who are trying to produce something useful, but they have not developed a standard supported by a recognized international standards body. It’s just something that is their personal creation.

A good example is S1000D, which is maintained by the S1000D Steering Committee, which includes board members from the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, the United States’ Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), and the Air Transport Association (ATA), along with national industry and defense representatives from most of the countries currently using the specification. It is an internationally recognized standard, although it is not supported by a standards body like OASIS or ISO.

A content management vendor might provide you with a DTD for developing documentation for industrial machinery that you pay for as part of the system they sell you. It might be well done and useful but it is not a standard. I recently encountered a CMS vendor who claimed that their product included a “standard” even though they did not support DITA or DocBook.

What, therefore, is the difference between using an officially sponsored standard and something put developed by an informal group of people or a vendor? For me the difference is security. In adopting a recognized international standard, I know that I can rely on the work of a committee of my peers, people who are interested in just the kind of work I do and who volunteer to improve the standard with no compensation for their contributions.

On the other hand, if I chose to use something that is developed by my CMS vendor, I must rely on the vendor knowing about my industry’s requirements. Since our CMS vendors tend to be software developers, not information architects or technical authors, I would be afraid that they have developed something without a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of what I do.

Note: At present our ISO committee is in the final stages of developing a new standard for content management practices and component content management systems requirements. The standard, ISO 26531, is a standard for “System and software engineering—content management for product life-cyle, user, and service management documentation.” I am the co-author of the standard with Casey Jordan of Jorsek (the developers of EasyDITA), with assistance from Bob Boiko of the University of Washington. We are readying the standard for its second round of voting by the ISO and IEEE communities. If it is accepted, as we expect it will be, it will be ready for publishing in the third or fourth quarter of 2014. Not only doe the standard provide details for implementing a content management in your organizaton, it also explains what you should be looking for in a component content management system to support your work and help manage your content. We will announce when it is ready for purchase and download from ISO.

In the meantime, know that we have taken into account many of the emerging needs of the technical communication community in improving DITA for version 1.3. For example, DITA 1.3 includes a new troubleshooting topic, improved handling of questions and answers in the Learning and Training area, increased capabilities for keyref and other reuse mechanisms, and much more. We will be promoting DITA 1.3 and helping you understand the new capabilities through feature articles from the OASIS DITA Adoption Technical Committee. Look for these in 2014. CIDMIconNewsletter