JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Once again, CIDM hosted a successful conference on content management and the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). More than 60 presenters offered their insights and experience to participants focused on changing the way they develop technical information. The DITA sessions were very well attended, marking a new height in the interest of topic-oriented authoring. Information architects, managers, and writers demonstrated that innovative methods are at the heart of saving time and costs in the information-development life cycle. We heard about the work underway at Lexmark, Avaya, MasterCard, Research in Motion, Hewlett-Packard, Sterling Commerce, Teradata, GE Healthcare, and many more.

Most presenters emphasized the successes of their move to content management and topic-based authoring. At the same time, they also noted that the process is not an easy one. They spoke of the challenges involved in convincing management to fund the transition adequately. Too often, it appears, the emphasis is on artificial goals such as getting the most content into the database, no matter the quality.

Converting existing content into XML and topics appears attractive at first. It sounds easy, especially when organizations are faced with 1000s of pages of legacy content. Unfortunately, the quality of the converted content is no better and often much worse. Information that is written as a continuous text in chapters or sections of books doesn’t easily convert to structured topics. Once the content is in topic-form in a content-management system, it becomes harder to fix, even when writers have the time. Many presenters noted that they were better off “converting” content to structured topics before moving it into content management. They could restructure first in their traditional desktop publishing systems, or they could use the guidance provided by DITA or other well-structured, semantically tagged XML information models.

Despite the dilemma of lots of unstructured content, we learned more about prioritizing the process of change. One excellent suggestion is that organizations might “convert” content that is least likely to change and least likely to be used in more than one context. Then, the writers’ focus can be to transform the most reusable content to the new information model.

The second challenge that faced organizations was not using the new XML-based writing tools but helping traditional writers with the conversion to topic-oriented writing. As we all know, most technical writers have little experience with structured writing and topic-based authoring. The industry norm is to assign writers entire books, give them guidance in the form of style guides, and leave them alone. The result can be excellent in the hands of creative and talented authors. The result can also be poor. Information architects analyzing existing content find diversity in approach, repetitive content, and an underlying assumption that someone will read a book, chapter, or section from beginning to end. The resulting threaded discussions are difficult if not impossible to pull apart.

Many presenters emphasized the emotional transition that took place in their groups. Managers are aware of the difficulty of asking people to change long-held positions and face the loss of personal expertise. The transition must be handled carefully and with understanding. In this issue of Information Management News, you will find Aviva Garrett’s thoughtful approach to helping writers make the needed changes in their thinking about content. We invite all of you to contribute to this exchange because we believe it to be the center of successful innovation to content management and topic-oriented design.

We learned of the innovative contributions of organizations that are moving beyond the ubiquitous PDF. Moving information to the web in forms that make it easier for customers to search and find just the right content at the right time. Our keynote speakers, Dave Schell and Eileen Jones of IBM, emphasized the importance of understanding how customers use information. We know, for example, that they fail to distinguish between content that is presented in technical manuals and other forms of content available to them from support, training, consulting, and other information developers throughout our larger organizations.

Dave and Eileen reminded us that “the primary goal of any organization is to deliver the right information to the right person at the right time and in the right format and media. IBM is taking steps to establish the Total Information Experience for their customers by uniting all content creators and providers from pre-sales to support. They are defining common processes, developing information standards, and implementing collaborative tools & technologies.”

In their kickoff address, they provided attendees with a global perspective about enabling consistency, integration, and content reuse across our Content community. They talked about how IBM is converging management and technical aspects into a common goal and how DITA plays into the IBM Total Information Experience.

Finally, we want to acknowledge the wonderful contributions of our vendor exhibitors at the conference. A complement of 25 companies not only hosted a wonderful reception on the first evening, but created innovative demonstrations, sponsored presentations by many of their customers, and added their expertise to everyone’s conference experience. Please be certain to visit their websites for more information. Many provide valuable white papers that explain how customers are engaged in successful content-management projects.

Exhibitors at this year’s conference include:

Comtech Services
Data Conversion Laboratory
JustSystems (XMetaL)
Lingo Systems
SDL International
Tedopres International

For those of you who are planning early, innovative ways of communicating with customers will be a highlight of the September Best Practices conference. I am now planning a series of discussion sessions with all our CIDM member liaisons to discuss issues they face and plans for the upcoming management meeting. If you are not yet a CIDM member, consider joining now so that you can contribute to the conference planning.