Book Review: Good to Great XML Adoption

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Doug Gorman, Simply XML

Tech Pubs departments have adopted XML for their authoring and publishing. The results have been great for Tech Pubs and good for the organization as a whole. Because of newly implemented structured authoring, information reuse, and flexible publishing methods, the customer experience has been greatly improved and significant money has been saved. Consumers use technical documentation to improve their use of complex products. Translators minimize their efforts by reusing previously translated work. Customers receive their content localized. Technical authors write according to a common standard, reuse information, and focus on writing rather than desktop publishing. And the whole process costs a lot less money while reducing the time from author to information consumer. The benefits of standards and adoption of modern technology are confirmed once again.

From the perspective of Tech Pubs, XML adoption is great news. And even if just one department is using XML, it is good news for the organization as a whole. But wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the organization adopted XML?

XML adoption will become great when most of the structured and semi-structured content in an entire organization has XML as the underlying content architecture. Jim Collins landmark book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t was published about a decade ago. By broadly applying some of his high level ideas to XML adoption, organizations can make the move from good to great. The following chapter titles are from Collins’s book, but the subsequent adaptive thoughts are my own.

Good is the Enemy of Great

When Tech Pubs achieves the benefits of XML, they begin to understand the impact that may be achievable across the organization and may try to implement what they have learned outside of tech pubs. They have their real jobs to get back to, but if SME’s and trainers could contribute XML to the Technical Publishing effort, wouldn’t that be efficient! Unfortunately, adopting the tools and processes that work in the technical organization seems good enough, but is probably deficient. Technical leadership understands that people outside of tech pubs want to work in a simpler environment than pure XML DITA. So, the fine tools, processes, and structures used in Tech Pubs are not great for the rest of the organization. The rest of the organization authors in Word and only needs small subsets of the DITA elements, the work flows, the metadata, and the publishing facilities so used and loved by technical staff. Great can happen across the enterprise when new technical tools are minimized and when the DITA and XML are largely hidden from the writers and publishers. Disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined actions are the keys to achieving greatness.

Leadership

Great companies have great leaders, and Collins notes that great leaders have intense determination and profound humility. They are driven toward the success of the company. And moving XML out of Tech Pubs is about understanding the real workings and needs of other parts of the organization. These departments/functions are organized differently with different goals.

First Who, Then What

It is critical for the technical staff to partner with other leaders and staff in other departments to help them adopt, adapt, and change to an XML architecture. The technical tools that are front and center in Tech Pubs are too complex and labor intensive in other departments where the job is primary and tools merely help to efficiently and effectively achieve department and function goals. It is more important to fit the tools to the staff than it is to make the staff fit the tool. The majority of authors in any organization write in Microsoft Word. They like it, and modern authoring tools can allow them to work in a constrained Word environment while generating valid XML in the background.

Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)

Adopting XML at the enterprise level is a marathon and not a sprint. It is going to take time, and some parts of the organization will be easier to persuade and more relevant than others. Reality says that moving XML outside of Tech Pubs is probably not your primary job, and it probably is not the primary job of the others you must work with. Why can’t this be easier? Why can’t they just do it the way you know will work? Collins discusses a four-step process to work through implementation issues. He says you should lead with questions, not answers; discuss and debate—don’t coerce; address problems without blame; and communicate relevant and positive information in a way that cannot be ignored.

The Hedgehog Concept

We love this one at Simply XML. Collins points out that hedgehogs have only one defense mechanism—rolling into a ball—but it’s enough because it works. Focus is important. But adapting Collins’ strategic prescription, you need to work with department leadership to determine the best approach, find the economic approach that makes the most sense, and involve leaders who are deeply passionate about this important effort. You need to give authors and publishers only the XML, only the tools, and only the processes they need to be successful. If there is one overwhelmingly positive recommendation we have that leads to successful XML adoption it is, “Keep it Simple, Smart Person!”

A Culture of Discipline

Compared with the current mix of “out of control” information structures and styles, the enterprise will be far better off with an XML standard like DITA and with focused cost-effective adoption in many departments at an appropriate level. It will all be DITA or another XML standard underneath so the organization’s information architecture will be able to support how information and content moves, in both predictable and unpredictable ways. The ultimate goal makes the work important and worthwhile. The enterprise result requires a group effort and individual discipline to achieve.

Technology Accelerators

Technology, especially technology alone, is not the panacea for all organizational improvement. There are times in some departments where technology may be primary in organizational transformation. However, with the implementation of XML at the enterprise level, technology is related to but subordinate to the goals and methods of improving content and saving money. Tech Pubs organizations may be the only place where the move to XML directly achieves goals, but technology is merely a catalyst to content improvement in the rest of the organization.

The Flywheel and the Doom Loop

A flywheel stores energy and increases momentum. When applied to organizational transformation, positive momentum leads to success, but negative momentum puts the organization in a doom loop. Rarely is an important improvement achieved with the flick of a switch. A great adoption of XML involves small, regular, and consistent improvements moving from one department to the next and the next. It will take years for your organization to move from unstructured, undisciplined, uncontrolled authoring of content to structured writing with a high-quality information standard.

From Good to Great to Built to Last

Collins says that companies need a set of core values that underpin the operations of the company and that are internalized by staff and exhibited every day. The values need not be complex and can be as straightforward as, “Strive for excellence and do the right thing…every day.” You will advance and prosper if you can adopt a relevant mantra to the XML adoption effort. As a technical professional, you “get it.” The adoption of XML is the best way to get control of content and improve content performance. The writing is more clearly on the wall for you than it is for others in your company. But a disciplined effort over a number of years across the enterprise with the right tools and a simple approach related to the most important asset of your company—information—will move your XML adoption and your company from Good to Great.

About the Author
Doug Gorman is the CEO of Simply XML. He brings years of relevant information industry experience to Simply XML and its customers. Throughout his career, Doug has found that honesty, hard work, and good communication lead to financial rewards and satisfaction for all who are involved. Simply XML’s philosophy underlies its services offering because it works.
dgorman@simplyxml.com
www.dgorman@simplyxml.com

Jim Collins
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t
2001, New York, NY
Harper Business
ISBN: 9780066620992