Doug Gorman, Simply XML

It is no secret that DITA XML is becoming a popular mark-up architecture for technical content in this new age of content management. It may be a secret that there needs to be a different understanding and paradigm for bringing the promise of this technology to the enterprise at large.

Technical people may have implemented DITA in their areas and may be thinking about implementing DITA beyond IT and Technical Publications with a primary focus on technology. This perspective is misguided and will ultimately lead to either less than optimal results or outright failure.

Organizations need to implement an authoring standard to accelerate flexible publishing and reuse. This standard will improve the experience of information consumers (readers) while saving money. Organizations need to think further than the objective of implementing DITA. Improving the information system should be a corporate objective.

As kids, many of us admired trains and may have thought we wanted to drive a train some day. Running your organization’s information system is just (well almost) like running a whole railroad system.  Let’s have a look.

Description of a Well-Run System

A well-run railroad gets riders (people and goods) from Point A to Point B in an efficient, cost-effective way.  There are many different types of riders and many different destinations.  Success is achieved with appropriate equipment, staff, and processes.  There are many types of passengers/goods, many destinations, and schedules related to customer’s many needs.

A well-run information system moves content from the organization to the information consumer in an efficient and cost-effective way.  There are many different types of content and many different destinations.  Success is achieved with appropriate equipment, staff, and processes. There are many types of content, many information consumers, at various destinations, and schedules related to the information consumer’s needs.

System Components

There are various components to any successful system.  People, equipment, processes, and standards are required in any system.


Internally a railroad system’s people are the staff that works to make sure that the consumer experience is appropriate.  Staff have various responsibilities: developing the schedules, maintaining the equipment, selling tickets, operating the trains, and managing the system. From an external perspective, passengers are people too.

Within an information system, people are the staff that work to make sure that the consumer experience is appropriate.  Staff have various responsibilities including information development, approval, publishing, and dissemination.  From an external perspective information consumers are people.


Railroad equipment can be thought of as both the physical trains, tracks, signals, and support equipment.  Railroad equipment requires investment and capital appropriate to well-defined specifications.  The equipment must be appropriate and cost-effective.

Information equipment can be thought of as both the physical authoring tools, networks, operating systems, publishing tools, and related support equipment.  Information equipment requires investment and capital appropriate to well-defined specifications.  The equipment must be appropriate and cost-effective.


Processes show a transformation of something over time and may touch many people functions. Broadly speaking, processes are the result of the rules, policies, procedures, and metrics that are required to run a railroad.  Processes maintain the balance required to serve the needs of internal staff and external riders at an appropriate cost.

Similarly, the information system requires rules, policies, procedures, and metrics to succeed.  They maintain the balance required to serve the needs of information consumers at an appropriate cost.


There are many active standards contributing to a successful railroad system. The trains have a standard wheel base that fit on standard-width tracks.  There are standards related to establishing schedules, maintaining engines and cars, computer systems, and more.

There are many active standards contributing to a successful information system.  There are standards around content development, editing, review, publication, and the movement of content throughout the systems.  There are standards related to establishing schedules, maintaining content, computer systems, and more.

Fundamental System Goals

The fundamental goal of a railroad system is to get passengers from a location to another location in a cost-effective way.  It sounds simple, but there are many different passengers/freight with many different destinations and purposes.  The railroad system is complicated.

The fundamental goal of an information system is to get content from developers to information consumers in a manner that is acceptable to (in fact delights) the information consumer and that is cost-effective for the organization. It sounds simple, but there are many different information consumers and information origin points and many different purposes for the information.

My Scary Assessment

Many of us think that our railroad systems are a necessary evil that are generally poorly designed, expensive, and ineffective.  It has been scary for me to develop this analogy, do some analysis, write this article, and conclude, that on a relative basis, most railroad systems are better designed and operated than most enterprise information systems.

Most railroad systems are generally meeting the needs of passengers in a cost-effective way.  If they were not, people would find an alternative to your train system. It has led both governments and private organizations to change.  With the alternative of automobiles and pollution and traffic jams, it seems that most urban railroad systems are modestly successful.  Governments and private operators have a strong incentive to at least meet this low bar of success.

Most information systems seem to be internally focused and unresponsive to the real needs of information consumers.  At the enterprise level, the information system fails.  When information systems are not responsive to actual needs and timeframes (schedules), information consumers will find an alternative to your product or service.  This failure is driving the need for massive change in the enterprise information system.

Problems in the Enterprise Information System.

Organizations lack the concept of an enterprise information system.

  • The train’s destination is not DITA, but rather is content relevance and consistency leading to the improvement of the information consumer’s experience.
  • The consumer’s information experience requires the right information, at the right time, on the right device, in the language of choice.
  • Historical information systems have been developed at the department level without consideration for the enterprise. Legal has it figured out with trained lawyers.  Some Technical Publications departments have it figured out with DITA leading to a very specialized and contained information system.  But there has been no enterprise-level planning to create standard tracks, standard processes, and standard content to serve the needs of information consumers.
  • Inefficiencies and missed destinations are rampant in the enterprise information system. People must often offload and reload passengers/cargo to move it between destinations within the system.  It is likely that information consumers could receive different, unrelated, and conflicting versions of information to meet the same consumer need.  Or they might not be able to find the required information at all.
  • With a recognition of some understanding, but narrow success, many organizations are letting IT and Technical Publications dictate the standards, equipment, and processes for the rest of the organization. But their trains won’t fit on your tracks.  Their tracks and processes and systems have also been independently developed.  Equipment has been procured without regard for standards.  And the environment in which enterprise content is developed often lacks consideration.
  • While IT and Technical Publications may have people with well-defined information goals and responsibilities, the rest of the enterprise has “made due” with departmental information systems developed on a part-time or limited basis. They have had neither the incentive, nor the resources to implement DITA (or a similar system.)
  • The Technical Publications goal of “implementing DITA” is an entirely inappropriate goal for the enterprise. It is as if the railroad had the primary goal of creating tracks that are built to a universal standard with the idea that DITA would solve all problems.
  • It is inappropriate for Technical Publications or IT to be driving the train. This initiative is important enough that it should be led by a C-level executive with personnel and capital resources to consider and meet everyone’s needs.  IT and Technical Publications should contribute to but not lead the process.
  • With a great information consumer experience as the goal, the information system must be developed with investments that support that goal. A return on the investment will be derived from revenue related to satisfaction of current customers and acquisition of new customers. It will also be derived from cost-savings by eliminating desktop publishing costs, promoting content reuse, and improved timing and work-flow.  A better enterprise information system will also improve compliance and lower translation costs.

Enterprise Information System

There are a number of things that need to happen to cost-effectively implement an enterprise information system.

First, the internal staff needs to agree to work on a compatible equipment system. This does not mean that everyone needs to use the same tools.  Authors can use MS Word, web-based tools, or XML editors, but underneath the architecture of information must be consistent. Information must be developed to run on one set of tracks.  For authors this means adopting a system where each department and each author can use just enough, just in time, structured authoring.  Development of the information itself is one especially important consideration.

Second, the information need to move on the same track system with visible and coordinated schedules.  The track system needs an XML standard and that standard may be DITA.  And the system should include shared repositories, metadata, and publishing options.  Content must be intelligent and semantic. This allows anyone in the system, including the information consumer, to find the required information.

Third, information needs to be structured and modular, allowing others to reuse components at various levels.  Similar to a train system, topics are the cars that can be assembled into more complicated trains for delivery to the information consumer.

All staff in the system needs to understand what information is required, in what form, on what devices, in what languages to ensure an outstanding customer experience. There needs to be a training system so staff understand what is expected of the structured content they will develop.

Next, it can be noted that the people developing content need to understand the system, but not the details of the tracks (DITA).  And the people who run the track system need to understand the underlying XML-architecture, but not necessarily the content itself.

Finally, the information system needs to be managed professionally, by senior executives and operating managers with resources and commitment at the C-Level.

All Aboard!

Toot Toot (train whistle) … Put these initiatives together, from various functions and levels in your organization and you will be running a successful railroad … uh … I mean … Information System.  You will see that your organization’s successful and enlightened future destinations depend on it.