Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

CIDM held its annual CMS/DITA Europe conference on November 14 and 15, 2016. A little over 130 participants gained tips, tricks, and insights into their content strategies from a selection of almost 30 individual sessions led by industry experts and others who have experienced first-hand the ups and downs of creating technical documentation.

To start the conference, four panelists debated the readiness of the technical communication industry to support Industry 4.0. In this rapidly expanding technology, man and machine communicate and cooperate with each other in real time. In particular, machines are becoming more able to consume and disseminate information and advise and support humans in making decisions based on that data. In fact, many machines have become or are becoming more autonomous and are able to make simple, independent decisions by synthesizing the vast amount of information available to them. The processing capabilities of machine far outperform those of the human brain, enabling machines to analyse a wealth of information and draw conclusions much more rapidly than a human could. For example, artificial intelligence systems have been able to correctly diagnose illnesses that have confounded doctors for years.

However, this technology hinges on the availability of digestible information, and the question on many technical communicators’ minds is whether the industry is able to provide the information needed in the form required. On the positive side, the majority of technical communicators now use a structured, topic-based approach for creating documentation. This chunking of information in a predictable structure is critical to enabling machines to process content.  Strategies and tools are in place to provide consistent information that can be readily located and easily consumed and understood by human and machine alike.

However, there are still many challenges to overcome, not the least of which is that the needs of artificial intelligence systems are still largely undefined. Effective technical communication relies on a deep understanding of the end user. Although the industry understands the importance of user focus, it does not yet thoroughly understand the needs of this new machine-based audience. This uncertainty seemed to be the compelling argument, with audience members giving the “win” to the con side of the debate – the industry is not yet prepared for the forthcoming demands of the new technology.

Ready or not, however, these advancements continue and conference attendees left the opening debate with a renewed energy to address the perceived gaps in skills and approach. The conference sessions did not disappoint, offering many insights into how technical communicators can be influencers and decision makers as information needs are redefined.

Critical to the industry’s ability to respond to changing needs, however, are the tools and standards available for creating content. A recurring theme throughout conference presentations was a concern that the underlying architecture of these tools, namely the DITA standard, continues to grow in complexity, making it difficult for technical communicators to meet current information needs, let alone shape the future. Many presentations sought to offer solutions that reduce the barrier to entry for DITA adoption. Speakers argued that it should be easier to get started with DITA and offered a variety of solutions, approaches, and workarounds to simplify content development.

Many conference participants put their hope in the forthcoming Lightweight DITA standard, which promises to boil down the current DITA standard to a core set of elements representing roughly 5% of those currently available. Fewer element choices lead to higher consistency in structure and greater understanding by all content creators. However, it was clear that there is not unanimous support in the lightweight approach. Questions linger, such as can anyone really use a standard that does not provide a table with mergeable cells?

As people passionately argue these minute details, others suggest alternative approaches to the problem. For example, making it easier to constrain the current DITA standard or offering pre-constrained options – effectively a menu of lightweight options from which to choose.

As presentations focused on these concerns, however, questions were raised as to whether the right problem is even being addressed. A primary motivation for simplification is that content is frequently created by non-writers, people with little interest or motivation to learn the intricacies inherent in a writing standard. But is this overlooking the bigger problem? If the industry needs to prepare itself for the forthcoming demands of the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, perhaps the focus should be on what kind of structures are required to enable the technology: what kind of structures are best consumed by the new audience of machines. Instead of simplifying the standard, the need is to train professionals to meet the needs of the audience, regardless of the complexity that might be required. To be ready for Industry 4.0, the technical communication industry must be more aggressive in its role as a professional industry. Just as there are barriers to entry to be a doctor, it should be acceptable to have barriers to technical communication. The needs of the future require that trained professional writers are involved in creating content of all kinds.

Toward that end, the conference offered many sessions that met the complexities of DITA head-on, offering practical suggestions for eliminating complexity through the mastery of skills. Presenters offered best practices and demonstrations for using DITA to its fullest advantage, including strategies for:

  • Choosing the appropriate mechanisms for linking topics and related information together within and across publications
  • Using and exploiting the new 1.3 branch filtering capabilities within DITA which allow you to apply different values for the same condition within the same document
  • Defining an enterprise taxonomy to organize and categorize content and provide an effective search experience
  • Managing simultaneous release development and continuous publishing
  • Creating and integrating interactive graphics into publications
  • Modeling and writing content that is localization-friendly

As has become a tradition for the last three years, the conference was prefaced by DITA-OT day, organized by SyncroSoft. Over 80 people attended these sessions dedicated to better understanding the capabilities of the DITA open toolkit and the plans for its continued improvement and development.