DITA Europe 2009: A Measure of DITA’s Maturity

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

DITA Europe, in Munich, Germany for a second year, was exciting, informative, and a measure of the growing maturity of DITA implementations in Europe. Although a good number of the participants were DITA novices, an equal group demonstrated the experience that comes from more lengthy engagement. Speakers presented success stories as well as stories that reflected their frustrations with the DITA model and its implementation.

Conference speakers demonstrated that DITA has gained acceptance in myriad information-development communities:

  • The semiconductor community represented by Sheila D’Annunzio of STMicroelectronics
  • United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security by Thomas Zschocke of the UN’s Human Capacity Building Section
  • Pharmaceuticals by Matthew Brandabur of Ward Street Partners
  • Industrial and commercial pumps by Kristina Brinck of ITT Fluid Technology
  • Cellular telephones by Henrik Evanth of Sony-Ericcson
  • Telecommunications by Michel Lanque of Alcatel-Lucent
  • Search technologies by Julia Malkin of Endeca Technologies
  • Laboratory electronics by Bryan Schnabel of Tektronix

These speakers provide us with only a short list of the subject areas that lend themselves to the DITA information model. In just a few years, DITA in Europe has gone from a curiosity to a significant player in structured content development.

At the same time, DITA adopters discussed their frustration with what Sheila D’Annunzio and Marc Speyer labeled “Ugly DITA.” They pointed out the difficulties they had encountered in their implementation: the lack of a table footnote tag, the absence of a title for lists without creating a new section and title, the potential for creating wildly different markup for the same purpose, yet yielding wildly different results in the output. Like many members of the audience, they struggle to align the DITA information model with their organizational requirements.

Comtech’s Frank Miller created an amusing and revealing sketch of the challenge presenting by overly clever authors who try to trick their content into their desired formats by adding empty tags. He described the havoc wrecked by writers who change document IDs because they don’t understand the role of IDs in databases. And, he explained how output is affected when someone deletes the conditional-processing metadata needed by other team members. His message; Communicate, Educate, Collaborate to ensure success.

Joe Gollner, VP at Stilo, described the processing challenges presented by the growing complexity of DITA. He pointed to the significant increases in the time required for the DITA Open Toolkit to process the DITA architectural specification since version 1.0. He suggested the need for alternative processing architectures.

Not withstanding the challenges, conference participants, new and old, were encouraged by the reports of significant positive results and return on investment that Kristina Brinck reported from ITT’s pump business units or Henrik Evanth reported from Sony-Ericcson’s cellular telephone documentation. The central business case for DITA means promoting topic-based authoring, robust content reuse across deliverables and product types, and reduced costs for translation and automated formatting.

Jang Graat, JANG Communication, took a bold stance in telling his listeners that “Geeks don’t sell DITA.” Through a creatively illustrated presentation, he explained how to build a business-oriented message to convince skeptical executives that embracing the DITA information model will result in cost-saving efficiencies.

Despite the concerns over growing complexity, conference participants showed strong interest in the DITA 1.2 panel, organized by Kristen Eberlein, shepherdess-in-chief of the DITA Technical Committee’s year and a half-long effort to complete the 1.2 Architectural Specification. Accompanied by Chris Kravogel, Robin Sloan, Briana Wherry, Hal Trent, and myself as members of the DITA Adoption Technical Committee, Kris led an in-depth discussion of the new additions to DITA expected in early 2010.

The panelists introduced everyone to DITA 1.2’s new capabilities, including the

  • key reference for better conditional processing
  • looser general task model
  • specialized machinery task model
  • flexible constraint mechanism
  • well-crafted learning and training specialization

We explained that the Adoption TC is hard at work developing user-friendly feature description white papers to help people understand why and how to implement these and other additions to the DITA model.

At the open-discussion session that closed the two-day conference, participants made many suggestions for enhancements they want in 2010. The need for a presentation set on DITA basics reminded us that many people are still new to this innovative information-development model.

We were also encouraged to allot time in the schedule to more presentations for authors. We have a full complement of case studies to assist managers and plenty of great topics for the technical types, but we can be stronger in helping authors understand what is unique about the DITA writing experience.

Not only will we take these recommendations to heart for the next DITA Europe conference, but we also plan to implement them for April 2010 at the Content Management Strategies/DITA North America conference in Santa Clara, California.

So—if you represent any of the areas of learning and experience that I’ve described here or others that I haven’t mentioned, please get your proposal into the CMS/DITA North America website right away. Go to http://www.cm-strategies.com. Proposals are due on December 8.

We want to hear from those who represent

  • managers explaining their business results
  • information architects who can communicate the challenges and opportunities of designing new information models
  • authors who have learned from the struggle to rethink how they develop information
  • tools specialists who find new ways to create successful implementations

My list can get much longer but enough for now. I hope to see each of you in California and again in Europe (location yet to be decided) in 2010.