Bill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

JoAnn and I have been involved in scores of DITA projects. Many have been successful, resulting in higher quality documentation and substantial savings in the costs of documentation, training, and localization. But others have failed.

First, let’s define what we mean by failure.

  • The project is terminated by external forces that have nothing to do with the substance of DITA.
  • The project is terminated by some kind of manager mistake.
  • A successful pilot project is completed, but DITA is not implemented further.
  • A full implementation of DITA is completed, but the efficiency of the DITA implementation is less than the pre-DITA process.

Why do these failures occur? If we are aware of the causes of failure, we might decide not to implement DITA or we might be able to avoid the pitfalls that are the causes of failure.

DITA project failure due to external forces

  • Reorganization—Not much a manager can do about reorganizations. They can come unexpectedly and are generally implemented irrationally. Best thing to do is look at the history of reorganizations in your company. Is there enough time, on average, between reorganizations to complete your DITA implementation?
  • LayoffsNot much a manager can do about layoffs. Will your staff be around long enough for full DITA implementation? Will DITA be fixed in your corporate culture before you have a substantial change or reduction in staff?
  • Publications manager’s reluctance to deal with DITA—Many publications managers are fearful that if they embark on a DITA project it might fail. Their solution to this fear is to avoid DITA. If they are pushed by more senior management, a common excuse is “My staff will not be able to do this.” Generally technical writers are receptive to DITA because they perceive it as new skill that will help their careers.
  • Clueless upper managers—Most upper managers given the duty to manage a publications group among other departments have little education or experience in publications. Many have little interest in publications as well. It may be difficult to gain the support of such an upper manager for a DITA project.
  • No upper management at all!—In many high-tech companies each engineering group hires and manages a technical writer or two. There is no management at all of the total publications effort. A DITA project may get the support of one engineering manager but that is rarely enough to support a DITA effort.

DITA project failure due to manager mistakes

  • Insufficient planning—Detailed planning is necessary for any project, especially a DITA project. Some publications managers are unaware of the cost of their pre-DITA efforts so they will not be able to do a comparison to determine if implementing DITA results in a cost savings. Many managers start without a cost/benefit study and an implementation plan. Without proper planning, the DITA implementation will fail.
  • No pilot project—Some managers, pressured by upper management, try to skip a pilot project, which usually results in disaster. It is important to make your mistakes in the protected environment of a pilot project.
  • Lack of manager training—Training is a must. DITA implementations are not intuitive. You can’t learn DITA from your software tools.
  • Inability to manage up—Being able to manage your boss is a must. Problems will inevitably occur in the course of the DITA project. It is important that you keep your boss aware of the issues without risking panic and the termination of the project.
  • Insufficient training of staff—Staff training is expensive. DITA is not simply a matter of using an editor and a CMS. The staff must understand their audience and know how to develop topics that can be reused. Without reuse, DITA has limited value.
  • Dependence on advice from CMS vendors, software vendors, or integrators—You should not trust your vendors for advice any more than you would trust your used-car dealer. Vendors are necessary for the success of your project, but remember, they have their own agendas. They want to sell you their products and get it installed as quickly as possible. Don’t trust a consultant who gets a commission from a vendor.
  • Review by clueless managers and staff—You, your team, and consultants working with you are the experts in designing the DITA implementation. The project can fail if others in the corporation, with no understanding or experience in DITA design, have too much influence, even if they are high up in the corporation
  • Lack of communication with managers in other companies—It is important to communicate with managers in other companies who are in the process of DITA implementation or have completed a DITA implementation. Their advice is worth its weight in gold.
  • Hiring “cheap,” inexperienced consultants who make promises they can’t meet—Many who have lost their jobs become “consultants.” They may have weak skills and little experience. Typically, they work alone. They may go away if they get another job. Ask prospective consultants for a list of references. Check on the references!
  • Using automated “conversion” tools—A number of software organizations offer tools or services to convert unstructured content to DITA. They don’t tell you that the result of the automated conversion is unstructured DITA. The converted DITA content can be styled but cannot be reused and reuse is the primary value of DITA. Be certain that you understand the benefits you can achieve with automated conversions and the pitfalls.
  • Unreasonable deadlines—In many organizations, deadlines for writing projects and for a DITA implementation project are set irrationally by upper management. A DITA implementation, starting from planning, training, purchase of editors and CMS software or services, information planning, conversion, pilot project, and full implementation may take two years or more. A firm and unreasonable deadline may result in the failure of the project.
  • Lack of patience—A DITA implementation project is a long and tedious process. Strong management both upward and downward is necessary to see it through.

DITA project failure due to lack of full implementation

  • Insufficient planning—A successful pilot project can be followed by an implementation failure without sufficient planning and buy-in. The full publications department or other organization must carefully plan their implementation and provide adequate resources. An implementation may fail if the implementation is not treated as a resourced project. Staff can’t be expected to do the conversion and implementation as an aside from their other work.
  • Lack of communication with other managers and upper management within your own company—The primary DITA team must promote DITA to the rest of the department and corporate-wide. The team must continue to give guidance to the rest of the company and to keep upper management informed and aware of resources needed. The team must control expectations across the company.

DITA project failure due to poor efficiency of the DITA implementation

  • Implementation of automated conversion tools—Tool vendors will tell you to convert first and then structure your content. Such a process will lead to sure failure. It is mandatory that only highly structured content be converted by automated conversion software. Minimize first to eliminate unnecessary content and then structure. In many cases, it is more efficient to do the structuring and conversion manually.
  • Selection of inappropriate CMS tools—A variety of CMS tools are available to organize DITA topics and aid in workflow, version control, and styling. No particular brand of CMS is best. With good planning, you should have picked the optimal CMS tool for your organization. Many times, because of IT recommendations, sales pressure, pressure from upper management, or because of a mistake in evaluation, a CMS is chosen that does not work well with your organization, resulting in poor efficiency.
  • Expectations set too high—DITA is a powerful standard that can save your organization lots of money through reuse, especially if you do translation. But it is not a miracle worker. Good writing and management are still necessary to produce good publications.

Seeing a DITA project through to a successful conclusion is a daunting task. Pitfalls are everywhere. None of these pitfalls relates to technical problems with the DITA standard. DITA projects that fail, always fail because of management problems. Well-managed DITA projects that are appropriate to your organization and free of external forces will always succeed. If DITA is a correct choice for your organization, navigating through all of the challenges is well worth it.

I am tempted to say “good luck,” but luck has nothing to do with a successful DITA implementation. Instead I’ll end with “good management.”