Doug Gorman, Simply XML

The surgeon knows more about your body than you ever will. The race car mechanic knows so much about an engine, including how varying the viscosity of oil will impact performance. The professional golfer uses wind and wedges in ways that confound the average golfer.

Does this mean that we don’t know enough…….to use our bodies, to take care of our cars, to enjoy the game of golf? Of course not!

The DITA expert in a large technical publications department in a large global conglomerate also knows more about DITA than you ever will.

But just like the person who takes care of his body, car, or golf game you can get the advantages of and, in fact, the enjoyment of DITA across your organization without having to be a DITA surgeon, mechanic, or elite professional.

A Shift in Orientation from Tech Pubs to the Enterprise

The Tech Pubs professional implements DITA. The rest of the organization couldn’t care less about implementing DITA. You want to improve publishing, lower costs, comply with regulations, meet customer needs, and display a consistent and positive image to your customers and employees. You can meet these goals with a little bit of DITA, just enough to improve your authoring and publishing.

DITA is an OASIS standard. DITA is XML. XML is a complicated new structure and language. And DITA is driven by complicated rules called schemas. So what?

Beyond Tech Pubs, DITA is also a holistic approach to improving publishing, lowering costs, complying with regulations, meeting customer needs, and displaying a consistent and positive image to your customers and employees. Using DITA to achieve those goals involves some fundamental organizational changes while using a subset of the tools that DITA provides. There are seven fundamental initiatives needed to achieve the benefits of DITA.

1. A shift from document-centric authoring to topic-based writing
2. The use of general and specialized typing of information topics
3. The application of good writing principles
4. The separation of content development from content publishing
5. Information reuse through single source and multi-channel publishing
6. The use of work flow to control the authoring and publishing system
7. Use of the same tools for different purposes depending on skill level and organizational need

Let’s take a look at these concepts.

1. A shift from document-centric authoring to topic-based writing
Traditionally, organizations have authored and published documents. These documents include training programs, marketing collateral, and policy and procedure manuals. As we move to a global society, consumers of this information minimally expect that the information will be translated and written in an understandable way. Well-written documents have always been divided into sections and organized in a hierarchy. Unfortunately, many documents contain everything the writer knows, rather than everything the reader needs to know in order to take necessary action.

So, while generally understanding that topics and sections are going to be assembled into a larger structure, the new authoring focus begins at the level of a DITA Topic. A DITA Topic covers one subject and is complete enough to make sense on its own. Topics can be developed to explain how something works, what the policies are, or how to perform a series of steps.

This shift is not a huge leap for a good writer, but the shift to topic-based writing is fundamental to improving publishing costs and the performance of information consumers.

2. The use of general and specialized typing of information topics
DITA encourages and provides a means of authoring information that is specific to the needs of an audience. Beyond a general “DITA Topic” there can be DITA Tasks, DITA References, and DITA Concepts. Tasks are series of steps that are performed by a person to reach a desired result—things people do. References are assemblies of information that need to be accessed to support work. Concepts are pretty much anything else.

Within the DITA structure, concepts can be further specialized by general purpose for the reader or by the specific needs of various functions or work groups. Bloom’s taxonomy or Information Mapping can help writers understand and segment information into processes, facts, definitions, structures, etc. But various work groups can think in terms of the structures or templates they need to create a white paper, product sheet, policy, or any mission-critical content.

DITA Tasks, References, and Concepts are extremely flexible and provide an obvious level of utility to help authors and information consumers. Well-defined topic structures will improve the performance of information.

3. Application of the good writing principles
This is where organizations often get lost. The principles of good writing are universal, their utility having very little specific relationship to XML or DITA. When we learned to write, we learned that a paragraph was one thought. Paragraphs have a topic sentence with other sentences supporting the main point of the paragraph. Sentences should be grammatically correct and organized at a level of detail that is appropriate for the audience. Authors need to think about the purpose of their writing, so they can contribute the appropriate level of detail for the audience(s). New ideas, thoughts, or information should be constructed so that the information consumer both understands and performs correctly.

Many organizations and many technical people have lost sight of the positive impact that these good writing principles can have on the audience.

4. Separation of content publishing from content development
The traditional writer thinks about the document he/she is creating. How will it be organized? What will it look like? And with some understanding of one or more audiences, the author creates one document that, by the very nature of multiple audiences, is only “good enough” for each audience. And those documents were created for paper, but more recently published on the web as PDF. Writers traditionally had to spend a significant amount of time worrying about desktop publishing issues like fonts, table structures, presentation of graphics, and page layout.

The currently available media of communications makes the one-size-fits-all document obsolete. We know that consumers want information presented sometimes on paper, sometimes on the Web, and sometimes on a PDA. And such multi-channel publishing is not only possible, but quite straightforward with DITA.

5. Information reuse through single source and multi-channel publishing
Imagine you are in charge of a large national bank. You have 50 different retail teller manuals—one for each state. You need these different manuals because compliance is a bit different in each state. Yet, you realize that 80 to 90% of the content is the same in each manual. Why maintain 50 manuals when there is such overlap? Why not re-use the content that is the same and author and control the content that is different in each state? This is a sweet spot for DITA. Author, edit, and maintain all the content in one place, but publish 50 different versions or more if multiple media are targeted.

And some of your users will want to print all or some sections of the finished manual, perhaps to tape a list of entry codes on the side of their monitors. And the traveling mortgage originators may want to access those codes or specific rules on their PDAs. This is a perfect application for DITA.

6. The use of workflow to control the authoring and publishing system
There is a natural order and rhythm to content development and publishing. Some staff create content. Some approve content. Some publish content. When one person is editing content, another person should not be allowed to edit the same content. And the person who accesses content may need to know that the specific required content is being updated. The Tech Pubs department has been handling these issues for years. They were following in the footsteps of staff a decade earlier that used workflow to control the numbers and entries in their databases.

A simple implementation of workflow rules can improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of DITA content creation, management, and publishing. Roles are assigned and the status of various content units is visible and controlled. Content is checked out for update, checked in for release, or in a state of review for approval. We suggest that you implement just enough workflow to meet your user’s needs.

7. The same tools can be used appropriately for different purposes depending on skill level and need
Let’s talk about a simple concept—the razor blade. For us the razor is a tool to remove a sticker from the windshield of my car. For the surgeon, the razor is a tool to trim the cartilage in your knee. It is pretty much the same tool, but used for very different purposes. The mechanic can use a screwdriver to adjust the air/gas ratio in a carburetor. You can use the same screwdriver to attach a bell to your child’s tricycle. The same tool has very different uses. In addition to these basic tools, the surgeon and the racecar mechanic both have a full set of tools that you and I will never need.

And so it is with the DITA tool set. We can use the screwdrivers, hammers, and pliers of DITA while the experts can take full advantage of the specialized tools that are available and useful to them. We do not need to force ourselves to use inappropriate tools or to even know the functions of some of the tools. This simplistic utilitarian approach to tools is sometimes misunderstood and misused by the experts—they assume that everyone needs all the tools.

To author DITA, most people in the organization need only a computer or web-based authoring tool. To store and share content, most people need little more than a shared repository connected to a simple workflow. And to publish to multiple media, most people need nothing more than the DITA Open Toolkit.

Conclusion

DITA is a broad and useful standard that can be used by almost anyone in the enterprise to create better content. It need not be relegated to technical experts or even professionals. All writers and publishers in the rest of the organization can find utility and performance with DITA and enjoy the ride.

Doug Gorman
Doug Gorman is the founder of Simply XML, a software and services company that is helping Microsoft Word-based authors to achieve the advantages of DITA and other XML-based structured writing methodologies. Doug is now working to broaden the use of standards-based authoring across the enterprise with DITA and XML.