Howard Schwartz, Ph.D., SDL Trisoft


There is no question anymore that DITA can fundamentally improve an organization’s ability to reach and penetrate global markets. But too often DITA is simply presented to management as a means to “save translation costs.” There is a subtle but vast conceptual difference between “translation costs savings” and “expansion of global markets” even though both describe one and the same benefit. This question of labels would not really matter were it not for the fact that words shape how management perceives and ultimately funds a DITA initiative. Misnaming benefits can undermine the perceived value of an initiative that is strategic, and ironically compromise the funding and hence very success of a project. “Translation cost savings” is not strategic, “expanding global markets” is.

This point has been driven home to me over the past year as I have watched and helped different organizations try to secure funding for their move to DITA. Let us be frank. There is no question that a special management talent is required to secure funding for a project in a large organization that has many competing demands. Strong “evangelism” is needed, requiring the political, persuasive, and interpersonal skills to navigate the landmines of an organization. Often the difference between an organization that funds DITA sufficiently and one that does not stems from the ability of the champion to sell the vision and strategic value of DITA to the organization’s management. This is where the naming of benefits becomes so critical. What from one perspective looks like “translation costs savings” is from another perspective, “new markets, new revenue opportunities, and increased customer satisfaction.” That difference can mean a project that is well funded versus one that must proceed on a bootstrap.

To understand this naming issue better, consider first how DITA reduces translation costs, often in quite substantial ways. Organizations that move to DITA can, and in some cases have, reduced translation costs by 30% to 50%. They have achieved these savings by reducing the amount of source content that must go out to translation, through source content reuse, and by automating publishing processes, virtually eliminating the expensive cost of desktop publishing (DTP). Source content reuse can sometimes be 30% or higher. And DITA combined with a component content management (CCM) system is particularly good at increasing the levels of reuse. If an organization is translating into ten languages, a 30% reduction in source content is amplified by the number of languages (10x) to result in quite a substantial translation savings. Furthermore, DTP can be virtually eliminated. For those familiar with the standard translation process, DTP is the manual process of layout that occurs after translation to ensure that the translated content flows properly within the format of the document. DTP, which is essentially low value and throw away work, can often account for 10% to 20% of translation budgets. Using DITA and automating publishing processes, DTP costs can virtually disappear. For this reason many organizations try to justify their move to DITA as a reduction of translation costs. Today, we spend $800,000 annually on translation. By implementing DITA we can save $250,000 annually.

All of these benefits are achievable. But cost savings are much less strategic to a business than expansion of global markets, new revenue opportunities, and increased customer satisfaction. Indeed, the benefits of DITA described above in fact empower just these kinds of strategic benefits to the global organization. The difference is one of perspective and what an organization does with the efficiency gain, not a difference in the impact of DITA. For example, if we can take the same $800,000 localization budget and now eliminate DTP and reduce the amount of source content being translated by 30%, an organization can now potentially add three or four new languages to its release. In other words, the efficiency gains from DITA can be taken as cost savings for the bottom line (which may be attractive) or as expansion of the business and an opportunity to reach new customers or better satisfy existing ones. There is ample evidence that content tailored to customers’ profiles, which includes the languages they speak, does impact sales revenue, customer satisfaction, and ultimately repeat buying behavior. Whether an organization converts efficiency gains to bottom line savings or to strategic value depends on many factors including the state of the economy, the particular market, and the overall strategy of the company. But an organization will not interpret DITA efficiencies as strategic benefits unless someone has sold that vision to management in the first place.

It is important to realize that the way we name efficiency gains does not have to be an “either or” proposition. Once the efficiencies are achieved, an organization has a choice: whether to take the gains as savings or to put them to more strategic use. But the vision has to be painted for management. “In times of economic turmoil, we can cut our budgets. But when the market turns, we can move into three times as many markets as before.” The shift in perspective described here can fundamentally impact the chances that a project will be sufficiently funded and succeed. When projects go up the chain and through to the budget chopping block, where only three of the fifteen projects will survive, those that have strategic long-term value, and have mindshare of some Vice President who cares, are the ones that get funded. And they get funded more amply than otherwise.

In the end, whether DITA appears strategic to management has a significant impact on whether the project will ultimately be successful. There is no question that the shift into structured authoring with DITA requires a substantial investment in resources and infrastructure. Information architecture is needed, DITA needs to be learned, writers have to adapt to a new paradigm, and an infrastructure has to be deployed that allows for content reuse and automated publishing. That infrastructure requires at minimum authoring tools, a component content management (CCM) system, and can benefit as well from content quality checking and terminology tools, and in some cases a translation management system.

But when DITA’s benefits are underplayed and presented as “translation savings” only, management does not allocate the requisite budgets to properly support the new process. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without infrastructure, DITA will not have the strategic impact that structured authoring ultimately could deliver and indeed may not even deliver the tactical “translation savings” either. Infrastructure is needed to maximize and achieve consistent content reuse, which of course is key to driving down the amount of content going to translation. Infrastructure is needed as well to manage the now thousands of topics in many languages created when content was moved out of monolithic documents and into DITA. The overhead of translation may go up as project management becomes a bigger burden, managing the increased flow of topics out to vendors. The difference between “translation savings” and “expanding global markets” may be just a shift in perspective, a different angle on the same efficiency gain. But the effect is ultimately a world of difference.

Howard Schwartz, Ph.D., is VP of Content Management, at SDL Trisoft and runs US operations for the organization. Howard has played various executive roles in enterprise software for over ten years with a focus on enterprise global content management. Before Trisoft, Howard was VP of Enterprise Business Consulting for SDL’s Enterprise Technologies Division and joined SDL through the acquisition of Trados, where he was one of the Trados executives responsible for Business Consulting. Prior to Trados, Howard was VP of Marketing at Uniscape which was acquired by Trados. Earlier in his career, Howard managed technical publications at Genesys Telecommunications. Howard has a Ph.D. from Brown University, a B.A. in Psychology from Duke University and has taught at Stanford, Indiana, Temple, and Santa Clara Universities. Howard is an author of several books and more than a dozen academic articles.