Donna Marcotte, Independent Consultant

Baltimore’s beautiful Inner Harbor served as the backdrop for the 13th annual Content Management Strategies/DITA North America Conference (CMS/DITA), which was held April 4-6, 2011. This major seaport, rich in maritime history and culture, was an ideal location for information professionals, managers, technicians, and solution providers who are setting their sights on new ways to develop information and deliver it to their enterprise and their customers.

More than 260 people from 15 countries gathered at the conference hotel, which was right on the waterfront, just steps away from the sun, seafood, and Inner Harbor ambience.

Destination DITA

This was my first CMS/DITA conference, though I have attended other CIDM conferences. One of my clients also attended. We are researching use of DITA to meet the information needs of her organization, a global consortium that develops XML-based data-exchange standards for the oil and gas industry.

The consortium develops and supports sets of standards for several different technical domains. The work of those domains is integrated and so are the standards. So naturally, the documentation needs to be integrated too. Additionally, the many different consortium members from around the world have varying ideas about what kind of information deliverables are needed: Printed manuals. Web-based content. Single manuals for each data object in the standard. One giant manual that documents everything. All of the above!

It was clear that a “book-based” traditional documentation approach was no longer sustainable. A consultant colleague of mine had been talking with me about DITA, and I could see the value of this approach on many levels for my client’s organization.

She too was able to see the value of DITA, but we both still had many questions on how it worked, how to get started, and what tools to use. DITA/CMS served as the single perfect event where we could learn about all aspects of DITA, structured authoring, and related tools and technologies.

Charting the Course

The two-and-a-half-day conference was organized into four tracks—authoring, technical, management, and tools—and featured more than 75 presentations from people in every stage of the DITA process, from those like me in the early stages or investigation, to seasoned “sailors,” some of whom were among the first to chart the DITA seas.

Our host JoAnn Hackos opened the conference with a welcome to the delegates, an overview of the conference, and introduction of keynote speaker Scott McCloud, comic artist and authority, and author of the book Understanding Comics.

I have neither the column space nor the words to do justice to describing Scott McCloud. He may be most recently best known for developing a comic book to explain the inner workings of Google Chrome, Google’s open source browser. He talked about that experience along with several other seemingly unrelated topics (like a road trip with his children) but weaved those topics together with a fast-paced yet easy delivery style punctuated with rapidly changing humorous graphics that entertained, educated and intrigued this viewer. This was not your father’s PowerPoint presentation! Check out his website:

Anchors Aweigh

Well the keynote was a hard act to follow, but many sessions delivered more good and useful information. Here are some highlights from just a few of the sessions I attended.

The authoring track had several excellent presentations about the changes required in development and publication processes to successfully implement DITA. Tim Allen’s (Oberon Technologies) message was loud and clear: If your information developers (ID) still write or own “books,” then your organization isn’t really doing DITA, or isn’t realizing the full value of structured authoring, topic-based development, and content re-use.

In a subsequent presentation (“It Takes a Village: Managing publications with many contributors”), Mark Forry and Pia Chamberlain presented a case study of successful organizational and process restructuring at NetApp, Inc. Their team had transformed their publication process, to include new information development roles, which include publication captain, publication architect, and content contributor. Members of their staff serve in multiple roles across different deliverables. This enabled them to focus on writing successful stand-alone topics (content contributor) and to effectively re-use their topics to create different deliverables (content architecture).

In his management track presentation, “DITA or Bust: How we succeeded in spite of everything,” Steve Straight of TruePosition, Inc. delivered a candid and humorous (though he may not have been laughing at the time) overview of being recruited by a former boss to manage a pubs team and move it to DITA. He provided lots of helpful “learn-from-my-mistakes” advice, which, as someone just beginning this journey, I truly appreciated.

Land Ho!

To me, the overall best business-value story came from the team of Marcos Campos, Derek Saldana and Bob Beims at Freescale Semiconductor, with a presentation titled, “It’s not ‘Just’ Documentation Any More!” The trio explained how their company is using DITA to transform their overall business processes, not just their documentation. Their DITA content is intellectual property developed by engineers, product designers and even customers. Using DITA, that information can be developed, maintained and leveraged throughout their design, production, sales and customer service process. Now that’s maximizing information value!

Ahoy Mates!

Of course, tools and technology are also key concerns, so we spent time talking with the many solution exhibitors. The conference facility was conveniently set up with the breakout rooms right off the main exhibition hall where we also had our meals, making it easy to interact with exhibitors without having to miss any of the great sessions.

DITA is still relatively new and the tools are emerging. Several of the session presenters commented about how cooperative and collaborative the solution providers have been as people work together to chart the course and develop viable, robust yet flexible solutions. Additionally, the vendors are also willing to collaborate. For example, an authoring tool that was cited by many to be one of the favorites, can easily integrate with many of the content management systems.

Perhaps this cooperation is due to the integrative flexibility of XML-based technologies. Or maybe it’s more. Come find out for yourself at DITA Europe 2011 or CMS/DITA 2012.