JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.
Previously published in October 2011

The information-development world embraced desktop publishing in the mid-1980s with great enthusiasm. Desktop publishing software and laser printers gave us the ability to make documents more readable and easier to navigate. We were able to bypass the costs of typesetting and still achieve some of the presentation quality that typesetting provided.

Although Standard General Markup Language (SGML) was available early and was used extensively by large corporations such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and many government agencies, the combination of Microsoft Word and various desktop publishing systems came to dominate the field. All of these products were proprietary—owned, developed, and controlled by a profit-making organization. Once you created content in one product, you were virtually tied to that product. It became and continues to be very difficult and costly to move from one product to another.

By the mid-80s, through the 90s, and into the new century, with the introduction of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) to support the development of the Internet as a communication tool, many organizations, especially large ones, decided to develop in-house applications by working with SGML, customizing the OASIS DocBook XML standard, or developing a unique, proprietary in-house authoring and publishing environment.

Over the years, the Comtech team worked with a large number of clients—including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Bell Laboratories, and various telecommunications companies such as Lucent, Alcatel, Nortel, and many more—who had built internal, proprietary SGML and XML systems. I personally worked closely with SAP’s information-development organization to help develop their internal authoring environment.

The success of these in-house SGML and XML systems rested on their extensive customizations to support exactly the types of content delivered to internal and external customers. In some cases, the in-house systems provide strong functionality, supported by user-friendly authoring environments. In other cases, the functionality lags behind what is available through commercial products and the user interfaces have become out-of-date. The problem is resources. The cost of maintaining an in-house system, which must be borne entirely by the organization, is high.

One of the telecommunications giants of the 90s required a workforce of 15 people to maintain their in-house system. That team did an excellent job. They built a state-of-the-art system in the early 90s that continued to be funded so that it could be updated and maintained—that is, until the collapse of the telecommunications industry around 2000. As a result of that collapse, management reevaluated the benefits vs. the costs of the in-house system and eventually moved to commercial products that supported international standards. The cost of commercially developed products can be amortized across a large number of customer implementations. Moreover, the standards on which these products are based are developed and maintained by a community of volunteers who bring industry and technology expertise.

Business Motivation for Change

At the 2010 DITA Europe conference, sponsored by the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM), Thilo Buchholtz and Teresa Pask of SAP eloquently explained why their learning and training organization had decided to move away from an in-house XML-based content management and authoring system and adopt the OASIS DITA standard instead.

They explained, as every information developer would agree, that information must be developed fast and delivered on-time to customers. And, information coming from multiple sources must be integrated, including information from partners.

Buchholtz and Pask told us that “Adherence to an industry standard data model and toolset enables rapid integration of new technologies and modalities, as well as content contributions from other contributors and partner-built content.” For SAP learning and training,

  • DITA supports the direction that the business wants to take customer-critical content.
  • DITA supplies a modular architecture that supports multiple content deliverables from a single source.
  • More technology is available to support the DITA standard.
  • The open-source community supports technology changes.

I regularly learn in discussions with senior management that they have already decided to move, like SAP, from their sound but expensive in-house XML environment to the DITA standard. But there is more to the move than just the expense of maintaining an in-house system. The DITA standard promises interoperability, a critical consideration at a time of increasing business consolidation.

Mergers and Acquisitions

What happens when one company with a proprietary in-house system buys another company with its own proprietary in-house system? One group usually has to change to the other’s proprietary system, usually at great expense. What happens when a company using the DITA standard buys or merges with another company using the same DITA standard? They easily merge their content, even if both have DITA specializations in place. If they are using DITA out-of-the-box, the merger simply requires an integration of the two information models. That integration, although requiring agreement about architecture details, is far simpler and less expensive than integrating two proprietary systems.

Integration of Content Contributors and Content Management Systems

If each organization uses different authoring tools or different content management systems, as long as these systems are based on the DITA standard, the integration can be quite simple. In fact, we have been assisting one such move to a new content management system. We export all of the data from one system, including all of the translated content, to the other system with automated scripts. Both systems support the DITA standard, with few proprietary features that cannot be “translated” to the other system.

The Role of Standards Bodies in Moving Away from In-house and Propietary Models

Laurent Liscia, the Executive Director of OASIS, has written a series of articles on standards and innovation for CIDM Information Management News, our monthly e-newsletter.

In CIDM Information Management News, February 2010, Liscia provides some history of the development of standards. He explains that government-sanctioned bodies developed many earlier standards. For example, we know that U.S. government agencies provide standards for workplace safety or the safe handling of food. Such de jure or legally required standards are backed by legislation.

More recently, standards have been developed not by government but by standards organizations such as OASIS that are supported by interested industries. He explains that “in 1988 … Europe made an enlightened and agile move and created a standards body that involved not just the Post & Telecom administrations, but private companies in Europe and elsewhere.”

Innovations that had been developed in-house by companies—such as IBM’s development of DITA—have come to be a shared and openly accessible collection of technology. Standards have become a good way for all of us to share the responsibilities and cost of product development.

Clearly, the motivation for the move to standards has been financial. By working together, industry representatives could share the work in defining and developing an innovative technology. In developing the DITA standard, we have seen exactly this result. Although the standard was begun by IBM to support its own internal requirements, by donating the original DITA 1.0 to the OASIS standards community, IBM allowed many more companies to become involved. The development of the standard is now supported by the work of many contributors.

However, spreading development costs across an industry is only one of the benefits of standards. The ability to move information resources from one company to another, because of mergers and acquisitions or through business partnerships, has become essential. Today, DITA standard content can be

  • Used across departments and throughout the global enterprise.
  • Shared across related industries.
  • Maintained through corporate reorganizations.

Liscia points out that as “companies multiplied in the field, interoperability between the many software products available looked more and more like a great idea.”

Contributing to the move to standards have been the move to communicate through the Internet, the move to open source software, and the use of XML as a foundation. All of these influences have helped promote innovation through DITA, introducing new ways of developing and managing information.

Again, Liscia tells us that “more often than not … a software standard IS the innovation, not the result of innovations that must be standardized. For instance,

[OASIS has] a set of technical committees that focus on ways to make the power grid smarter—the so-called Smart Grid effort. The participants have a good idea of what they want to do, but what they want to do does not exist yet—and will change as they realize their collective vision, through public comments, open contributions, and ballots.”

Since its introduction in 2006, we have witnessed a large number of organizations adopting the DITA standard. Doing so significantly reduces the cost of implementing XML-based structured authoring. The organizations are supported by

  • Product developers that adopt the standard.
  • Well-organized and effective training opportunities.
  • Articles, white papers, blogs, conference presentations, and books.
  • A skilled community of consultants and colleagues.

Organizations encouraging their management to support a move to DITA are able to argue that adopting an international standard developed by a community of industry representatives is a beneficial corporate move. Senior managers, often coming from engineering and software development, understand the importance of standards. Their own work relies on standards, many of them also developed by the OASIS community.

If you’re getting ready to recommend adopting the OASIS DITA standard, you’ll find yourself in good company, not only with fellow information developers but also with the entire standards community.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.