David Hollis, A and O Consultancy, Ltd.


This question was recently posed by JoAnn Hackos to the DITA Adoption TC. Rather an obvious question, perhaps? But a very important one, none the less. I was musing over this question, and came to the conclusion that it’s a lot like taking a holiday in Wyoming!

Wyoming you know…cowboy country! All those westerns: from Big Country and the John Wayne movies to TV series such as Bonanza and The Virginian. For JoAnn and Frank, who are members of the TC living and working in Denver, Colorado, a holiday in Wyoming is no more than a journey to the neighbouring State, probably in an ‘RV’. For me from England, it involves a flight to the US, and maybe one or more connecting internal flights. Then there’s the culture shock of driving on US roads. Now I’m used to commuting up the M11 each day, and I’d rather not incriminate myself by admitting the speeds that I do! Roads in Wyoming will be very long and virtually empty by comparison. I’ll need to get used to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and using cruise control. Let’s face it! When and where can you really use cruise control in England? Maybe at 3 in the morning, if you’re lucky!

And so it is with adopting DITA! It depends where you’re coming from that determines the extent of the DITA ‘journey’ and potential culture shock. DITA is not like Word, FrameMaker, or Author-it. It doesn’t have a content editor, or a CMS. It’s a multi-format publishing tool, which will require quite a bit of setting up. For some, the culture shock will be from the ‘minimalist’ approach and topic-based authoring. For others, it will be from ‘structured authoring’ and divorcing content and presentation. For others, it will be from getting used to ‘reuse’, rather than tracking content duplication and the change control that this requires.

Minimalism involves understanding who the users are and their typical competencies, because topic-based authoring is essentially authoring from the user’s perspective, providing real world tasks. Structured authoring can sound intimidating, but it’s really about properly organising the content set and guiding the authoring. The DITA structure is actually quite loose, and there can often be more than one way to achieve a certain result. It is nothing like the military requirements of S1000D, for instance. It can take some getting used to, writing without being concerned about how it will look…somewhat the opposite to the WYSIWYG DTP approach.

Now, some of the ex-pats in the UK STC Chapter are going to point out the howling assumptions I made about Wyoming. It may well not be the best State for the ‘ultimate Cowboy experience’, even though ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody gave his name to Cody, Wyoming. One of the main tourist attractions is, in fact, Yellowstone National Park. Also, only one of the productions mentioned was actually filmed on location in Wyoming. I’d also like to point out that Big Country was released before I was born! So, don’t make big assumptions when adopting DITA! Don’t make assumptions about content editing tools, for instance. There are a lot to choose from, so it’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate several.

So, what does it mean to adopt DITA? The success or failure of adopting DITA will have more to do with change management and education than DITA itself, making sure that everyone is ‘on board’ and understands what is going to happen and why. The extent of this task will depend on the starting point. Perhaps the current content isn’t structured, but is it well disciplined and organised? How much duplication is there? How well do you know your customers; what are their needs and current concerns? The business benefits and potential cost savings are definitely there, especially for any form of collaborative authoring.