Pam Sheridan, anonymous company
May 15, 2020

Five years ago, we began the momentous transformation of our technical content from a monolithic document-dominated proprietary process to a DITA-standard, topic-oriented content management paradigm. The scale of the migration was not only unprecedented in our organization but also not wholly supported within an industry that rarely prioritizes investment in tech pub over software development.

The journey was not without its struggles and pain points, in fact, we still have not reached our destination. The ultimate goal, the utopia we were traveling towards was fully reusable converged content across all domains. In retrospect, there were two critical junctures where decisions could have taken us on a different path that might have led to a more successful migration and full adaption.

Crucially, we decided to focus on the migration first and then look to the output capabilities, in retrospect it would have been wiser to focus on and drive a complete end-to-end solution while we had C-level support for the investment. It was very difficult to reignite interest or investment in the follow-up publication transformation after the initial migration was complete.

Our transformation journey began with a painstaking requirement collection and business case analysis to determine why and what we needed to change. Our proprietary system had long served but did not have the potential to breakdown and reuse content intelligently. We determined our Goal would be to provide seamless and converged single-sourced content to the emerging converged platforms. This content would feed not only traditional output formats but potentially interactive media that the trends were indicating would be de facto customer expectations of the future.

Then followed, the acquisition of a content management system, and we enthusiastically began investigating the quickest way to bulk migrate our content from our proprietary base. From inception, we believed we had a very good position in the starting blocks as we already had a very high compliance to our enterprise writing standards and given that we all were producing content for the same products  – it had to be reusable once it was in the same CMS – right?  Wrong.

Sadly, what we had failed to acknowledge or at least, grasp the consequences of, was the critical divergence in terminology. True, we were all writing about the same products in the same basic framework, but we failed to appreciate the scale on which such content can vary depending on geographical and domain perspectives. In our quest for reuse, we overlooked the first basic step – Compliance. We believed once we got the content into the system, we would be able to quickly ‘fix’ any divergence using metadata and tagging features that we were lacking in our previous system. The slow dawn of realization revealed that while these tools would greatly enhance an already unified body of content, they were powerless against an ocean of uncurated content.

The reality is that content produced on enterprise level from a globally dispersed workforce that comprises of contributors from developers and SMEs to contractors and permanent tech writers will vary greatly. If the source system does not have an overarching taxonomy with automatic governance in place, there is scope for idioms, jargon, and colloquialism to take root. Over time, the roots spread, often resulting in the same product having a different naming convention across development, marketing, training, and customer content. This is not a problem when all the stakeholders are disjointed. It is, however, a deal-breaker when we want to pool all the stakeholder information into a common repository for reuse.

So! Where would I start from, were we to begin on this journey again? I’d start, not with breakneck speed migrating content, but with a deep dive into the detail of our content — simplify, unify, and align with no assumption based on standards compliance. I’d talk to our customers about their publishing expectations and future challenges to futureproof the end to end solution. Only then, would we begin our transformation assured in the knowledge that when we do finally reach our destination, our journey would indeed be done.