Implemeting DITA

This Spring one of the documentation teams to which I began implementing a Content Management System with the goal of converting all documentation to DITA-based topics. At this point the server for the CMS is running and most of the team has completed the online training in how to use the writing tools. Now the fun begins! Now we must establish editorial policies and figure out how to create reusable topics.

Our first assignment was to take an existing manual and create an outline for how to break it into topics. As a result, we realized how unique most of our topics are, providing little opportunity for reuse. I am a bit behind this process due to deadlines. The manual I am working on, however, reuses material from other books. In the daily stress of meeting deadlines it is hard to make the time to analyze content. But, the analysis step is vital to the success of the project.

 

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Need for single sourcing

I heard a true-life story recently about a technical writer who was hired for the sole purpose of updating a company’s name and address in all the technical manuals available through the company website. It took the highly-compensated employee months to find, correct, and proofread every instance, and although declared complete, the project isn’t over yet. New occurrences of the old name are still being found.

In a tight economy, this is, frankly, an expense that should be avoided! A company’s name and address should be stored in one place. Every document published by every department should refer to that single location. Then, when the inevitable happens and the company changes names, a simple update to a single file would save hours of searching, changing and proof reading.

Sounds easy, right? Implementation of such a system is far from easy, mainly because departments own their content and are either unwilling to share or have good reasons why they cannot share, and because proprietary publishing tools are incompatible. Even within a tech pubs group, the wheel gets reinvented as each author writes and rewrites the same material—at the most copying and pasting from one other.

Content sharing requires an honest commitment to shared goals and a new publishing paradigm.

Commitment: To share goals requires a clear understanding of the benefits for each group. Each must be able to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” Recognition and rewards need to be structured to promote content sharing.

New paradigm: Instead of collecting information in books, authors and managers need to think in terms of reusable content chunks, which can be treated as objects and assembled from a single source to produce: paper, online help, website content, etc.

This new commitment and paradigm do not need to result in loss of control. Topics need ownership just as much as documents do. Topic review and approval is as important as is document review and approval. Updating responsibility needs to be clearly defined.

Finally, technology must support the goal of shared content. But, technology is but the tool. Commitment and acceptance of the new paradigm are the most important factors to success.

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