DITA and Culture

Organizations planning and implementing a DITA conversion often focus on technical concerns. Which XML editor will we use? Will we use a CCMS? If so, which CCMS? If we publish PDF deliverables, what tools will we use to transform DITA content to PDF? These technical questions are certainly important. Teams and leaders concerned with these technical matters, however, often overlook cultural concerns that are equally important, and sometimes more crucial to the success of the DITA implementation. Cultural issues affect both the technical communication team itself and stakeholders outside of the technical communication team.

Within the technical communication team, cultural issues include authoring component content and content ownership. Authoring component content requires more than just decomposing monolithic documents into topics. A key reason for the component nature of DITA is to make the re-use of topics possible. Content frequently requires revision to make topics stand-alone effectively so they can be re-used in different contexts. In particular, locational text such as “see above,” “see below,” “previously,” or “next” must be eliminated. When content is re-used, topics might change location relative to each other, making these locational references inaccurate. Content must be written more generally. It can take effort to break this habit.

DITA semantics can substitute for transitional or glue text, often to the benefit of both the reader and the author. For example, text such as “before you begin, make sure you…” or “after completing this procedure” can be eliminated and the text revised in a prerequisite or post-requisite element. The publishing process handles stub content. Cross-references can also create problems with re-use. Re-use might demand that cross-references be removed and abstracted.

In many organizations that use unstructured, monolithic formats, it is common for individual authors to “own” specific deliverables:

Deliverable A belongs to Suneetha. Deliverable B belongs to Olga. Deliverable C belongs to Jing. Installation manuals belong to Dagmar. User guides belong to Masahiro. Troubleshooting guides belong to Hassan.

Because content re-use is challenging in these formats, authors rewrite content rather than re-using it. This practice leads to inconsistency in voice, messaging, and even technical details.

Component formats such as DITA are designed for re-use. As a result, authors have less ownership over content. The content belongs to the organization, not to the author. Authors are responsible for managing deliverables, re-using content where appropriate, and writing new and specific content when necessary. Authors must identify opportunities for re-using content, many times with the support of an information architect. They also must collaborate with other authors to maintain shared content so it can be re-used across deliverables.

Content ownership is often a challenge for stakeholders outside of the technical communication team. In some organizations, stakeholders such as engineers and product managers write the content. The job of technical writers in these organizations is to use their tools to “make it pretty”, not to edit content or even to manage it. In organizations that use presentation-oriented formats or tools, reviewers might be accustomed to requesting presentational fixes, such as changing page breaks. Regardless of the details, stakeholders are resistant to ”handing over the keys” and letting the technical communication team own the content.

Technical concerns often overshadow cultural concerns, but the cultural concerns are at least as important. A DITA migration is thus as much a cultural challenge as a technical challenge. In fact, the DITA migrations that I have seen fail usually failed for cultural reasons rather than technical reasons. Change management can be a helpful tool to promote successful cultural change.

ROBERT JOHNSON

Senior Content Strategist

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