At easyDITA, helping our customers create and maintain timely, accurate, relevant content is our mission. We work with many different types of organizations to find a better way to deliver the right content in the right format at the right time using the DITA XML open information standard.
Very often the content strategy initiatives we get involved in are guided and managed by one of our consultant partners. Sometimes a consultant will bring us into one of their engagements when it’s time to implement a tool for DITA authoring and content management. At other times we steer a customer to a consultant because they need help with content strategy, training, conversion or some other aspect of a DITA implementation.
The purpose of this blog post is to sum up our experiences and help you decide when it’s time to hire a consultant.
Managing the change
The move to structured authoring with DITA XML involves a lot of change; changing the way documentation is written, the tools you use to do your job, and the workflows around authoring, review and approval. Your team might not have the experience to successfully navigate the transition. A consultant can help you define where you want to go, then recommend the right people, process and technologies to ensure you reach your destination.
Hiring a DITA consultant can help you avoid extra costs by guiding you down the right path the first time and then helping you maneuver around any bumps in the road. We will look at some of these potential trouble spots in today’s blog: content strategy, information modeling, technical writing training, tool selection, legacy content conversion, localization and stylesheet development.
For each step we will attempt to answer two questions: When is it OK to try to complete this step by yourself? If you hire a consultant, what should they deliver?
Developing a Content Strategy
A content strategy outlines what information you need to develop, who will develop it, and how it will be delivered to the customer. But before you get to the What, Who and How, you need to answer the question Why? Why are you changing your content strategy? What’s the business case, what’s the expected Return on Investment, and what are the key milestones and metrics you will use to measure your progress along the way?
An experienced consultant can help with this. They’ve been down this road before, they see the big picture and can communicate the vision to others across your enterprise, keeping the whole wagon train moving forward.
That doesn’t mean a consultant will come in and immediately tell you what direction you should go. While this article assumes you have already decided to move to DITA XML, that doesn’t mean that structuring your content is the right strategy for every situation. (In fact, we have a very popular blog post on that subject: How to Decide if DITA is Right for You.)
Every client is different, and there really aren’t any cookie-cutter solutions. The solution that works best for your organization is one that takes into account your corporate culture and risk tolerance. A successful DITA implementation begins with a period of discovery, and while they won’t have all the answers right away, consultants should know the right questions to ask.
The first step is for the consultant to meet with information developers, architects, managers and consumers to gain a good understanding of how content components are being used, reused, localized, managed, and delivered. What types of information are you developing? Why is it being created? Who will access it and how will they use it? Through these discussions a consultant will gain an understanding of your current pain points as well as your vision for the future.
TIP: Form a cross-functional task force that will meet regularly throughout the strategy, design and implementation phases, working closely with the consulting organization to ensure the solution fits your environment and accomplishes the objectives you set out.
[Comtech Services has a good outline of the Road to DITA on their website. There’s a link to the PDF download here.]
Can my team develop a content strategy without a consultant?
The answer to this question depends on the complexity of your desired future state and the skill sets, experience level and availability of your core team and other internal resources. Does your task force include senior information architects, technologists and strategy experts? Has anyone developed a complete content strategy or implemented DITA before? If not, your chance of success will be greatly increased by hiring some professional help.
Consider hiring a consultant if your plans include:
- Highly customized or dynamic publishing outputs
- Legacy content conversion
- Streamlined translation process
- Complex taxonomy
If I hire a consultant to help develop a content strategy, what should they deliver?
At the end of the discovery phase of the engagement, a consultant should deliver a detailed strategy that includes timelines, roles and responsibilities, and success metrics. Insufficient planning, too-high expectations and overly aggressive deadlines are some of the major reasons why business transformation efforts fail. A consultant will mitigate those risks and ensure that all your goals are achieved.
[Scott Abel’s latest book, “The Language of Content Strategy”, was jointly written by 52 experts in the field. Check out the content strategy Term of the Week for some great insights.]
Building an Information Model
If your content strategy includes a move to XML topic-based authoring, you will need to build a structure, or information model, for your content. The model is a set of rules that define how content will be developed and organized, and how information will be tagged, linked and reused. The information model is the map that will guide the activities of each member of the team – writers, information architects, managers, etc. – and keep your content usable and consistent.
The process begins with a review of your current content, including how it is being used and by whom. What “types” of information do you have? How are your documents typically structured? How are all the individual files organized, by product, user, geography? You then build an information model around your unique environment, defining how information will be shared and reused, what metadata and tags will be applied, and how to consistently author and organize content.
Sometimes your model will require extending DITA with a specialization like Learning & Training, but it might also mean defining a subset of DITA that meets your needs.
Can my team develop an information model without a consultant?
See the previous section on content strategy for some insights into this question. While everyone will need an information model to take full advantage of DITA, some will require a more complex model than others. Is your information well organized? Is it consistently written, named, labeled, and formatted? Does your team include information architects with a command of the relationships inside your content? If so, you may already have some structure and rules in place that can form the basis of your Information Model. If not, you might need a consultant to get you off on the right foot.
If I hire a consultant to help develop an information model, what should they deliver?
A consultant will perform the role of information architect. They will help you analyze your content and define the right DITA types and metadata to use for your purposes. It depends on what your business goals are, but some typical outputs from information modeling are:
- Reuse strategy guidelines [Ann Rockley has a great chapter on this topic in her book DITA 101. The chapter is available as a free sample here.]
- Taxonomy and metadata
- Tagging guidelines
- Style sheet specifications
Going forward, your writers will need to work within your information model when they develop any new content. While a consultant can help with that ongoing work, hiring an information architect or training a writer to be the “keeper” of the architecture is a good practice.
Documenting your Technology Requirements
Identifying the right DITA CMS and authoring tool is critical to the success of your project. However, you should wait and buy tools after you’ve developed a strategy and have a plan for moving to DITA. Your content strategy and information model will define your requirements for things like usability, metadata/taxonomy support, conditionalization, translation management, etc.
Your consultant should be very familiar with the different tool vendors, understand the strengths and limitations of each product, and help you identify a short list of solutions that will meet your needs. A word of caution – while you may require on-going support from your consultant as you migrate your content in phases, refine your information model or add new types of output, make sure your consultant trains and guides your staff so that ownership of the solution always stays within the company.
Can my team research and purchase technology without a consultant?
Regardless of whether you have some guidance from a consultant during the tool-buying phase, you should take ownership of each step of the process and be careful to not implement a system that you do not fully understand. Get to know the technology vendors during the sales and implementation process; you’ll need to have a good on-going relationship with them long after the consultant is gone.
DITA XML is an open standard with a large Community of Practice, including lots of interoperable tools for authoring, managing, publishing and translating content that you can mix and match. Because of its standard architecture, you should be able to easily port content from one tool to another. Make sure the solution you choose does not include anything proprietary that will lock you into a single vendor, consultant or way of thinking. (If you’re wondering how you can be sure you won’t get “locked in” to a DITA CCMS, we have a blog post about that.) Attend some conferences, be informed and make your own independent choices.
If I hire a consultant to help select a DITA CMS or Authoring tool, what should they deliver?
At the end of the design and planning phases, a consultant should sit in and validate the solution as the tool vendor walks you through a simple demo of the proposed future state technology. All the processes necessary to implement your content strategy should be demonstrated in a proof of concept, including things like using the tools to import structured content at the front end and transform it into your required output (PDF, online help, etc.) at the back end.
What kind of DITA training will you need?
Product documentation has many contributors, each with different responsibilities. Structuring your content will change everyone’s work processes, and some people may assume greater responsibilities. Your writers, reviewers and managers will have to be trained to use new tools for creating, managing and sharing their work.
At a minimum, a consultant should offer sufficient training to ensure everyone understands the capabilities of the new system. Individual contributors need to understand how their role fits into the whole, and why they are being asked to change the way they do things. Writers will need to understand the new information model in order to use the correct information types and properly apply metadata.
Beyond that, some general training in topic-based writing, minimalism, and the DITA standard can be helpful, because the concept of structured authoring is new to many people. [Bernard Aschwanden of Publishing Smarter has some good articles that will help you get started writing structured content.]
Does DIY = DOA?
Like most business transformations, your return on investment depends on how well the new processes and systems are adopted by end users, and that largely comes down to how well you manage people and change. An experienced consultant will help you implement a change management plan that will make the transition easier for writers and everyone else. That means not only developing the right training, but rolling it out to the right people at the right time.
A DITA implementation is a project, and will benefit from a Project Manager who sees the end from the beginning and makes sure all your “t’s” are crossed. In many cases, a full-time DITA consultant is the best person to play this role. However, if your organization already has a lot of PMPs and a robust practice around change management, DIY does not have to mean that your DITA initiative is Dead on Arrival.
[Suite Solutions has a recorded webinar outlining how to build a project plan for your DITA implementation.]
TIP: DITA naturally leads to “hyphenated” job descriptions. A technical writer becomes a DITA Information Designer-Technical Writer or Content Engineer-DITA Specialist. This is a good thing. One of the goals of the training should be to encourage your team to embrace the move to DITA as an opportunity for professional development as they broaden their skill sets and move up the food chain.
Deciding what to do about legacy content
Whether to convert your existing content to DITA and how to do it is a complicated question. Conversion can be expensive and time-consuming, so you will want to think hard about what content to convert. (You might be surprised how many DITA topics you can generate from your existing content!)
Before you convert anything, your content strategy should be in place. Only then can you determine the best way to turn a legacy document into a series of DITA topics with the right structure and markup. Will you require that every topic have a Short Description, for example? You will need to know that before you start.
You should also have a good understanding of how complex your content is and how consistently it is written and organized. Do each of your writing teams have their own format for Heading 1? Their own styles and tone of voice? That will have a big impact on how easy or difficult the conversion process will be.
There are a number of consultants and service providers that specialize in content conversion, and many different approaches to take. Conversion is either accomplished manually (sometimes by off-shore resources), with the help of automated tools, or a combination of both.
Can my team convert legacy content without a consultant?
Companies with smaller document sets can consider doing the conversion in-house; others will find that outsourcing this activity to a consultant or conversion service is more cost-efficient and produces the highest quality output. Hiring a consultant to help you define what content to convert and then coordinate the entire process can potentially save you a lot of money. But it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach; many organizations prefer to use both internal and external resources.
[For a look at what factors to consider before deciding to do a conversion in-house, read this white paper by Data Conversion Laboratory.]
If I hire a consultant to help convert legacy content, what should they deliver?
A consultant will help you identify content for conversion, then develop a process and rules for converting it to your specifications. After conversion scripts are written, test content is converted and sent to your team for review. The consultant will give you insights that will help you judge the results of the conversion process.
As with other steps of a DITA implementation, doing a pilot test of the proposed conversion process with real content will help you analyze the results and validate your budget and timelines. [The content conversion service provider Stilo offers a free 20-page trial conversion.]
Planning and Implementing a DITA solution
Planning and organization is critical for a successful DITA implementation. You will need the entire team to agree to their roles and responsibilities and commit to getting their tasks done on time.
Do I need a consultant?
As we said before, a DITA implementation will benefit from having a Project Manager, whether an internal resource or external consultant. A Project Manager facilitates regular meetings of your cross-functional task force, tracks and communicates the project status, enforces the project timetable and manages the project deliverables on an on-going basis. A DITA consultant will bring specialized skills and knowledge to the role and can use their experience to keep the project on track.
What should they deliver?
When building a business case and planning your DITA implementation, a consultant will help you set measurable, realistic goals. Quantitative metrics will be critical to gauging the success of the project. For example, you may have goals that look like this:
- Reduce calls to our support desk by 30%
- Reduce total number of pages sent for translation by 500
- Increase percentage of content reuse by 75%
- Reduce time to market by 1 month
As the implementation rolls out, your consultant will track your progress against these metrics and communicate them to all stakeholders. Senior management will want to see some concrete results quickly, and a consultant can keep the team focused on getting measurable results. Most implementations start with a pilot “proof of concept”; a consultant will help you choose a project that will result in a quick Return on Investment.
Publishing your content
One of the main reasons that companies embark on a DITA implementation is to give them more ways to deliver content to their customers. By separating content from formatting, DITA makes it easy to create the right deliverable in the right language, automatically optimizing it for desktops and smartphones. Using style sheets, you can create high quality PDFs and HTML5 web portals, or export to your ECM, LMS, or online help system.
Getting the publishing output you want often involves considerable time and consulting. Even organizations that are “going it alone” sometimes hire a specialist to configure and deploy a publishing pipeline to create the various formats of output they need. This process begins with a review of your existing publications and templates and results in a streamlined, standard set of styles for each content element and information type. [Suite Solutions has a webinar outlining how to define your style sheet, mobile and dynamic publishing requirements.]
An experienced consultant understands what it takes to publish DITA content and can make sure your published outputs have the look you want. They will create the conversion code that transforms your XML content into PDF, or Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and HTML5 for web, mobile, and online help.
Localizing your content
For many organizations, expansion into global markets is limited by the ability to quickly and accurately translate product content. DITA XML can make the translation process 30-50% more efficient than traditional publishing. Separating content from formatting enables automation which can positively impact your translation time and cost.
A full-service DITA consultant can guide you through the transition to a more efficient localization process. They know how to take advantage of DITA XML to get the most accurate translations in the least amount of time.
Like content conversion, translation is a service that you can outsource to a localization service provider (LSP). Consultants are familiar with the LSPs, they know how localization works in your chosen CMS, and they can put the pieces together so everything works smoothly.
A consultant will help you communicate your expectations to the LSP and ensure that the unique requirements of your structured content are understood. Finally, they can train you how to inspect the files that the translator sends back to make sure they are valid and preserve your structural markup.
In addition, consultants can train your writers how to write localization-friendly content, and steer you towards markup conventions work best for translation providers. [Bill Swallow at Scriptorium has a good review of things to think about when preparing your content for localization.]
Whether or not you choose to hire a consultant for all or part of a DITA XML implementation comes down to your budget and timelines and how much expertise you have in-house. When you are considering this question, ask yourself how much content do you have, how complex is it, and how quickly does it need to be transitioned to DITA?
When choosing a consultant, ask around and get referrals. Hearing other people’s true life stories is the only way to truly evaluate whether a particular consultant or professional service is a good fit for your situation.
How much will a consultant cost? It depends on their experience level and the amount of work that needs to be done. Consultants charge by the hour or on a project basis. Either way, the biggest variable is the amount of time it will take to get the job done right. Organizations with lots of complex legacy content who require a consultant at every stage of the DITA adoption process can expect to pay $100,000 or more.
The calculations you will have to make are:
- How much will it cost to do the work yourself?
- What is the cost of failing to get everything you want out of the project?
Moving to DITA XML can improve the quality and reach of your product documentation and support while saving you a bundle in the process. Plan wisely; get help where you need it, and your journey will have a happy ending.
Thanks to everyone who helped with this article: JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services; Sarah O’Keefe, Scriptorium; Scott Abel, the Content Wrangler; Joe Gelb, Suite Solutions; Linda Marone Cassola, DCL; Bernard Aschwanden, Jacquie Samuels, Publishing Smarter; Paul Wlodarczyk, Earley & Associates; Les Burnham, STILO; Alan Houser, Group Wellesley.