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 Lea