MP: CMS/DITA 2007 Days 2 and 3

Still trying to catch my breath - a great conference, and as always a joy seeing familiar faces as well as welcoming lots of new people into the DITA way. As usual I tried to attend every case study I could, and it was great to see so many new projects coming on board. If there was a common theme for the case studies I saw, it was the importance of communication and engagement of the writing team to the success of the project: the business case and the technology won't matter if the people doing the work don't buy in to the value of topic-oriented writing.

  • Day 2 kicked off with a case study from Avaya, and a novel approach to getting user buyin: get them talking directly with customers. Once they see how the customers are actually using the documentation and what they like and don't like, old assumptions go quickly. I really liked how this approach solves a bunch of problems at once, and also moves the focus from a clash of ideologies (book-oriented vs topic-oriented) to a confluence of values: all sides agree that the customer/reader/audience is the point. There was a lot to like in this case study, including the fact that the business case was made based on quality improvements, not on reuse or translation savings (although they did have preliminary metrics on reuse as well, which they hadn't actually expected but got anyway).
  • The next case study was a topic-based semi-automated incident management system at Microsoft - not using DITA, but evaluating it for the next stage given their use of the same topic types and reuse philosophy. An interesting case study for showing ways in which smaller chunks of content provide new opportunities for applications, including tracking of time spent on each task to determine the amount to bill the customer, and even automated scripting of simple common tasks based on the underlying markup.
  • Next I attended an open source tools panel, where we looked at the Daisy CMS and at multilingual CMSs, and talked about the potential for DITA support in open-source CMSs to allow a cheap entry point to DITA adopters, especially for pilot projects or proofs of concept.
  • Flatirons Solutions and Mark Logic had a dynamite presentation on dynamic publishing - the full whitepaper is available on their websites, but the gist was using an XML server with partially preprocessed DITA content (flatten conrefs and dependencies, maintain conditional processing and metadata) to allow on-the-fly personalization of deliverables for individual customers. I thought it was a very elegant solution to the traditional clash between author-oriented systems that privilege efficiency of reuse vs. delivery-oriented systems that privilige redundancy of content for the sake of performance: use one format in both places so you don't lose the semantics, perform as much preprocessing as you can without generating multiple versions of the content, and let a dedicated XML server handle the final stage in real time. This also opens the door to whole new kinds of content applications, like creating on-the-fly DITA maps from scripted interviews/dialogs (eg "what's the problem you're trying to solve/what do you have installed/how experienced are you/etc."->a DITA map and ditaval ->a personalized Web site or PDF).
  • There were three case studies embedded in the Flatirons/MarkLogic presentation: the US Patent and Trademark Office, using the dynamic approach to build custom patent review guides and also manage both public and private review comments; a hw/sw manufacturer creating personalized user guides; and a financial services company creating personalized Web sites.
  • Next was a case study from Sybase, with a nice emphasis again on the social issues of the move, including the need for an Information Architecture council to foster an information architecture practice and community within the company. The presenters also promised to make some of their material available on the conference website, including a sample project plan and spreadsheet for tracking DITA map usage.

Day 2 finished off with a Q&A, with specific questions about where to start for those just entering (we have a problem in the DITA community with fragmentation of information - XML, DITA, and CMSs are all treated as separate topics, which makes it hard to get the big picture of how they fit together). I've been thinking I should post a "where to start" entry, with just a pointer to some selected introductory materials, leading on to some more in-depth articles, and then finishing with Comtech's DITA book, and my two-day recorded workshop.

Day 3 was a half-day of presentations followed by workshops, but it certainly seemed long enough since I was presenting in the last presentation slot.

  • The day started for me with a presentation from CrownPeak on Web 2.0: which didn't really dwell on DITA, but Robert Rose did made the interestingly bold prediction (when asked what Web 3.0 would be) that it would be about the shift from Web as medium to Web as content (ie from a browser-centric Web to a single-sourcing Web that targets cell phones, appliances, video games, well as computers). That is a fascinating thought with the beautiful ring of inevitability to it once uttered - and certainly bodes well for the future of DITA, as a semantic content architecture for single-sourcing small chunks of content (already proven useful for single-sourcing to cellphones and Web sites thanks to RIM's case studies).
  • Next was a demonstration of TaskModeler, which is a nifty tool from IBM alphaworks for visual editing of task flows and relationships (which just happen to be stored as DITA maps). If you're interested, in addition the fine presentation materials, there's a video recording available on this site of a demo I gave a while ago for the CTDUG: There's a new version of the Task Modeler coming out soon, look for it here:
  • Finally, I gave my presentation on DITA, information architecture, and Web 2.0, including one new slide that didn't make it into the proceedings - I'll post the slides here as well to make sure the latest version is available. It seemed to go over quite well, despite my sense of humor, and there was a lively discussion afterwards about the potential of DITA to form a bridge between formal document engineering processes and the community and collaboration capabilities of Web 2.0.

One other general note on the conference: there was great Q&A after every session I attended - a lot of people with good probing questions, and also a lot of people with good pragmatic answers. It's been fantastic to watch the DITA community grow and mature over the last few years, and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.

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