Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

tcworld China recap

April 25, 2016 by

The tcworld China event took place in Shanghai April 18 and 19. I was there to present on content strategy and advanced DITA (yes, I hear your gasp of surprise), but for me, the most interesting part of the trip was getting a chance to connect with the technical communication community in China.

Technical Communication in Chinese

“technical communication” in Chinese

There were more than 100 attendees at the event. Most of the people I met were from Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. There were also participants from other cities, like Nanjing, and from Japan and Singapore.

For those of us completely ignorant of Chinese geography (which I’m embarrassed to say included me until I found out about this trip), here is a basic map:

I don’t recommend making a strategic decision based on my single week in China, but nonetheless, here are some observations.

Blending authoring and localization

In several conversations, I heard about a blended authoring/localization workflow. Technical writers create information in Chinese and work with the engineers to have this information reviewed and approved. Once the Chinese document is finalized, the same technical writers rewrite the information in English. The English document becomes the starting point for localization into all other languages.

English as a pivot language is common in many places, but the difference here is that a single technical writer is expected to create both the Chinese and the English versions of a document. This means that the technical writers must be able to write in both languages.

Academic background

Chinese universities are just beginning to offer technical writing courses. These courses are often intended for engineers. Technical writing is not currently available as an academic major. Like North American technical writers, Chinese technical writers have varied educational backgrounds. The most common is a university degree in English or a related subject like English translation. Engineering or computer science majors also may end up in technical writing.

In English, we usually refer to people “falling into” technical writing, and German has the word “Quereinsteiger”; that is, “a person who climbs in sideways.” In Germany, however, a large percentage of technical communicators have university-level education in technical communication, and there is also a robust certification process.

It remains to be seen which approach the technical communication industry in China will choose, or whether China will choose a third way.

Business relevance

I delivered a presentation on content strategy in technical communication at the event. My key message, as always, was that you need to have business reasons as the driving force behind your content strategy decisions.
tcworld China slide: Chocolate factory with a sign on the wall reading 400kg chocolate every three minutes. Caption for the slide is Justify your approach.

I also spent some time discussing why cheap content is really expensive—product returns, legal exposure, and inefficient content processes all increase the cost of producing information.

tcworld China slide: Two chocolate bunnies with their ears bitten off. Caption is The myth of cheap content

Both of these messages seemed to resonate with the audience, but there was concern about how to get management support for any new content initiatives.

Several people told me that, in China, organizations are often not ready to invest in content or content strategy. Their corporate culture is to keep operational costs as low as possible. This makes the argument for content strategy investment, even with compelling ROI, a difficult one. That said, it is clear that some companies are shifting their strategy toward innovation—they are delivering cutting-edge products rather than commodities.

A view of the Bund and the river at night

Shanghai at night

There is an informal Association of Shanghai Technical Communicators, which communicates mainly via WeChat. If you can read Chinese, that would definitely be something to explore.

Platform differences

At home, I rely heavily on Slack (internal business), Twitter (mostly business), and Facebook (business and personal) for social media, along with email, Skype, web meeting tools, and more. Inside China, people use different platforms, such as WeChat (similar to Twitter). In part, this is because of the Great Firewall. Facebook, for example, is not officially allowed in China, and I expected to be blocked from using it.

What I found, however, was in some locations I could use the Facebook mobile app via a cellular connection (but not Wifi). In other locations, it appeared to be wide open. I had very little luck getting Twitter to work anywhere.

This presents a business problem for us. We want to continue to connect with the Chinese technical communication industry, but the social media tools we use are not appropriate for making those connections. Information posted on Twitter will not reach people in China, but the social media applications used in China are not widely used outside of China. We have a platform divide.

Communication challenges

Finally, I want to talk about some of the communication challenges I ran into. A colleague told me that the biggest challenge in China is that you are functionally illiterate. Although many signs are provided in both Chinese and English, this is quite true. Upon arrival, I hopped in a taxi and told that driver my hotel. But because the hotel name is different in Chinese, it wasn’t until I showed him the written address, in Chinese, that he understood where I needed to go. (Based on advice from colleagues, I was prepared with the necessary version of the address.)

Shanghai was actually easier in this regard than Shenzhen, where I also spent a couple of days. (This is probably a good spot to mention that Yuting Tang of tekom did a fantastic job organizing various outings, providing translation, and acting as a general fixer for me and other speakers. And I had a great time just hanging out with her! Without her, Shenzhen would have been a big challenge.)

In Shanghai, I had a twelve-hour time difference with my office in North Carolina. Given a conference during the Shanghai day, I generally had only a few hours in the evening for synchronous communication. That is, after I got back from one of our epic dining adventures until I fell into bed, I could check in with the office as needed. For a week-long stay, this wasn’t particularly critical. For an ongoing business relationship, though, this introduces obvious challenges. One (China-based) colleague had to leave an evening get-together to attend an 8 p.m. meeting. Another (visiting) colleague had previously scheduled a webcast, so he found himself at his computer at 11 p.m. local time. There’s not much that can be done about the time zones, but best practices like rotating meeting times (so that everyone shares the pain of the occasional 11 p.m. meeting) are important to show some respect to your team members.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in China, and I was delighted to meet a few of the people working in technical communication across the country. I also made a significant dent in the country’s dumpling inventory. Many thanks to Michael Fritz at tekom for the invitation!

Dumplings!

Totally worth the trip.

 

The last mile: getting approval for your content strategy

April 18, 2016 by

You’ve thought about your content strategy. You have a business case. You have a plan. What you don’t have is a budget and approval to proceed. What can you do?

First, recognize your accomplishment. A solid strategy, business case, and plan already put you in the top 25 percent or so. But how do you get over this new hurdle and actually get a funded project with a green light to proceed?

At this point, it’s important to understand that the game has changed. Until now, all of your plotting planning has been inside your content world. To get funding, you need executive approval, and executives by definition work on a broader scale.

go_boardTo get funding, you have to show the value of your project (with a business case, and yours is beautiful). But that’s not enough. Organizations have limited budgets and lots of different projects are competing for scarce funding. You have to prove that your project is more deserving than the other projects. Otherwise, it’s a shiny nice-to-have that gets cut in the first round of budget negotiations.

Can you prove that your project is in fact mission-critical? Here are some factors to look at.

Return on investment

Can you show that the investment will yield increased revenue or cost savings? How long will it take for the organization to recoup the proposed investment? Are you arguing for efficiency and therefore lower cost, or are you arguing for an investment that will result in more revenue?

Another way to show return on investment is by accelerating time to market. If your proposal can speed up delivery of content in a global market, you have a compelling argument. Can you reduce a localization delay currently measured in months down to weeks?

Time

Why are you asking for funding now? What happens if this project doesn’t happen until the next budget cycle? If the answer is “not much,” you can expect delays.

Perhaps you have a window of opportunity in which to make changes and think strategically before your next major product? Or perhaps your products are being redesigned in a way that makes the current strategy unsustainable? If you are increasing the number of required languages every year, the cost of inefficient content development is increasing quickly.

Keep in mind that implementing any sort of major change in content strategy is going to take at least six months. When your executives tell you that “oh, we don’t need that until January 2017” that means you need to get started absolutely no later than June 2016.

Timing is everything. Successful managers learn how the budget cycle and the project allocations really work, and figure out how to work the system. For example, you may have a CFO who responds well to efficiency and isn’t interested in innovation. Your CTO, on the other hand, may want to engage in a detailed discussion of nifty technology. Understand their priorities and work with them.

Customer journey

Technical writers are allergic to buzzwords. But tying your strategy into the current Next Big Thing is smart. With attention focused on the customer journey and the customer experience, your pitch for content strategy should include a focus on these concepts. How will your strategy support them?

Getting approval for your content strategy project requires you to understand how decisions are made in your organization, and then work within that process to get what you want. Some technical communicators feel that the quality of their work should speak for itself, and that these types of games are beneath them. We call them People Who Don’t Get Budget for their Projects.

Creating a unified customer experience with a content fabric

April 11, 2016 by

Coauthored by Anna Schlegel (Senior Director, Globalization and Information Engineering, NetApp) and Sarah O’Keefe (President, Scriptorium Publishing)

This post is also available as a white paper, which you can read in PDF format.

The interest in customer experience presents an opportunity for enterprise content strategists. You can use the customer experience angle to finally get content proposals and issues into the discussion. Ultimately, the challenge is in execution—once you raise awareness of the importance of content synchronization, you are expected to deliver on your promises. You must figure out how to deliver information that fits smoothly into the entire customer experience. At a minimum, that requires combining information from multiple departmental silos.

You need a customer experience that does not reproduce your organization’s internal structure. Customers need relevant, usable, and timely information—they don’t care that the video was developed by tech support and the how-to document by tech pubs. When customers search your web site, they want all relevant results, not just documents from a specific department. Furthermore, they assume you will use consistent terminology and will provide content in their preferred language. To meet these expectations, you need a unified content strategy.

At NetApp, the Information Engineering team uses the term content fabric to describe this unified approach. In the content fabric, customers get seamless delivery of the right information based on their needs. Multiple departments are involved in creating and delivering content. The processes are complex, but customers only see the end result. The content fabric aims to deliver information for each customer at the point of need.

Weaving a content fabric

To deliver a content fabric, you need the following key features:

  • Search across all content sources
  • Content in appropriate format(s)
  • Content in appropriate languages

Each of these requirements expands into significant implementation challenges. To provide search across all content sources, for example, you have to solve the following issues:

    • Provide search across more than a single deliverable (such as a PDF file)
    • Provide search across all deliverables from one department for one product
    • Provide search across all deliverables from all sources for one product
    • Provide search across all deliverables from all sources for all products
    • Align product classification schemes across the organization
    • Align product terminology across the organization
    • Align content localization across the organization

content fabric

Several teams typically share responsibility for content development and delivery. You might have the following:

  • Technical publications for technical communication
  • Technical support for knowledge base
  • IT for web site infrastructure
  • Digital experience for web site architecture and appearance
  • Marketing for technical white papers
  • Training for job aids and e-learning

Each group has a different perspective on information, a different tool set, and a different set of expectations from their content creators. But somehow, you have to ensure that their content works in the big picture.

Unifying content organizations is important

Delivering a seamless content fabric means that different organizations must deliver compatible information. There are two main options to achieve this goal:

  • Consolidate the content creators in a single organization
  • Ensure that diverse content creators use the same content standards

Consolidation makes sense for similar roles. For example, most organizations put the entire technical communication function in a single team. Technical support and marketing have important content to contribute, but their functions and priorities differ from those of tech comm. In this case, the sensible approach is to share content infrastructure, including the following:

  • Terminology and style guides. All content creators must use agreed-upon terminology to refer to the same thing. Everyone uses the same corporate style guide.
  • Taxonomy. The classification system for content is shared across the organization. For example, the organization defines a set of categories, such as product name, release number, and content type, that label products and information.
  • Content structure. A reference document always has the same structure, no matter who created it. Similarly, knowledge base articles always have the same structure across the organization.
  • Content formatting. Content formatting matches corporate branding standards. All company content looks related, and all content of a particular type matches. For example, videos always include the company logo in the lower right corner, use the same types of visuals, and include standard introductions and conclusions. These formatting standards are enforced throughout the organization for all videos, not just in a single department.
  • Search. All website content is searchable through a single search interface.

Connecting content development systems

The content fabric provides the reader with a single point of entry for information. This simple premise requires us to rethink how we develop and deliver information. The easiest way to deliver consistent information is to move all content creators into a single content development environment. Realistically, it’s more likely that you loosely connect multiple systems to produce a consistent end result. Challenges include different content development systems, taxonomies, search, and update cycles. Align these aspects to ensure that each content development pipeline delivers information that fits into the content fabric.

Adding translation to the mix

Globalization adds yet another layer of complexity to the content fabric. You must ensure that your unified delivery extends across all supported languages by making careful decisions about what, when, and how to translate. For example, if an organization wants to increase sales in South America, audit the content assets available in the local languages. Are you providing enough information? Is the content of high quality in the local language? Are you delivering Brazilian Portuguese (as opposed to Portuguese for Portugal) to Brazil? Is information being developed in the local languages or are you translating? If you are translating, what is your strategy for translation, localization, and transcreation?

The value of the content fabric

Why should organizations consider a content fabric like the one proposed at NetApp—a unified content strategy in which content efforts are carefully aligned across the enterprise? After all, it’s challenging to have consistency in a single department, let alone half a dozen groups across a far-flung organization.

The value of the content fabric is two-fold. First, you improve the customer experience. Instead of repeatedly transferring customers from one group to another, you provide the customer with a consistent, high-quality experience, in which questions are addressed in a single location. Second, you improve the overall content development process with less content redundancy and a single set of content development standards. In manufacturing terms, you are reducing waste and improving your quality control.

First steps toward your own content fabric

To begin the move toward your own content fabric, start with some basic questions:

  • What information do you need to deliver and where?
  • How is that information created and by whom?
  • What standards are needed?

Once you understand the current environment, you can look at improving two major areas:

  • Content development: Ensure that all content developers have the tools, technologies, and support they need to produce the right information.
  • Content delivery: Ensure that information is presented to the customer in a unified interface.

Scriptorium and the Information Engineering team at NetApp are collaborating on NetApp’s journey to the content fabric.

Author: Anna Schlegel

Anna SchlegelAnna Schlegel leads the Information Engineering team at NetApp as well as its Globalization Program Strategy Office. Anna is a native of Catalunya and a linguist at heart. @annapapallona is her twitter account. She loves tomatoes and eggplant. She does check baggage.

New LearningDITA course: Using maps and bookmaps

April 4, 2016 by

More than 900 people have signed up for our free DITA courses on LearningDITA.com—thank you! You’ve had a basic introduction to DITA and learned how to write concept, task, reference, and glossary topics. Now you can learn how to collect those topics and establish relationships among them with our newest course: Using maps and bookmaps.

The course and supporting videos were created by a Scriptorium team: Simon Bate, Jake Campbell, and me. The supporting slide deck on DITA maps was created by Pam Noreault, Tracey Chalmers, and Julie Landman.

Flickr: Tom Stovall at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Flickr: Ducklings by Tom Stovall at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

This course includes four lessons on:

  • Creating a map
  • Creating a bookmap
  • Advanced DITA map and bookmap concepts
  • Relationship tables

You’ll learn how to create maps and bookmaps in DITA and add relationship tables to these maps. With guided step-by-step practice and on-your-own exercises, you’ll gain hands-on experience and familiarity with maps.

You’ll also learn about the ways maps can enhance the publication process. Sprinkled throughout each lesson are tips and best practices for publishing your DITA content using maps and bookmaps. There will be more information about publishing in future LearningDITA courses, so stay tuned!

Got any feedback or suggestions for future courses? We welcome any content you’d like to contribute to the ditatraining GitHub repository! Check our project roadmap for information on current and future courses and let us know what else you’d like to see. For notifications about new content on the site, sign up for LearningDITA.com announcements (you can also sign up during site registration).

Special thanks to our LearningDITA sponsors: oXygen XML Editor, The Content Wrangler, and easyDITA.

Webcast: The technology is the easy part! Leading through change

March 28, 2016 by

Change is constant in technical communication. Whether dealing with new technology, shifts in organizational structures, or growing business requirements, content creators must be able to adapt. In this webcast recording, a panel of content experts—Jack Molisani of The LavaCon Conference and ProSpring Staffing, Erin Vang of Dolby Laboratories, Sarah O’Keefe of Scriptorium, and moderator Toni Mantych of ADP—answer questions and give advice about dealing with change in the industry.

Some of their words of wisdom include…

Advice for employees and job seekers in tech comm. Job titles are shifting constantly, and the skills required to make it in the industry are expanding. It’s not enough to be just a writer or an editor anymore—you need to be able to add value to your organizations by proving you can meet customer needs and solve business problems. Knowing the value of your content and being able to communicate it to your company’s C-level executives will help you succeed. And if you’re just entering the tech comm industry, subject matter expertise, effective use of social media, and a willingness to learn will help you get your foot in the door.

Tips for dealing with change management. Just as change is a given in tech comm, so is change resistance. Lack of information, talent, or interest within an organization can lead to fear of change, so it’s important for managers to lead their teams through it by providing education and modeling confidence. When you’re faced with inevitable changes, sometimes it can be difficult to adapt to them while remaining true to your core values—but avoiding change means you won’t learn anything or make any progress, so it’s better to make imperfect decisions than none at all.

How do consultants fit into the picture? If you’re having trouble communicating your content needs to your managers, or they refuse to listen to you, it might be time to bring in a consultant—especially given the growing trend of companies fostering long-term relationships with outside consultants or contractors. As technology continues to evolve, many organizations are using outside experts instead of investing in training for in-house employees. Organizations are engaging consultants not just for specific projects but for long-term follow-on support. If you’re struggling with change in your organization, a consultant might be the best person to help you manage it.

Do I need a content strategy consultant?

March 21, 2016 by

Do you need a content strategy consultant? If the following signs are uncomfortably familiar to you, the answer is yes:

  • You have contradictory content across departments. Customers get frustrated when the specifications in product literature don’t match what’s in the sales content they read earlier. They then call support to clear up the contradictions. It’s much more efficient to create the content once and reuse it across departments. Increased consistency and accuracy follow.

  • Content lags product releases, particularly in international markets. Gaps between the releases of a product and its content indicate your processes aren’t nimble enough—especially for the globalized industries of the 21st century. See our premium post about localization strategy (free registration required).
  • Content is not in formats the users want. You need to give customers options in how they engage with your content. And merely switching from PDF to some online format is not the best way to handle that.
  • Oh, please. Can’t I solve these problems without a consultant?

    Yes, you can solve these issues on your own. But your chances of success are far greater with help from a content strategy consultant:

    • A seasoned consultant has solved the same kinds of problems for multiple clients. That experience means you get an informed solution. You avoid pitfalls you wouldn’t have anticipated on your own.
      owl giving side eye

      Oh, please! (flickr: Steve Brace)

    • Consultants who have worked with many vendors know which tools and technologies are good fits for particular requirements and corporate profiles. A content strategy consultant can also act as a firewall against less than accurate claims from vendors about solution capabilities. (But be aware of any reselling agreements a consultant has with vendors.)
    • Developing a content strategy requires a dedicated effort. Strategy (and implementation later) cannot be done in the margins of day-to-day work. Often, it’s not feasible to shift internal resources away from existing work to the new strategy. Hiring a content strategy consultant will expedite strategy development without sacrificing resources for existing projects.
    • If a new content strategy requires you to convert source content from one file format to another, a consultant can help you more quickly identify and implement the best migration paths. A good consultant will also keep exit strategies in mind when developing your new processes. It’s smart to have an escape hatch, even if you don’t use it until years later.
    • Change management is the key to any successful project, including content strategy projects. A consultant will recognize the warning signs when people aren’t excited about the project and will have techniques for mitigating change resistance.
    • Often, executives are more receptive to recommendations coming from an outside party—even when the recommendations are identical to what employees have suggested. Is it fair? Not really. But don’t rely on this increased receptiveness to get a content initiative approved. Instead, work with your consultant to hone a strong business case with specifics on the return on investment. A consultant’s project experience can ensure your business case is realistic and compelling.

    So, do you need a content strategy consultant? Contact us.

    QA in techcomm: you need a test bed

    March 14, 2016 by

    When I first started as a QA tech at a small game company, I was immediately thrown into the QA test bed. It was a place where we could test production-ready content without being interrupted by ongoing development or server restarts. Functionality was well-documented and could be used to test against our users’ bug reports.

    When I started working at Scriptorium, one of my first tasks was to develop a content test bed to run alongside our PDF transform to help improve it. For example, one part of our test bed is a massive thread pitch table. It will readily flow across multiple pages, includes both vertical and horizontal straddles, and has varying column widths. If we run into a problem with large tables, I can run that content through, confident that I’ll be able to reproduce the issue and deal with it accordingly.

    Making a test bed

    A test bed is a useful tool when managing your content. In the context of content strategy, a test bed is a set of topics that represents a broad section of your content. However, a test bed is more than just a sample of your production-ready content; to be truly useful, a test bed should be:

    • Modular: You should be able to add and remove chunks of content from your test set. This allows you to quickly set up use cases to verify your output. You also need to be able to quickly trim the size of your test bed to cut down on processing time for tests, unless that test involves a large document.
    • Well-maintained: As your content grows and changes, so too should your test bed. Otherwise, you run the risk of missing critical errors that can creep in when you do your testing.
    • Representative: You should have examples of all major requirements for a particular publication. If you have a table that needs to be formatted in a specific way depending on its context, make sure that you have that example in your test bed. Also keep in mind errors that turned up in the past, so you can keep an eye out for bugs that might creep back into your workflow.
    • Content-neutral: Make the actual content of your test bed generic. While it can be useful to have your actual content in your test bed, it can also make it problematic if you need to hand that test bed off to an outside entity, like a friendly consulting group. If you need to have “real” content in your test bed, make sure that it’s already publicly available or otherwise non-sensitive.

    Using a test bed

    Once you have a solid test bed in place, it can provide benefits both internally and externally. Internally, if you’re using a platform to generate output, you can run your test bed through it to verify any changes made to that platform. Conversely, if you implement a major change to the format of your content, you can use your test bed to more accurately scope the impact of that change. You can also use it as an example to familiarize new authors with your content. Externally, you have content that you can hand off quickly, without spending time compiling a set of appropriate documents that represent your project needs.

    With a bit of maintenance as your documentation needs change, your test bed can become a versatile and powerful tool when both developing and maintaining your content.

    Translation and the complexity of simple content

    March 7, 2016 by

    Translating content for foreign markets can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. While it’s important to keep costs in check, the critical element to watch is quality. The only sure-fire way to ensure quality in translation is to build it into your source.

    GIGO: Garbage in, garbage out

    Storm Trooper action figures startled by a Storm Trooper trash bin

    That’s not what we meant! (flickr: JD Hancock)

    Developing content is often seen as a necessary evil. It’s easy to justify cutting corners to deliver it quickly or create it using fewer resources. After all, it’s just content, right?

    Not quite.

    More often than not, even technical content is being used in the pre-sales cycle. People want to evaluate a product or service before purchasing, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by searching for information online. Content quality in this case might make or break a sale.

    Content quality is also a major factor in retaining existing customers. People are extremely happy when they can easily find answers to their questions without having to call support. Likewise, the easier the answer is to understand, the better.

    So there’s a logical fallacy that content is a necessary evil. It plays a critical role in attracting and retaining happy customers. It is a business cornerstone. This is true in all markets. Despite your translators’ best efforts, the quality of their translation work is a direct reflection on the quality of your source content. And to keep translation costs down, you need to make that effort simple.

    The complexity of simple content

    Simple content does not mean dumbed-down or bare bones. In this context, simple content means streamlined content.

    • Messaging is clear and concise
    • Words are carefully chosen
    • Content is written in discrete chunks (topics)
    • Those chunks are written once and reused wherever appropriate
    • Content is consistently formatted (or better, tagged in XML)

    In short, the entirety of content development is closely monitored and skillfully performed.

    The effort involved is anything but simple, but the benefits far outweigh the work. All of the heavy lifting is done on the source content side, simplifying the translation process.

    When your source content is clear, concise, and complete, it can be translated easily. When content is written once and reused, translators only need to translate it once. When content is consistently tagged, formatting translated content becomes automatic.

    As a result, your content quality is consistent across all languages, your translation costs are reduced, and the translation work is completed quicker, allowing you to accelerate your time to market.

    When strategy meets the storm

    February 8, 2016 by

    plane in a snowstorm

    Perfect weather for flying! (image via Flickr: estudiante)

    Just before the blizzard that crippled a significant portion of the East Coast, I was returning from a business trip. I did eventually make it home, but the return flight included a bonus three-day layover in Charlotte, NC.

    I’ll spare you many of the details, but a few key events and situations really stand out from that trip. The lessons learned are applicable to any corporate strategy, content or not.

    Protocols that look good on paper may not fare well in practice

    Every strategy can be broken down into a series of protocols that need to be followed. Which protocols you follow will change based on the situation, but they all feed into the overarching strategy that drives your business goals.

    Many of these protocols are designed to account for specific situations. However, following them to the letter every time may do more harm than good. A certain amount of discretion is needed to alter protocol to effectively handle tricky situations.

    My flight home began without incident. We boarded on time, and were set to take off with a full flight. After everyone was seated, a flight attendant made an announcement: five people needed to volunteer their seats for additional crew members due to the impending East Coast storm. Volunteers would be given an alternate flight and a voucher toward future travel.

    Caïn by Henri Vidal, Tuileries Garden, Paris, 1896.

    I’m sure this is how everyone on that plane felt… passengers AND crew! (photo: wikipedia)

    As you could imagine, no one came forward. We were all concerned about the storm, and wanted to get to our destinations before we were stranded. The airline’s protocol called for volunteerism, and so we sat for an hour waiting for volunteers, which stirred great concern among the passengers and caused many to ultimately miss their connections. Finally, an executive decision was made by either the airline or crew to deplane the last people to purchase tickets, board the additional crew, and finally take off. But by then it was too late; many of us missed our connecting flights and were stuck to ride out the storm on an extended layover.

    While the proper protocol to solicit volunteers might work in normal situations, the storm factor should have allowed for other creative solutions–or at least a shorter timeline between asking for volunteers and removing the last few ticket holders from the plane. The crew would have boarded, the majority of passengers would have made their connections, and fewer people would have been stranded. Following protocol in this case caused more harm than good; customers were upset, customers were stranded (so many that the airline ran out of available hotels), and stranded customers now required new flights in an already chaotic backlog due to cancellations.

    When load testing meets reality

    Implementing any system requires a great deal of testing and tweaking. But true testing doesn’t begin until you’re using it live and encountering unforeseen or extreme situations. After launching a new system, it’s important to also have failsafes in place when (not if) the unforeseeable happens. Fallback systems are great, but two of the best failsafes to use are human communication and collaboration.

    On the day of my final flight home, the flight situation was understandably a nightmare. The airports on the East Coast were finally re-opening after their storm shutdowns, flights were still being cancelled and delayed due to weather conditions and missing crew, and displaced passengers were very unhappy.

    As I queued in the very long customer service line, I also called the main customer service number. There was an hour wait on the phone, so I opted for a call-back when it was my turn to talk to an agent. Meanwhile I made it to the service counter and began looking for earlier direct flights home. We found one, but it was full. I asked about standby, and after much fiddling with the system, the agent gave up. She could not put me on standby without voiding my later, valid ticket. (!!!)

    I begrudgingly kept my later flight and went off in search for coffee. Then I received a callback from the support line. They confirmed that I actually was on the standby list for the early flight, and that my other ticket was still valid should I not make it on the earlier flight.

    I quickly gathered my belongings and headed to the gate to confirm. Alas, their system did not show me on standby. But this agent worked some voodoo magic and was able to get me on standby and retain my later flight as backup.

    Obviously there was a breakdown in systems communication between the airline’s main system and the airport hubs, and the local agents were left to flail about their work as best they could. For some reason, they could not contact someone to confirm these differences, nor to troubleshoot or even report a system error. There needs to be a communication bridge between those using the system and those managing it.

    People are your greatest corporate asset

    So in the end, I made it home on that earlier flight. My standby status earned me a seat just before boarding began. It was all thanks to that one gate agent who ensured that their local systems showed that I was both on standby and had a valid later flight if needed. She truly went above and beyond, checking in on me from time to time and even rooting for me as my name climbed higher on the standby list.

    There are details about this horrible trip that I won’t forget. Some are mentioned in this post, and others are best left unmentioned to hopefully fade with time. But what I may never forget is that one gate agent’s actions, from her refusal to let a system glitch prevent her from doing what should normally be doable to the high-five she gave me as I boarded my flight.

    Technology fails happen. Unforeseeable events happen that can shake normal workflows. In fact, I’m sure that other airlines had issues during this storm. But it’s the human to human interaction that can build or destroy a customer’s impression of a company. Empower your workforce to put their best foot forward, and do everything possible to enable them to creatively solve problems when needed. It just might be your only saving grace with an unhappy customer.

    The second wave of DITA

    February 1, 2016 by

    You have DITA. Now what?

    More companies are asking this question as DITA adoption increases. For many of our customers, the first wave of DITA means deciding whether it’s a good fit for their content. The companies that choose to implement DITA find that it increases the overall efficiency of content production with better reuse, automated formatting, and so on.

    Now, clients are looking for the second wave of DITA: they want to connect DITA content to other information and explore innovative ways of using information. The focus shifts from cost reduction to quality improvements with questions like:

    • How will our content strategy evolve as DITA evolves?
    • How do we make the most of our DITA implementation?
    • How do we tailor our DITA implementation to better suit our needs?
    • What can DITA do for us beyond the basics?
    • What other content sources are available and how can we integrate them with our baseline DITA content?
    • What new information products can we create using DITA as a starting point?
    • How can we improve the customer experience?

    The second wave of DITA can go in two directions. In the apocalyptic scenario, the overhead and complexity of DITA exceeds any business value, so the organization looks for ways to get out of DITA. But if you measure implementation cost against business value before any implementation work begins, this scenario is unlikely. Instead, you can reap the benefits of a successful implementation and start exploring what else DITA can do for your business.

    A huge wave and a tiny surfer.

    Will you thrive or wipe out in the second wave? // flickr: jeffrowley

    Extending DITA beyond the basics

    Your first DITA implementation must achieve your objectives with minimum complexity. When the shock of using the system wears off, you can consider new initiatives:

    • Building additional specializations
    • Using advanced DITA techniques to accommodate complex requirements
    • Delivering new output files
    • Refining your reuse strategy

    Integrating with other systems

    In the first wave, organizations usually focus on getting their content in order—migrating to DITA and topic-based authoring, setting up reuse, establishing efficient workflows, and managing the staff transition into new systems.

    In the second wave of DITA, the new baseline is a functioning, efficient content production process, and attention turns to requirements that increase the complexity of the system. For example, a company might combine DITA content with information in a web CMS, a knowledge base, an e-learning system, or various business systems.

    Moving additional content types into the DITA CCMS is only one option to foster collaboration. Organizations can align content across different authoring systems. Another integration opportunity is combining business data (such as product specifications or customer information) with DITA content. Software connectors that allow disparate systems to exchange information are a huge opportunity in the second wave of DITA. You can share information as needed without forcing everyone into a single system.

    Focusing on the business value of content

    The emphasis is shifting. In the first wave, organizations focused on reducing the cost of producing content by improving operational efficiency. In effect, they built systems that reduced or eliminated waste in content manufacturing. In the second wave of DITA, the focus is on the business value of the content. After setting up the assembly line, the organization can build cars, er, content, with more and more features that authors and consumers need.

    Some trends in this area include the following:

    • In localization, a shift from authoring in a single source language toward multilingual authoring. Product expertise is not confined to employees who are proficient in English. If your subject matter expert is most comfortable in Chinese, why not allow her to work in that language?
    • In management, an increasing recognition of the value of good content, and a demand for improvements.
    • In content creation, a greater recognition of the importance of content strategy and an increasing focus on the big picture.

    DITA is a constantly evolving technology, and to get the most value out of your implementation, you must ensure that your content strategy evolves with it. Don’t stop at letting DITA solve your content problems—take advantage of the second wave of DITA and explore the many other ways it can advance your business.

    We had some interesting discussion about the second wave of DITA during our 2016 content trends webcast, and we’d like to continue that in the comments. Are you in DITA and figuring out what comes next? Let us know.