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June 27, 2016

The Rocky Road to Dublin, er, DITA

For LavaCon Dublin, Sarah O’Keefe and I delivered a case study presentation on some of the roadblocks we have encountered in implementing DITA at ADP. This article summarizes the key points of the presentation. The presentation and this blog do not represent the views of ADP, LLC.

Presentation slide with title "DITA Implementation Therapy Session" and a large gray DRAFT plastered across the slide

An early title, later replaced with something a bit more professional–and with a bit more local color

ADP, LLC is a global provider of cloud-based Human Capital Management (HCM) solutions and a leader in business outsourcing services, analytics, and compliance expertise. A centralized technical communication group within ADP undertook to move a group of 60 writers, mostly using RoboHelp, to structured authoring in DITA and a component content management system (CCMS).

It was relatively easy to build a business case, since the tools in place simply could not support the business demands for technical content. The primary driving factors were reducing localization cost, increasing reuse, and improving content quality.

However, the implementation was considerably more difficult. Some of the key challenges were:

  • Complex conditions
  • Resource constraints and expertise gaps
  • Matrix reporting structure

Complex conditions

Traffic sign showing the "magic roundabout" at Swindon, which is a roundabout with five subordinate roundabouts

Complexity is expensive. Photo credit:

ADP has complex products with many variants. For example, some products are available as part of an integrated suite or as stand-alone products. Within these products, users with different roles have access to different functionality; for example, a manager can review timesheets for all direct reports, but an employee can only modify his or her own timesheet. And different content is sometimes needed for different geographic regions.

In building out a classification scheme for the content and for the various conditions, it became clear that we had to balance the value of reuse against the increasing complexity of conditions.

Increased reuse reduces the cost of creating content, but overly complex conditions increase the cost of authoring and maintaining content and the risk of tagging and publishing errors. Finding the optimal balance between these factors became an ongoing issue.

Resource constraints and expertise gaps

Like all projects, there were resource constraints—not enough people and not enough funding to complete an implementation quickly. Furthermore, as is common with new DITA implementations, the people assigned to the DITA implementation team had little or no previous experience with DITA or XML. The organization had no reason to hire for those skills when the tool of choice was RoboHelp. Any team members with DITA knowledge would have acquired it in a previous position.

Increasing DITA expertise is a critical need, but it takes time to transfer knowledge to the implementation team, and that can prolong implementations dramatically. Hiring a DITA expert is an appealing option, but that takes time, too. New hires also lack social capital within the organization. They do not know the company culture, and they don’t have the connections necessary to get things done.

ADP sought to fill the resource and expertise gaps to some degree with consultants. And to maximize the value of the consulting engagements, ADP prioritized knowledge transfer—ensuring that internal resources learn from the consultants—and getting quick wins to build momentum.

Matrixed reporting structure

The ADP DITA implementation team is part of a matrixed reporting structure, in which team members are accountable to the DITA project lead but “report” to a different manager. Because the demands of a DITA project rise and fall, especially in the early stages, a matrixed or dual reporting structure is common. The team members are assigned to the implementation project for a percentage of their time and are expected to complete regular assignments in the rest of their time. Addressing and resolving conflicts between the needs of the two assignments is often challenging. Excellent planning, coordination, and communication by the leaders is a must.

The rocky, winding road

In a session that preceded ours at LavaCon, the presenter asked for a show of hands of people who have done projects that went as planned. We had a similar point to make in our presentation:

An image showing the many detours one takes during a project to get to the end goal.

The roadblocks we discussed certainly added some twists and turns to ADP’s experience. A few of the key takeaways we identified that can help teams mitigate—or at least cope with—these twists included:

  • Start building expertise as early as possible
  • Insist on knowledge transfer if you engage consultants
  • Develop clear roles and expectations for team members
  • Have a clear communication plan if you work in a matrixed environment