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March 16, 2020

Getting started with DITA (podcast, part 2)

In episode 72 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Barbara Green of ACS Technologies continue their discussion about getting started with DITA.

“We experienced far more change than I anticipated from the time Scriptorium first came in to evaluate our situation. I remember you saying, “Expect change, expect resistance to change,” but reality is the great teacher of life.”

—Barbara Green

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Gretyl Kinsey:     Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we continue our discussion of getting started with DITA and taking the next steps forward with special guest Barbara Green of ACS Technologies. This is part two of a two part podcast.

GK:     So I want to talk a little bit about we’ve kind of covered where things stand right now and what you’re about to do by year end or beginning of next year. So I want to talk a little bit about how that fits into the fifth and final phase that Scriptorium recommended, which is interconnectivity amongst not just the R&D department that produces the realm product and all of its content, but all of the other content producing departments as well, such as e-learning and marketing, and how all of them can benefit from reusing content, from having content in the CCMS or connecting to the CCMS or the portal. And I want to talk about that phase that’s on the horizon, what kinds of plans that you have in mind, and how that all fits into what you’ve already been doing for delivering personalized content to your user base.

Barbara Green:     Yeah. Well we know that even now we’re working on some features in our products that are going to increase the complexity of our variance again. One of the things that if you’d asked me three years ago if I would really be passionate about I would’ve probably said no, but I am growing quite passionate about this, and I guess in a lot of ways it’s sort of like, oh dare I dream. What I would really love to see personally is a top down corporate content strategy that carries us into the future. Here’s how we’re going to set up our taxonomy, having all content creating departments, sitting at a table and agreeing on some things around voice and tone, other types of style guides, our taxonomy, and our reuse strategy.

BG:     We’ve identified with our development staff seven problem statements based upon what we know we could have done a better job with this year or what either content didn’t understand, because it’s a learning experience. I’ve always worked with developers, but when you really get down into technical things, it’s been a learning experience for me. And I can’t say enough, ACS is just a great culture, we have a phenomenal culture. Yes, we fuss and fight amongst ourselves, but we really do have a great culture of teamwork and we like each other. I think that that’s been a huge plus in this project.

GK:     Absolutely.

BG:     Yeah. We’ve identified these things and we want to work on those with Scriptorium’s help just to sort of align ourselves on what can we expect from development resources, not just for the help, but we have other groups like e-learning with really great plans and they stood up in LMS this year and our marketing department, even our risk management department is saying, “Hey, can I use this CCMS for policies?” And of course our vendor is going, “Absolutely you can,” and we have other customers that do that.

BG:     So we have sort of a lot of interest coming from other areas, and I’m personally working with IT now, like let’s test getting content out of the CCMS into web front ends. So we want to do all these things, but we are realizing we don’t have the resources, the human resources, and some of the documented here’s how we’re going to do it, here’s how we’re going to make decisions in place. So I really would like to see us make big leaps and bounds in 2020 around those things.

BG:     And I know I’ve read lots of articles. Some people would say, “Well, you should’ve had all that in place,” and in a perfect world you should, but we didn’t. So you go with what you got, right?

GK:     Yeah. And I remember when Scriptorium first came to ACS and we talked about what are the problems that you’re facing, and this was about three years ago. One of the biggest ones that we heard over and over was that all of these different departments just work in independent silos and don’t communicate with each other. And then I remember I went and visited last year and it was a world of difference because we got a lot of different representatives from these different departments in a room together and just had a brainstorming session of how we could all collaborate. And just seeing the difference even over those couple of years was pretty incredible.

GK:     And I think it does speak to what you said about even though you’d been working in these little disconnected silos, that you do have that great corporate culture where you all like each other and get along. So I think that goes a long way. There’s not as much of an issue of that sort of tension among departments or people saying, “Oh, I don’t want to work with this person over here.” It does seem like people are excited and onboard to start moving in that direction of collaboration.

BG:     Right. I think each department here has its challenges. They also have their business goals. I want to say that I do think business drivers were the key in our case. Even though each department has their own goals, our goals are big and personalization is a key driver behind how fast we’ve moved with some of this because just providing context to the user no matter… and also just user experience. Our UX designers do a really good job of communicating and helping us all think better about the user’s experience, so no matter what door they come in to our company, we want to create the right user experience and content is so important to that. We want to sound like one company, not five.

BG:     We all desire quality. We know we have some work to get on the same page, but I’m very optimistic that we’re headed in the right way and I’m really thrilled with the interest around collaborating more with each other, maybe even setting up teams and committees around strategies, a taxonomy committee or a team, whatever we decide to call it, somebody will come up with a fancy word here and we’ll call it that.

GK:     I think that having that in place already puts you miles ahead of a lot of the other companies that we’ve seen where they try and try to put that kind of initiative in place, but it’s just really, really hard to get out of the rut of all these disconnected silos. And so I think that over this next year or so, that leveraging that excitement is really going to help that last phase come together as you want it to and really help you achieve that goal of all these different content producing departments working together and truly delivering the best user experience possible.

GK:     So where I want to go next is just talking about we’ve gone through the overall strategy and sort of how that’s played out and how it’s going to play out in the future, but I want to do a little bit of a look back and talk about lessons learned. With hindsight 20/20, if you could go back three years in time and tell yourself here are some things that I wish I had known before taking the plunge, going into DITA and changing all of these content processes, what are some of those things?

BG:     Well, back to the very beginning, we know now that we should have educated stakeholders better, just helping set expectations around timelines for things like conversions and development and making sure that various mini projects we needed to be successful were scoped accurately. We also learned as a content team we needed to collaborate with development, especially our architects. We needed to get their input early on, and I think the RFP process that we went through, we had the head of R&D and we had a developer on that team was just really one of the best things that we tried. And it just worked great because programmers can often help create the case for your business case. They see things a different way than content people do. We haven’t always done that, and even since then, even though we learned that lesson, sometimes you continue to repeat mistakes of the past. But that’s a big lesson that we learned is to collaborate with our development team.

BG:     And just to take that one step further, what I now know at the end of this year is that I need to set those development expectations. This is not a one and done. Content needs ongoing development resources, and actually one of the things that R&D is doing is standing up a content team in 2020. They’re not completely dedicated to the CCMS and the portal, but that is one of their projects. They’re also going to be supporting the LMS and a few other content initiatives. So that’s a really positive change and definitely is one of our lessons learned there, is get our devs involved.

BG:     We also learned that the unexpected is going to happen. Have a plan for regaining your focus. Know some alternative resources that you can take advantage of. We learned that lesson last year and this year I think that’s actually a lesson we learned and we did something about. We had a content issue come up with our legacy system because we still have some legacy products in the Wiki this year. I took some time and wrote up a research project that needed to be done around that and then we went to HR and said, “Hey could you find us an intern or could you make this a career development focus? Because we have a program here for that.” They weren’t able to locate a resource, but my manager was then able to find a resource that could fix our problem. So looking for those things you don’t think are resources but just thinking outside of the box, that just worked great this year for us.

BG:     For us, we have supplemented our strategy with training, and actually I think that was a Scriptorium lesson learned, if I remember correctly.

GK:     Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to touch on that a little bit, because I know that earlier you mentioned the learning curve that’s involved with something like this.

BG:     Yeah.

GK:     And I think that where that learning curve really became clear to us is that the way that we have typically done a lot of these sorts of projects where we help a company move into DITA or any other kind of structured content is that we get everything converted, we get it in the new system, and then at the end we deliver training. And what we learned at ACS is that it was, especially with this kind of a phased approach to the strategy, it really was easier on the writers and the people that had to use DITA to have training delivered in kind of smaller chunks all along. And I think we found that when after phases one and two, after we did the initial conversion and getting things working in GitHub, we did a couple of days on site where we delivered some training to all of the writers and it was just sort of a DITA 101 basics, here’s how you create DITA topics, here’s how you put them together in maps and publish them, and then here are a few basic reuse mechanisms and I think that laid the groundwork.

GK:     But the problem is that at the time it was sort of not real so to speak, because the writers really needed to see all of that in action with their content, and because that conversion had just recently occurred, it was really difficult I think to connect us just delivering basic one-on-one level training with what they actually needed to do. And so what we realized was that it was really important to supplement that with additional training that went along with each phase. So I think this was something that, like you said, Barbara, with the last piece that you talked about, that we had a lesson learned and we actually did something about it.

GK:     And we’ve learned that with ACS it makes sense to kind of get through part of a phase and then if there is anything that the content creators are a little shaky on or have questions about to just do training in smaller chunks, and I think the most recent example of that is that we had a lot of the writers and even people in some of these other departments saying, “We don’t fully understand reuse and we really need some more training in that,” and now that all the content is in place and you’re starting to set up reuse amongst that content, we were able to look at real examples, look at what ACS is doing with reuse and then deliver some more targeted focused training based on that. And we did it instead of doing one big info dump, we did several just little one hour sessions over the course of several weeks.

GK:     I think that approach makes it a little more digestible, and if you are facing a very steep learning curve, I think delivering the training in those kind of smaller pieces really, really helps make it easier for people to get over that hump. So that’s actually something that we have changed to do with other clients as well. If we are working with a team that has no DITA experience, that has no structured content experience, they’re kind of coming into it the way that the writers at ACS were where all of them had been working in a Wiki, they had never worked with anything like DITA or XML, and so it was a totally unfamiliar learning curve and we keep that in mind now where if we’re working with a team that has absolutely no background in this kind of thing, that they’re probably going to need training delivered in these smaller, more bite sized chunks, and they’re going to need it delivered all along the way instead of at one big chunk at the end.

GK:     And so that’s been a lesson learned for us is how we approach training with different teams based on the way that their DITA rollout is going and the experience that they had beforehand.

BG:     Yeah, I agree. When I first began to just outline our reuse strategy, it really hit me, “Okay, I know we’ve talked about reuse,” and I felt like I had a grasp of it but I could easily second guess myself and we found that others were doing the same thing. So I thought that was really very helpful to go back and just zero in on various reuse strategies with our examples in hand. I think that was a big win for us.

BG:     Organizations are structured very differently, but our writers are embedded on agile teams and so their bandwidth is stretched depending on the two week sprint that they have. So doing those one hour trainings was definitely a win. It was an easy commitment and it gave them time to go back and reflect and get questions ready for the following week.

GK:     Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s really helped us have a better understanding of just really further personalizing our different training approach to different companies, and this has been a real learning experience for us on that front as well.

GK:     And then I think something else that we learned firsthand from this particular project is what to do in the face of these external unexpected changes. We talked a little bit about how there was a lot of reorganization at ACS, and obviously that was not something that had been planned at the time that we initially put our content strategy together, and that just really hit home for us how important it is to have some flexibility in your strategy and in your timelines and to be able to accommodate those kinds of changes. In some ways it can be positive. It can present challenges, but ultimately I think some of the reorganization that you went through you were able to, after one of those first big rounds of reorganization, that was when you got into not only your CCMS but your portal pretty quickly.

GK:     So in some ways it can be really helpful. Even though I think that reorganization delayed your phase where you were just working in GitHub and stretched that out for a long time, I think it ultimately led to you getting into the next two phases more quickly.

GK:     And so what Scriptorium learned from that is just the adaptability that you have to have and then also being able to support a company through those changes when it starts to affect content, being able to advise a company on how to stick to your strategy or maybe adapt it a little bit as needed in the face of all of those changes and make sure that it doesn’t just throw you completely off track.

GK:     We talk about change management and dealing with change resistance a lot in our strategies, and we usually include some advice to our clients when we deliver a strategy to them about here’s how you might deal with resistance to change or how you might approach unexpected changes. But I think this project in particular hit home to us, how adaptable you truly have to be sometimes.

BG:     Yeah, I would agree. We experienced far more change than I anticipated from the time that you first came in to evaluate our situation, that was definitely a surprise and I remember you guys saying, “Expect change, expect resistance to change,” but reality is the great teacher of life. It really hits you, you learn. But it’s definitely been a growth opportunity, and again, we’ve had some very positive outcomes. I will say, I will add too that one of the problem statements that I’ve documented with my developers is that while it was such an awesome surprise to hear that we were going to get the portal, what we now realize, and Gretyl I have to give you credit for the right words, but we sort of robbed ourselves of educating all parties on what a portal is, what it does, what the benefits are.

BG:     So as a result of that, we really didn’t… We were lacking in some technologies that need to be in place to use a portal the way it’s meant to be used. Even now with our portal set up, we’ve got a solution for year end, but we know it can’t be our final solution.

BG:     Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of walking through the discovery phase. I’ll be honest, I had never in my life written an RFP. I could have probably not even gotten started without you guys. I also had a coworker here that used to review RFPs in New York and she was a big help with advice, but it was… Just looking back, it was just such an important part of this, and I’m asked all the time what tool did you pick? I just want to take and pick a tool. And I’m like, “No. You need to [crosstalk 00:22:46]”

GK:     Yeah, exactly. And I’m really glad to hear you say that because one of the things that I know we’ve stressed this time and time again on the podcast and on our blog is that tools should be the very last thing that you choose, you should first decide, determine what your business goals are and what things are blocking you from achieving that at the moment, and then what things need to happen to get past those blocks and achieve those goals.

GK:     And then once you do that, then it’s time to say, “Okay, what are some options of tools that might fit?” And then really screen all of those very heavily. Ask as many questions as you can think of from not just a content perspective but an IT perspective, and also maybe you get into like a marketing perspective or training perspective if they might ever use that tool. Anybody that’s going to have a stake in it will have questions about how it works, how it needs to be supported, and how it’s going to support you. Get very, very specific, get very, very thorough answers and have them demonstrate everything that they say that their tools could do so that you can get a firsthand idea of how that’s going to work.

GK:     And I think that going through that vetting process as thoroughly as possible is extremely important. We’ve seen a lot of companies where what basically happened was they got pulled in by the shiny marketing aspect of a tool saying, “Hey, look at this fancy tool that can solve all your problems.” And they say, “Okay,” they buy it and they haven’t really evaluated whether it actually can solve all their problems and then they get stuck using it.

BG:     Right.

GK:     Then they come to us for help saying, “Can you create a content strategy to get us out of this one tool and into some other workflow, and this time we’ll choose it more carefully.” And so that’s why we always advise companies to make that the last thing you do and to be very, very careful. Of course, part of our strategy is that we can help do things like write those RFPs or attend the demos and point out different things that maybe the customer wouldn’t necessarily see. It’s really important to take your time during that discovery phase and really just evaluate every single angle that you can.

BG:     I agree. And it also helps you know what you’re going to need from your own company as you go about implementing. I mean, believe it or not, I think had we really worked that discovery phase with the dynamic portal, we might have had that implemented a little faster because we would have known, “Oh, we’ve got to have this piece of technology in place.” And just to reiterate, when I was writing that RFP, I pulled out a list of every department in the company, and we’re about 400 employees. We’re not real small, we’re not real huge, but I pulled out a list of every department and just mentally went down that list and said, “Is there anything about this department that if my dreams came true, this system could affect them?”

BG:     I basically sat down with almost every department in the company. Even if they weren’t directly affected, sometimes there was an indirect benefit or something that they thought of that I didn’t, and that was a very helpful discovery process for me to see… just to hear what they thought it was and how they thought they could use it. That was great. It was a great process.

GK:     Absolutely. So just, I want to wrap up with one final thing and that is if you could give one piece of advice to another company that’s in the same boat that you were in a few years ago, what would that be?

BG:     Do your discovery process. Yeah, I really think that’s high on the list, but a very, very close second, if you’ll let me say too, is really work hard at educating your stakeholders or your contributors, like development. At the end of every year, I think I worked really hard and I always see places that I overlooked, I could have done a better job in my communication. But you want to have those conversations with your design group, your developers, your stakeholders, so that you have a well rounded understanding of the business objectives from different viewpoints.

GK:     Absolutely. It’s fantastic and solid advice. So thank you so much, Barbara, for joining us on the podcast.

BG:     Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

GK:     And thank you all for listening to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.