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April 5, 2021

DITA for small teams (podcast)

In episode 93 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Sarah O’Keefe talk about how to determine whether DITA XML is a good fit for smaller content requirements.

“Scalability or anticipated scale is actually a good reason to implement DITA for a small team.”

–Sarah O’Keefe

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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 talk about how to determine whether DITA XML is a good fit for smaller content requirements. Hello, and welcome. I’m Gretyl Kinsey.

Sarah O’Keefe:                   Hi, I’m Sarah O’Keefe.

GK:                   And we’re going to be talking about small DITA in this podcast. So just to set the scene, what do we mean when we talk about small in this context?

SO:                   So when we talk about small DITA or small DITA requirements, it could be a variety of things, but basically, a smaller company, a limited number of content creators, and or a small content set. So instead of tens of thousands of pages translated into 50 languages, we’re talking about two or 3000 pages in four languages, or 500 pages.

GK:                   Right. And sometimes we’re talking about as far as the actual content production people, maybe it’s just one writer, maybe it’s a small team of two, or three, or five. And maybe it’s also something like you have a fair number of contributors who are part time, but you only have maybe one or two people who actually gather all of that content, and put it together. So the total operation for that content production is pretty small scale.

SO:                   Following up on that, I think we all know what we mean by a big group, a big implementation. So it’s almost helpful to look at small DITA as being not large. Not tens of thousands of pages, not 50 writers, not a ton of languages, not a ton of scale. So it’s one of these environments where you don’t have the slam dunk business requirement, because you have so much stuff.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely. We know that DITA is typically a good fit for a larger team, like you’ve said, because it really saves a lot of cost from the single-sourcing angle. So for example, the larger content set that you have, the more potential you probably have for reuse across that content set. And that means that you can save a lot more from establishing that single source of truth in DITA, whereas when you’ve got a smaller content set, you may not have that much reuse, or what you have may not justify the cost of that setup.

SO:                   Yeah. I mean, it’s really common, I think, to see organizations that have a small chunk of content with actually zero reuse. So you look at it from the, do you have a business case for DITA point of view, and for reuse? The answer is absolutely not. Because there isn’t any.

GK:                   When we look at some of the other factors that typically work for these larger groups too, another one is localization. And in a lot of ways, that one stems from reuse, because the more languages that you translate into, the more times that you have to pay, and if you are using copies rather than true reuse, that makes your costs go up. But if you have a smaller team, or maybe you’re delivering to a smaller market, and you don’t have a lot of reuse, or a lot of localization, or maybe any localization, then again, it becomes a little bit difficult to justify something like DITA. Whereas when you do have a lot of localization, especially on top of a lot of reuse, then that does justify it for a larger team.

SO:                   Right, exactly. Because the more content you have, the more time and money you’re going to save by automation. I mean, just you automate, and then you automate across 10 or 15, or 20 languages, and you automate across all your deliverables. And all that stuff adds up. When you start talking about a team of 20 people, and they spend 10, or 15, or 20% of their time producing all these different channels or deliverables, and you automate that away. That’s a huge gain in productivity. When you have one person working through those things with limited or no localization, then the value of that is just not there. So far, we’re doing an excellent job of convincing everybody that if you have a small team, you probably don’t need DITA.

GK:                   Well, it really depends. There are some circumstances where it can be a good fit, and maybe there are some where it’s not such a good fit. It really depends on your specific situation. When it comes to determining that fit, it may or may not always work out because you may see that that cost of standing up the DITA environment outweighs the benefits, like we just talked about. If you have some a use case for DITA, whether it is reuse, localization, more automation, your publishing, if you don’t have enough content to justify that, even if you’ve got the use case, then your management may just look at your setup and say, “Well, yes DITA could get you all these things that you’re asking for and make things easier, but it’s never going to recoup the cost of the initial stand up.”

SO:                   So what are those things? I mean what does it look like to have a small DITA group, or a group for whom a small DITA implementation makes sense?

GK:                   So one example is if your content has high-value, and what I mean by that is that that content is something that really is worth a lot to a lot of different people, and maybe it needs to undergo some sort of digital transformation process where it can be delivered to the right channels, it can be remixed and reused and repurposed and all sorts of different ways, there’s a lot of demand for that content. So even if there’s not much of it there, that content still has so much value, that the benefits you would get out of putting it into DITA outweigh those costs.

SO:                   So we’ve seen this I think with content that is regulatory, not necessarily regulated, but in fact the regulations themselves which are then distributed to lots of different people. So if your content is in fact the standard that says, this is how you should be doing things in XYZ industry or in XYZ organization, that may be a candidate. The other place that we’ve seen this is in high-value educational content, which might not be a ton of pages per se, but it’s the standard curriculum or it’s referenced material that explains to you how to do a particular thing, or how to get a particular certification.

GK:                   Absolutely. And when it comes to that content that’s where you know the value of it and the need for it for that audience really makes the difference. And I will also add that this is an example where with some of the clients we’ve worked with that have this a use case. Some of them do actually have a larger content set, but they’ve got a smaller team working on it. And so that’s where it really becomes this question of is DITA a good fit? And they get a lot of those benefits out of having a pretty decent volume of content, and then they can use the small team as almost more of a justification, because they can say well it makes these two or three or five writers lives easier, if they don’t have to do so much manual wrangling of that content, and they really can you know get the efficiency out of producing that high-value content.

SO:                   Right. I mean it’s probably worth noting that when we talk about high-value content, and we’ve described a couple of content types. The reason that it makes sense to put that into DITA is because it enables you to label the content in useful ways, so you can have an element called regulation, or you can have a specific table that’s repeated over and over again that has elements that describe what’s in the table, so you can provide these labels that give you information about what’s going on in the content. And because of the remixing that you’re talking about, having specific labels instead of just heading or paragraph, allows you to then capture what’s going on in the content, and then remix it downstream and do what you need to do with it.

SO:                   So the content is high-value in the sense that it gets remixed, repurposed, distributed, used by a lot of people, and it’s worth putting into DITA, because that allows you to give it those labels that make that remixing and repurposing better.

GK:                   Absolutely. And that gets into another use case that we’ve seen where maybe a smaller content set or a smaller team can benefit from DITA which is that, if the customers are demanding a type of content delivery that is not possible where you’re currently setup, so if you’re in some sort of a desktop publishing based setup or you’re not digitally delivering your content but there’s a need for that, then that’s another area where you can evaluate, and say does it help to have DITA? And in particular, when customers start demanding personalization, they want custom content that’s delivered to them just based on maybe the products that they’ve bought, or the services that they have decided to use from your company, that if you get that semantic tagging in there, and you have everything structured, then that delivery then becomes possible.

SO:                   And I think it’s worth noting here that we still today see a steady flow of customers who tell us things like, “Well, we’re authoring in some desktop publishing tool and we’re producing PDF for our content. We really need to put this on our website, not as a PDF but actually as some sort of web HTML, for the first time, and we’ve never done it.” There are enormous numbers of organizations out there that are still in that boat. So for those of you that are listening to this thinking, but everybody’s on the web, the answer is that, in fact, lots and lots of people actually are not just yet.

GK:                   Right. And that’s something that surprised me a little bit with how frequently we still do see that. And I think that’s especially the case with some of these smaller teams, because they just don’t have the resources to make that jump, to make that digital transformation. So I think that, that’s where it really gets down to this point of looking at, is DITA a good fit? Because, it can make that leap over to that digital delivery possible.

SO:                   Yeah. I mean, we’re still seeing, it’s not super common, but we’re still seeing legacy content in PageMaker, in QuarkXPress, in Inner Leaf, and I’m going to stop there before I dig myself further. Those people are out there, and you’re not alone.

GK:                   Absolutely. So one other use case, too, that can help if you have a small content set, or a small team, is looking across the organization at a broader level. Are there multiple departments that you have at your company that maybe need to share content, but they are limited in their ability to do so? Maybe they’re working in very distinct silos. Because if you look at it that way, even if each team is small on an individual basis, when you put all of that content together, then it starts to add up, and you maybe start to have more of a use case for something like DITA to save you costs on the entire content set when you put it together, and to also look at those benefits that you can start to get reuse that you couldn’t have before.

SO:                   Yeah. I mean, we always start with the tech comm group as the default. And that’s, I mean, 100%, where DITA lives to begin with. But the groups that we see here are technical training groups who may probably are reusing content, from Tech Comm. And also increasingly, the sort of technical marketing, or maybe sales enablement, groups that are producing pretty scary white papers and other kinds of marketing materials that are not just a short product description, or a one-page data sheet, but rather a longer not long-long, but longer form document that really could benefit from this. And in addition to the content reuse and sharing that you’re talking about, there’s also value in sharing the channels, the delivery channels. So if I have to build out a delivery channel for HTML, or for PDF, or for a portal, or whatever else, it’s really handy to be able to share that with those two or three or five other departments, so that we can all take advantage of that infrastructure, instead of having to build it two or three or five times for all your different silos.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely. And this is another case that cuts back to what we were just talking about how you’d be surprised how many teams are still out there that are still entrenched in desktop publishing, and haven’t gone digital. We see a lot of cases where along similar lines, these different departments when we go in and ask, how are you sharing content right now? Because you might have the training group that needs to reference something and the technical manuals, you might have a marketing team that’s using some of the training materials and their presentations. And when you ask them, how are you sharing, they just say, “We’re going to their published documents, and copying and pasting into our own systems,” which of course gets everything out of sync, it has a lot of issues with version control, it introduces a lot of inaccuracies. And so there are still many, many cases where this is the only way that they can make those connections, and use that content. And once you open those doors, and have everyone working together with DITA as the basic framework, then it really gets rid of all of those barriers and those silos, and allows for production to be much more efficient across the board.

SO:                   So what about a component content management system, a CCMS? We’ve been talking about DITA in small teams, but is a CCMS a requirement as part of this?

GK:                   It’s actually not. And I think a lot of people misunderstand that as well. But they think that if you go the route of a DITA setup, that you have to have something like a CCMS as part of that, and have those workflow benefits that comes from for things like reviews and approvals, and the sort of end-to-end authoring to review to publishing pipeline. But you actually can work in DITA without a CCMS. And we’ve seen several examples of these smaller teams doing this as a cost saving measure. So they might use something else, maybe something like Git for version control, and then they’re just working in some sort of a web editor in DITA, and using the DITA open toolkit for publishing. And they don’t have it all connected in a CCMS, but they have enough coordination, because it’s a small team that everyone is able to communicate about the process. And they don’t necessarily need that overhead of a CCMS to make things work.

SO:                   Yeah. I mean, to be clear, you do get additional functionality from the CCMS. It’s just that in a small team, you can do sort of an 80-20 solution, you can get 80% of the functionality with source control, that last 20%, it would be nice. And if you have a big team, you’re going to need it. I mean, I think we shouldn’t. We should be careful with this one. All of our CCMS partners are going to yell at us. But the bigger your team is, the more value you get out of a CCMS. If your team is smaller, there is still value there. It’s just that the overall value is smaller, because your team is smaller. And so you can look at that. But certainly there are lots of instances where the smaller teams need a CCMS, and of course, they’re going to scale it appropriately. They’re not going to spend huge amounts of money on a CCMS, but there are some out there that can be very reasonable.

GK:                   And we’ve seen a few cases too where a smaller team will start in one CCMS that is designed for a team of that size, they have different kinds of levels and plans for different sizes of teams or different amounts of content. And they can start small and work their way up. Sometimes they do that within a single CCMS and upgrade their plans. Other times, they might change from one CCMS to another, depending on how they grow and scale over time. And we’ve also seen some companies use the homegrown approach of managing their version control and their authoring and publishing themselves, temporarily maybe for a few months or a few years, while they get to the point where they truly do need to CCMS. And they have that stopgap period. So there are a lot of different ways that you can approach things. And it’s all very flexible, because it can change over time. And hopefully it will change as you grow.

SO:                   I mean, that might be… Scalability is a really interesting point. Because one option, or one strategy that you might use is that you look at your company, your organization, you say, we’re going to grow. We’re a hot startup, we’re in the space. We’re going to grow, we have to scale. And in that case, you might take a hard look at implementing DITA now while you have a small team. You may or may not have a really great justification for it with your team of two or three or five. But you know that you’re going to be 20 in a year or in a year-and-a-half. And at that point, you’re going to be working at lightspeed. And actually taking that pause and doing a big implementation is going to be problematic.

SO:                   So scalability or anticipated scale is actually a pretty good reason to implement DITA for a small team. Like we’re this big now, we know we’re getting bigger, we know what’s going to happen, we’re going to build this out now while we have a small content set, it’s going to be relatively easier to do it instead of waiting for that challenge to snowball, and then having to really do a big conversion process.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely. And I think that just gets into the idea of future-proofing your content strategy, and building that end as part of it. And when we come in and do an assessment, which is the sort of how we would help make that determination of whether DITA is a good fit for a smaller team or not, that that’s a big part of it, as we look at what are the problems you’re trying to solve right now, versus what are your goals for the future and the things that you anticipate happening in the next year, in the next five years, 10 years down the road. And try to figure out how we can make a plan or help you come up with a plan that takes that into account. And that’s where that scalability piece is really, really important. Because if you anticipate that need early enough, you really can save a lot of cost and effort and headaches when it comes to actually getting DITA in place.

SO:                   Yeah, it’s much easier and cheaper to do this when you don’t have a ton of existing content in some other format.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely. So is there anything else that you want to talk about when it comes to advice for small teams using DITA?

SO:                   We haven’t talked about conditionals really, and variant content. That would be another thing to just sort of keep in the back of your mind. If you have content variants DITA’s pretty good at that. And it’s one of the things that it handles well, that can be problematic elsewhere.

GK:                   Yeah. Conditionals really play into the personalization angle. We’ve seen that with some of the small teams that we’ve worked with where that’s been a necessary part of making their personalization happen. So that’s definitely a big thing to keep in the back of your mind along with all the other things that we’ve talked about.

GK:                   So with that, I think we can go ahead and wrap things up. So thank you so much, Sarah.

SO:                   Thank you.

GK:                   And thank you 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.