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May 3, 2021

Understanding content migration (podcast)

In episode 94 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Bill Swallow and David Turner of DCL take a look at content migration and discuss all of the players and parts involved.

“It’s not just about moving the content and loading it to the new system. You actually have to transform the content from the unstructured formats.”

–David Turner, DCL

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Bill Swallow:              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 discuss content migration. Hi, everyone. I’m Bill Swallow, and today I have a special guest, David Turner of Data Conversion Laboratories, also known as DCL. DCL is an industry leader in data and content transformation services and solutions. Hey, David.

David Turner:                   Hi, Bill. Thanks so much for including me today.

BS:                   Oh, thank you for joining. And today, we’re going to take a look at content migration and talk about the players and parts involved.

DT:                   Yeah.

BS:                   I think to kick it off, what is meant by content migration?

DT:                   Well, that’s a good question. It’s actually a broad term. But in general, you’re just talking about moving content in whatever formats to some kind of a new repository. In the work that we do at DCL, that typically means somebody’s implementing a component content management system, or maybe moving from one CCMS to another, or a lot of times we work in scholarly publishing where they’re changing website hosting platforms. All that to say, it’s not always the most popular conversation. I think I heard one technology provider recently say, “Migrations are death.” But they are an important conversation, and those are the kinds of content migrations we typically work on.

BS:                   Alright. Why might you need to migrate content then?

DT:                   Well, depending on your use case, you actually might not have to do a lot of content migration. Some platform vendors will encourage you just to start from scratch, or you might even be able to write a script to just lift and load content. If you’ve got really well-formed content, it can just work. But I think in most cases, you typically need to be thinking about the migration strategy, specifically if you’re moving from, say an unstructured content management workflow to this SCM, or structured content management space, like we’ve seen at TechDocs, or we’re starting to see a lot more in Life Sciences, educational publishing. In these instances, it’s not just about moving the content and loading it to the new system, but you actually have to transform the content from the unstructured formats, like Word or InDesign, into component-based formats, like DITA or other flavors of XML. And, ultimately, you have to do that in a way that minimizes manual cleanup.

DT:                   Now, on the scholarly publishing side, it’s a little different. You’re typically not necessarily moving to a new kind of XML. You might be taking decades of content and just updating those content models. So really for them, they’re looking to try to clean things up, get rid of some warts, make sure that links are working, things like that.

BS:                   And I can imagine it’s not particularly easy to move from something that’s unstructured, like Word or InDesign, into some kind of structured content like XML.

DT:                   No, absolutely not. I personally didn’t understand how difficult it was when I first started, but all it takes is spending a day trying to convert a Word document to some DITA document, and you’ll pull your hair out, even if you have some technology that’ll automatically do it. So typically, you’ve got to think about these things with a big picture, and you got to really approach them in a strategic way. So in any case, while a lot of your tech providers don’t like to necessarily emphasize the need for content migration, it really can be a critical piece.

DT:                   One of my favorite quotes, I think from the SaaS Institute says that, “Bad data is the leading cause of the failure of IT projects.” And I think you can just insert the word “content” in there as well. The data that is in and around your content, if you don’t get that right, it’s going to cause your project to fail.

BS:                   Oh yes, definitely. So what’s involved in a content migration then in that case?

DT:                   Well, can I give the favorite answer of all consultants, technology providers and service providers? I’ll just say it depends.

BS:                   We use that one too.

DT:                   I think that’s a very… Honestly it does depend on a lot of different factors. I say, “First of all, how much content are you moving?” If you’re just moving a little bit of content, maybe it’s just some simple in-house expertise. But if you’re bringing content together from a lot of different legacy systems, you might need a lot more help. “How big of a change is this for your team?” For like a scholarly platform migration, there’s very little in change management. But if you’ve got a team of medical writers who are used to working in Word and are now going to be working in DITA or some other flavor of XML, that’s a huge change management endeavor, so there’s going to be more involved with that migration. And then honestly, when you look at content formats, that’s going to be another piece of this. “Is scanning required? Is this just Word content, or do you have Word and InDesign and PowerPoint and RoboHelp and FrameMaker? And do you have a lot of duplicate content?” So there’s a lot of those things that they go into it, that’ll help determine what you need.

DT:                   But in general, I’d say you can probably group the players in the ecosystem into three big groups. First of all, is the technology vendors? So that would be your platform provider, or if you’re moving to a CCMS, that CCMS provider. Typically, there are some add-ons to that. So with the CCMS, sometimes they have an onboard editor for doing the XML. But other times, you’ll want to bring in a third-party editing tool, some sort of a structured content authoring or editing tool. And similarly, you might have some providers on the back end that are going to automate your export formats or manage your delivery out to different places. So those are the key players, I think, in terms of the technology piece.

DT:                   From a services side, depending on how big of the engagement is, you’re probably going to have a systems integrator of some kind. You’re probably going to need to have a good conversion vendor, and almost definitely, you’re going to need to have a good consultant. And really, that’s for the services side.

DT:                   And then I think internally, you also need to be thinking about who your players are. An internal project leader, ideally, somebody who sits in between the content people and the IT side. Because in my experience, a lot of times, a project that is just led by the tech side, those tend to fail. And similarly, if somebody is just trying to lead it from that content team side, they’re going to run into a lot of trouble. But if you can have that person in the middle who speaks both languages and could be that champion, that’ll really help you to have success. And then that person needs to also cultivate some other internal project champions. Another sure way to fail is to have a good internal project leader, and then a year from now that person goes someplace else and nobody else is there to pick up the mantra. So that person’s got to be really good at spreading the gospel, if you will.

BS:                   Yeah. Yeah, it’s very true, because once all of these other players leave, all you are left with to keep things going is that internal team.

DT:                   Yeah.

BS:                   So, yeah, if the internal team doesn’t have a game plan going forward, then the whole initiative, really, can fail.

DT:                   Absolutely.

BS:                   All right. So you have all of these players, all of these different parts going on. How do they all work together?

DT:                   Well, I think the technology vendors, it’s pretty self-explanatory, and most of the time the technologies have been made to work together. So you’ll have the CCMS, which is your place to store the content, manage the content, share the content, reuse the content. And then there’ll be an editing tool that’s typically already been integrated in some way, and then the rendering tools and things like that. On the service provider side, if I were going to start one of these projects, I would start probably with the consulting piece. Having a consultant, they can ask the hard questions, help develop those internal leaders, implement the change management. And really, one of the things that I think is most critical is being able to stay focused on that big picture. From a format side, they also help to do things, like establish content models, content standards, content workflows, et cetera. Have I left anything out on the consulting side? I think you might have some expertise there.

BS:                   Yeah. I think you hit all the big ones. But yeah, the big one around there is change management, because any kind of project where you’re moving from one technology base, or several into another, basically everyone’s whole world is going to change at that point. So being able to make sure that you have all your ducks in a row with regard to every aspect of that process really helps. And again, it helps inform that team and that team champion and the ones that they’re working with to keep things rolling, to have that game plan going forward.

DT:                   Absolutely. So after the consultant, I think a good place to get involved now is with the conversion vendor. The conversion vendor is going to then take a look at this valuable asset, this content that you have, and is going to help you to meet those content standards that were established by the consultant.

DT:                   At DCL, we actually do a lot of upfront analysis on these kinds of projects to optimize the content for whatever the new platform is and to minimize any cleanup. And then we can really do it. So many people look at these projects and think it’s an all or nothing kind of a proposition. “I have to bring everything or nothing.” And we could do a measured approach, maybe start with a small amount of content, then that leads to ingesting one content type a little further down the road, then maybe just a little further down the road. We’ll convert those content formats, we’ll provide QA, we’ll help clean up metadata.

DT:                   I should probably also just caution you, don’t overlook this part. Sometimes you’ll have people that haven’t maybe worked with maybe a DITA integration before, and they’ll think, “Ah, can’t we just write a script?” Internal developers look at this, and they go, “Oh, we should be able to just automate this.” But I would just, again, caution you, because, again, bad data kills 80% of projects. And your content is not an afterthought, it’s an asset. And you’ll spend actually a lot more fixing bad content transformations later than just investing well in the first place.

BS:                   Yeah. It’s a garbage in, garbage out thing.

DT:                   Absolutely. And your user’s experience is going to depend on that. What they get from your content really is a reflection of you as a company, and it’ll lead to more sales or it’ll hurt sales.

BS:                   Yeah. Couldn’t agree more.

DT:                   Of course, the systems integrator, they’re going to be handling the plumbing, making sure that the tech environment works properly, whether it’s cloud-hosted or internally-hosted. They’re going to try to make sure that all the technologies are working together seamlessly. Maybe they’ll take, “This is how we’re going to do the workflows.” Well, they’ll actually implement that and make sure the inputs and outputs are working, et cetera.

DT:                   And then the other really important piece, as I said before, the internal players, they’re going to work with a consultant to make sure that the company has everything it needs and learns to stand on its own. Because, as we talked about before, the consultants and integrators, eventually, won’t be there every day. So this internal staff needs to make sure that things are documented, needs to make sure that they’re actually able to use this content, which is why it’s important to get the conversion done right at the beginning, and then be able to help get the company culture to adapt to this new technology and these new processes, to really ensure that that long-term success.

DT:                   I guess I would say in summary, there’s a lot of moving parts, but knowing these players and how they fit in and placing some value on that is going to make that a lot easier. And I think, ultimately, will help you to put together a plan that’s palatable for your management when it comes to migration.

BS:                   Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think we’re going to cut it off here, but thank you, David. This has been a great chat and a lot of great information in there.

DT:                   Well, thanks so much. And I look forward to maybe doing another one of these in the future.

BS:                   That would be great. Alright. 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.