Replatforming your structured content into a new CCMS (podcast)
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In episode 128 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe talks with guest Chip Gettinger of RWS about why companies are replatforming structured content by moving it into a new component content management system (CCMS).
I find there’s some business change that’s happened to spark this replatforming. One is mergers and acquisitions, where two companies get together, there are two CCMSs, and one basically is chosen.
—Chip Gettinger, RWS
Sarah O’Keefe: 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 replatforming with special guest Chip Gettinger of RWS. Hi, I’m Sarah O’Keefe. Hey Chip, welcome back to the podcast.
Chip Gettinger: Hi Sarah, it’s great to see you.
SO: Yeah, you too. Chip, tell us a little bit about yourself and who you are, and what you do at RWS.
CG: Sure. I manage our Global Solutions Consulting Team here at RWS, and it’s our product is Tridion Docs. It’s a data component content management system. So I work with customers and partners on technical business requirements for their CCMSs.
SO: So you are in many ways the in-house edition of what we do over here at Scriptorium, on the outside, looking in.
CG: Yeah, I’m in the sales side of things, but we have very, very detailed solutions that I get to work with some really wonderful customers.
SO: Yeah, and so for the audience, Chip and I go way back, we’ve known each other for a long time. And so if this degenerates that that’ll be why, and we apologize in advance. I wanted to focus on replatforming today. We’ve had a lot of projects recently that involve this, I think both of us. And I guess I need to start with a definition of what replatforming is. So in my world, I define replatforming as moving from one component content management system, from one CCMS, to another. And I suppose technically, if you start with a collection of word files out in space and you moved to a database CCMS, that would be replatforming. But really, that’s a new platform and building out structured content. So when we talk about replatforming projects, typically we’re talking about a situation where a client already has structured content, and they’re moving it from system A into a new system, into system B. Does that match how you handle it?
CG: Absolutely agree, Sarah. I have seen new Tridion customers coming from other CCMSs, and typically I find there’s some business change that’s happened to spark this replatforming. One is mergers and acquisitions, where two companies get together, they’re two CCMSs, and one basically is chosen. So the other group will move their content over into a CCMS like Tridion Docs. The interesting part is, is I also see people who are upgrading from really old systems. We have some customers 12, 14 years, and we had one customer still using the IBM DITA, if you remember that from the early days. And really, that was a real replatforming into DITA 1.3, and other new aspects that they had no exposure to.
SO: So what’s the breakdown that you’re seeing. I mean, in terms of replatforming in your potential client base. When people come and talk to you, is it mostly replatforming or is it mostly going into DITA for the first time or is it kind of a 50/50? What does that look like?
CG: It’s a great question. And I would say it’s 50/50. And I find this, and my team very much gets involved in evaluations and workshops where companies come in and want to try out Tridion Docs before they move. And what I’ve found, Sarah, especially over the last five or six years, is we have more DITA-educated customers, users coming in. They understand it. But perhaps one trend I’ve noticed is that when they set up the original CCMS, let’s say, 10 years ago, they really didn’t think about a reuse strategy, they didn’t centralize libraries, they didn’t set up [inaudible 00:04:22], and all the things that you’re team at Scriptorium does a great job with. We’re finding organizations. Just, I’ll tell you the worst-case scenario. They took their FrameMaker files and they used a composite DITA topic, and guess what they did, they made it one big, big, huge topic. That’s the worst case. But most people are doing generic topic typing, or the composite DITA topic. They didn’t really think about reuse. And now here they are many years later and they have a new group coming in, or something like that, that’s causing this change.
SO: Yeah, that sounds like what we’re seeing. Additionally, we’re seeing a lot of companies that aren’t using keys because, for example, when they built out their initial system 10 years ago, keys didn’t exist.
SO: It wasn’t a mistake, it was just that now we have some additional features, and we’re also seeing a lot of, well, we specialize to cover these kinds of use cases, which are now part of the newer DITA, DITA 1.3. And so we look at, do we keep that or do we despecialize down and get them into the standard DITA element that’s now available for what they’re trying to do? So you’re right. I mean, it’s an opportunity to revisit the content modeling decisions that were made.
SO: And I think make some improvements there, which that’s not really part of the replatforming, it’s just, we’re going to replatform anyway, so let’s do some cleanup.
CG: And do some cleanup and alignment. And yeah, getting back to the replatforming, when, let’s say, we’re converging two groups together, they’ve got different metadata and attribute models, and they probably have different topic models and bookmaps versus DITA maps. And it’s a great time to make alignments when you’re going to be cleaning up and trying to reuse this across these different systems. One customer I worked with, there are three or four different mergers of different companies, and they did eventually, they chose to centralize on Tridion Docs. But they decided to maintain their existing content models because the marketing wasn’t really recombining new products, and so forth, they were still kind of siloed with their products, but they were able to have their own publishing DITA Open Toolkit chains and so forth. And it worked okay, but I wouldn’t want to try to reuse across the content. But the interesting part was just two years ago, we came out, we redid our content importer application and we rebuilt it. And it’s been quite popular with our customers who are replatforming and moving content around, and so forth.
SO: So yeah, that’s really the question for me. What’s the biggest challenge? What are the biggest problems that you run into in these replatforming projects?
CG: I think it’s gaining acceptance on alignment. Governance is hard enough to agree to, and then you come along and you’re going to change it, especially if you have a company that’s being acquired by a larger company. So the typical governance and other issues we have are problems. I think the other challenge that I see are more technical, where people are really running old versions of software out there, they’re really outdated. And for example, I mention the DITA Open Toolkit, there’re versions of Java that aren’t even really officially supported people are still running with. And then, as your team knows at Scriptorium, you have to then, sometimes you have to rebuild scripts and publishing, and so forth. And sometimes companies don’t really take that into account, they just think, “Oh, DITA’s DITA, I’m going to move it around.” And generally, the DITA content does move around. But there’s supporting things that go into it that do have some costs associated with that replatforming.
SO: So you mentioned mergers, and I mean, that makes a lot of sense to me, that if you have two or three or five companies that merge, that have two or three or five different CCMSs, that just broadly from a total cost of ownership point of view, even if they’re not sharing content, it makes sense to consolidate. What are some of the other things that you’re seeing that push people into replatforming? You mentioned old systems too.
CG: Right, right. Well, sadly I’ve seen, when you’re old systems, you’re also more vulnerable to security issues. And you just look at what’s happened the last several years as far as vulnerability of data. And if you’re running on a Microsoft platform that Microsoft doesn’t support anymore, you can get into trouble. Especially, we had one customer in a regulated industry, and they were technically out of compliance with their own internal regulatory groups. But the team had never upgraded their system, they just had gone along for 10 years. So compliance can be very much opportune time. The second area I see is the move to cloud. It’s amazing, Sarah. I mean, I would say a majority of our business now is Software as a service, cloud. And we have many customers that are on premise and their IT group goes, “Well, got to move to the cloud because all those server guys, they’re not here anymore. We’re just going to be outsourcing services.”
So you suddenly can’t just go along with the way the system had been set up. And moving to cloud is actually a program that we brought into some of our customers, and we’ve been pretty successful in planning it.
SO: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. And I would say also, more broadly, we’re seeing a lot of environments where the system, the CCMS, was essentially customized and purpose-built for a particular use case.
SO: And then that customer either, their use case changes or the external situation, something changes. And they’re faced with this thing that they’ve customized to a point where they can’t get out, they can’t change it, they can’t fix it, they can’t modify it. The person who wrote the code is long gone. And it’s just that has been very, very difficult. You get this sort of, “But that’s how we’ve always done it.”
CG: Well, Sarah, you brought it up. One of our customers spoke at the recent ConVEx conference around replatforming, and that’s exactly what happened. The person who had written a lot of the customizations left the company, and the team that was left with these customizations did not know how to support them. And there was a lot of analysis, and she talked really well about they took it as an opportunity to modernize the infrastructure. And sometimes I see modernization, in your content modeling, because you think of what did you and your team teach 5, 10 years ago versus today. We’re doing chat bots and all these other applications that really didn’t exist years ago. Voice-activated, it’s another one. So replatforming can also be a time to have new digital strategies that your company wants you to support instead of putting those huge PDFs out in the website.
SO: Oh, everybody loves huge PDFs. So on that note, when we talk about terrible PDFs, what makes a replatforming successful? What are some of the factors that lead, that will make it successful? And for that matter, what are some of the red flags that you see, where somebody comes in and says, ‘We want to accomplish this’? Or what is it that they say that gives you concern?
CG: Right, right. I think a real success factor to me is that it’s like when you originally purchased your system, and now you’re replatforming, is you have clear business goals and objectives, you set timelines. And I think a real success factor is you meet those factors. And because you’re spending money and that money to budget, and your managers and executives want to know how you’re doing. So a real success factor to me is you’ve made your goals, and then many of those goals should have included performance improvements. For example, we’ve seen customers, their PDF publishing has dropped 50 to 70% from older hardware, older Windows, older systems. And we also, we rebuilt our publishing platform a few years ago. So suddenly you’re starting to say what used to take 20 minutes is now taking 4 or 5 minutes. So your users really gain benefits from it. And then I think the other thing we were talking about earlier is the taking advantage of new, let’s say, new DITA topic types, the troubleshooting has been very popular. MathML formulas, it’s a lot easier to do that.
And being able to take advantage of new content types for new groups and so forth that are coming in. So that’s the cool thing. Now you brought up what’s the downside. I think the downside, especially when two groups merge is they think they’re going to be able to do content reuse, but they just did a hack job of information architecture to get the DITA content into the same CCMSs. As you well know, we’ve talked earlier about attributes and other things that you need to align, it doesn’t need to be perfect, but some of the mistakes people make are the assumptions that, “Oh, DITA is so transformed. I can do this and that and this.” Well, 10 years ago, we all made mistakes and did some things in DITA that made it more, let’s say, proprietary or unique. Those things surface in not great ways when you’re trying to merge different groups together. So you have publishing failures and things like that, that just aren’t seem to work. Those tend to be rare, generally, but I think where I’m going.
SO: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned governance earlier, and I think there’s a really interesting balancing act in that alignment, because on the one hand, a given company, an organization, has some unique DNA and unique features, and they need to preserve those things to make sure that the content that they’re producing is compatible with who they are and what they’re trying to accomplish. At the same time, when you replatform from anything to anything else, it really doesn’t matter. Any given piece of software that you look at is going to be good at some things and not so good at other things. And it has a certain way that it’s designed, and you have to work within that design. If you try and do things the old way in the new system, very, very bad things will happen. And yet, so you have to figure out what makes my content unique and special and interesting, and how do I preserve that going forward?
But separate that from what design decisions did we make because old software worked a certain way, and how do we address that or mitigate that, or transition out of that, and take advantage of the things that new software gives us, without, again, losing our, whether it’s DNA or culture or whatever you want to call it, but that overall feel of your content?
CG: Yeah. Sarah, that’s a really great point. And I just last week was having a conversation with one of our professional services experts who’s done replatforming, and he reminded me that DITA originally was built on a file system. And there’s still things there that when you look in a CCMS that we take it for granted on a file system. And people did things 10 years ago that today you don’t have to do it that way because the CCMS automates so much more of it, things like virgining, commenting, notes, metadata, and so forth.
So one of the things we did, and one of the replatforms we did last year, customer had very pretty good DITA content. We also were able to move over a lot of their CCMS metadata into our system. So sometimes they replatform for reasons, but they had, let’s say, it’s a good platform, but they outgrew it or something. So replatforming can also incorporate things that are outside of your DITA content and the metadata, and even things like, oh, who the author was who made that change in June of 2019 and everything. And it was pretty impressive to see that history inside of our CCMS that they had preserved. Because again, they were a regulated organization.
SO: Actually, that brings up another interesting thing that we’ve run into, which is the question of what do we keep and what do we not keep?
SO: At what point do you just say, “You know what? Anything pre-1980, we have a PDF, we’re good. We’re not preserving it as editable content.” Now, depending on who you are and what kind of products you produce, you might very well need that 1980 content to be still editable because it’s still being maintained. But most of the time, you can pick a cutoff point somewhere, but you’re never going to be perfect. There will always be that outlier.
SO: Nothing past 1995, except for this one product.
CG: Yep, yep. Yeah.
SO: Yeah, no, go ahead.
CG: No, that’s a great point, that it’s really a time, a great time to take inventory of what do you really need to move forward, and what’s legacy. And perhaps you just archive it and leave it around just in case it ever is needed. But yeah, it’s that 80:20 rule of what content is the most active that you want to work on and continue on and updating and so forth.
SO: So if I’m someone who’s thinking about replatforming, what would you tell me? I mean, what is the number one thing that people need to do to increase their odds of success as they move into this pretty complex project.
CG: It is, Sarah. And my number one advice would be to clearly define your business objectives and goals. You’re going to be making an investment, and you’re going to have to ask for budget and funding to make this happen. So you have to have clear business goals to be able to achieve this replatforming. And an example might be, and again, to take advantage of new digital initiatives in your organization, because even your approach today is more document or even a [inaudible 00:20:18] viewer kind of approach. So you’re going to replatform, we’ll be able to take advantage of new systems that you’re integrating with. Another example we see is people are moving to Jason quite a bit for interactive applications on mobile devices. And we have some really great Jason outputs that are being driven from DITA content that was written years ago. And so you can create some new output types that might fit into a more modern infrastructure, instead of just publishing out some 15-year-old chunk files or HTML and things like that.
SO: Yeah. And I mean, I think that’s really good advice to look at the business objectives and figure out what you have. And then from a technical point of view, I think it’s worth thinking really carefully about what is a platform deficiency that you can address, and what is, I guess, a choice that’s been made, that may or may not be able to be unwound. There’s all these issues you run into around culture. And you touched on this earlier, that if the culture is a certain way, then swimming against that, it is just pain.
CG: It is. I’ve seen hardware related companies merge with software companies, and just different development methodologies, waterfall versus agile. And you have to realize your business could be different too, and when you’re trying to combine or replatform.
SO: So if you combine waterfall and agile, you get wagile.
CG: I like that.
SO: Which is the worst of both worlds, it’s not good at all. But yeah, it’s an interesting process though, of really understanding, when we replatform, what can we fix? What will we just get? Because our new software will do these neato things that our old software didn’t do, and what things are kind of baked in? And what kind of decisions do we have to make to it all work?
CG: Yeah. One last bit of advice I would offer is you can also learn as you’re going through this replatforming. So learn from the experts, learn from consultants, like your team, learn from the vendor. You’re going to go in with certain assumptions and so forth. So if you’re going to come up with a new governance model, pay attention to some of the experts. And finally, attending conferences and so forth to see what is going on. I noticed, I love this term replatforming and I saw at ConVEx, I saw some people talking about their next generation CCMS. So this is pretty cool, pretty cool trends.
SO: Yeah. It’s fun that we’ve lasted long enough to see not just platforming, but replatforming.
CG: Yeah, it’s great. It’s great, Sarah. Kudos to you and your team for keeping up all this work.
SO: Well, yeah, and I mean, same to you because I think there’s a small group of us. We’re small but mighty, and we’re going to make it happen.
CG: Yeah. And I’m constantly amazed at the executive alignment that we see in many of our organizations. Again, 10 years into it, their executives are still great. The things that we promised; automation, translation, integration, reuse, all those things have blossomed well within organizations. And it’s great to see it continue to grow.
SO: Yeah. And I think that’s a great place to leave it on that optimistic note, since we spent most of our time talking about challenges and problems. So with that, Chip, thank you so much, it’s great to see you.
CG: You too, Sarah, thank you.
SO: Thank you. And thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.
Interesting ideas, thank you Sarah and Chip.
And “virgining” content seems to be a challenge as well (in the transcript):
“(…) things like *virgining* , commenting, notes, metadata, and so forth.”