Skip to main content
March 18, 2024

What’s next after LearningDITA? (podcast)

If you’ve taken the courses at and you’re interested in starting a DITA project, check out episode 163 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast where Bill Swallow and Sarah O’Keefe talk about the steps you can take to get funding.

“Showing up with cookies never hurts, but what is your executive’s motivation from a business point of view? What are they trying to accomplish in their goals for this next quarter or month or year, and so on? You need to show them, assuming that you can, that moving to structured content, moving to DITA, and changing tools is going to help achieve those business goals.

— Sarah O’Keefe

Related links:



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 talk to you about next steps after LearningDITA, how to get your boss to sign off on a DITA project. Hey everybody, I’m Bill Swallow.

Sarah O’Keefe: And I’m Sarah O ‘Keefe, hi.

BS: So yeah, we’re going to talk a little bit about what to do after you’ve completed your courses and you have some DITA knowledge under your belt. So I guess we’ll start off with completing the courses. You pretty much have a working DITA environment then after you complete all of the courses on learningDITA .com, you have a batch of topics, a batch of tasks, a batch of other types of files, a map, you have a publishing scenario, you have some reuse going on. So it kind of makes for a neat little proof of concept package. But now that you’ve got that, how do you bring it to management? How do you sell it as we want to move forward in this direction?

SO: We’re assuming, of course, that I think a lot of the people that do LearningDITA, they come for different reasons. And a big chunk of it is just, I need to learn this because I want to be more marketable. I want to get a new job. I want to have a chance at the jobs that require DITA information or DITA knowledge.

BS: Right.

SO: But I guess what we’re focused on here today is this question of, all right, so you’ve run through the courses and you’ve decided that this is potentially a good idea for your company, for your employer. You really want to advocate for “we need to move our content into DITA because it feels like this is a good idea for this particular organization.” So what do you do next? And at that point, you’re right, you’ve got a proof of concept and that may be enough to show to your peers and maybe your immediate manager just to let them look at that. Almost certainly the next thing they’re gonna ask you for though is to take some of your content because the learning ditto ducklings are only gonna get you so far. They’re gonna say, well, how does this apply to our content? So probably you’re gonna have to go off and do some…

BS: Haha.

SO: …test topics or some test content using your actual live content. I think that’s probably step one. The key thing though, I think to recognize is that DITA and structured content is not just a tool. You’re not going to your manager and saying, hey, I need $500 for a piece of software or even a thousand.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: You can of course do this potentially with source control, which is at least free in theory, free but not cheap, right?

BS: Haha.

SO: And, but the effort of, for example, taking five or 10 or 50,000 pages of word content and moving it into DITA is really significant. And so you’re talking about a big, you know, departmental or even enterprise effort to make this happen. And so the bottom line is that somebody needs to agree that this is a good use of your time and or resources, which means you need an executive sponsor.

BS: Right. So how would you start moving up the chain to have those discussions in order to, I guess, get to an executive sponsor or how would you frame a pitch to an executive sponsor then? If you are convinced this is the right direction to move in, you have your proof of concept, you are hopefully moving some of your actual real-world content into DITA to beef up that proof of concept to pitch. What are the things we need to start thinking about?

SO: I think that many of us that live in this technical writing, technical communication world tend to be really interested in new technology. Something new comes along, we’re like, oh, this is so cool and I can’t wait to use it and I can’t wait to apply it and it is delightful and fun and new and different and nerdy. That pitch, you know, look at this, this is so cool. That doesn’t work unless you’re selling AI, then it pretty much works. But the question you have to ask is who is the person that’s going to fund this project? And the more money you need, the higher up the chain you’re going to have to go. And what motivates that person from a business point of view?

BS: Haha.

SO: Right? I mean, showing up with cookies and things never hurts, but what is their motivation from a business point of view? What are they trying to accomplish in their goals for this next quarter or month or year or whatever? And you need to show them, assuming that you can, that moving to structured content, moving to DITA, changing tools is going to help achieve those business goals.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: So the number one most obvious way to do this is to show cost avoidance, right? There’s a decent amount of research that says that if you’re using desktop publishing tools, you’re probably spending something like 50% of your time doing formatting work as opposed to content work. And the formatting automation that you have with structured content, gets you out of that formatting work. So you can basically say, hey, we were spending 50% of our time on formatting. Instead, we’re going to write some transforms, and then we’ll be done. We’ll have push-button processing, which is a pretty clear cost avoidance and a pretty clear gain. And we have a calculator for this that addresses looking at those issues, which we’ll make sure to put in the show notes.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: But there are other levers that may matter more to your executives and to your leaders than cost avoidance. Time to market is a big one.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: Can we get this stuff done faster? Not necessarily cheaper, but can we get it out the door faster? Or do you have these delays of, oh, I still have to reformat it, and oh, now all my numbering is wrong, and I have to go back through and fix everything, and it’s just a nightmare. Can we get a competitive advantage? Can we do a better job of supporting the brand? Can we do a better job of translation localization and expanding what we’re doing? You need to really understand where’s the business going and why? What direction is it going in? It is really, really common after a merger to have a situation where you have two or three or 15 mutually incompatible content development systems. And what you really need to do is bring them all together in the same way that the products are being brought together and the company is being brought together into one unified thing so that you can sell, you know, products A, B, and C, which used to belong to different companies as a unified set. Well, you need the content to also be a unified set, which pushes you towards a unified approach. And if that’s, you know, if DIDA can solve that for you, then that’s a story that’s gonna be compelling to a leader who’s dealing with merger headaches.

BS: Mm-hmm.

BS: So finding a way to kind of translate what you need to do to expedite and streamline your work to align with the company goals, or at least the goals of essentially the person with the money who’s going to make this effort happen.

SO: Yeah, and know, expedite and streamline is really useful and in and of itself doing your job more efficiently as opposed to less efficiently is generally a good idea. I think it goes beyond that into additional factors. When we talk about, so did a reuse is a great example, right? You walk into this presentation and you’re like, Conrefs are the coolest thing ever and look at these keys and look at what I can do with scope, right? And you’re…

BS: Haha.

SO: …you’re the people you’re presenting to are like what what what they have no context they don’t care if they’re software engineers you can maybe talk to them about like object-oriented things and how you can you know whatever but no you walk in there and you say okay um you know how we have this problem where your content over in this bucket contradicts the content over in this other bucket. And the reason is that we copy and paste from A to B, and then we update A, but we don’t update B. And they’re like, oh, yes. And then if right now you’re going to bring up that Air Canada issue with their chatbot that had incorrect information, which is a great example of this, where almost certainly what happened was that the chatbot was fed a bunch of information that wasn’t kept up to date.

BS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, they have no context for what you’re talking about.

SO: Or they were fed the incorrect information to begin with, well, that shouldn’t happen. You should have a single place where you stash all of that information and then you just push it to all of your endpoints, such as a chat bot. And, you know, solving those kinds of problems so that the company doesn’t get embarrassed slash sued slash held liable for making mistakes with their content is valuable. And that is you know, different and arguably more important than we can do it better, faster, cheaper.

BS: Mm-hmm. So yeah, it’s really avoiding those risks that you have in producing content where you can have inconsistencies. If you’re doing things right, you will write once, use everywhere by reference so that the same copy goes out in every place it needs to go. Are there any other things that we should really start looking at with regard to risk management there?

SO: One of the biggest challenges with making a change in tools, whether DITA or anything else at all, is that people, people who are not consultants really hate change. Actually, we hate change too. We’re just in the business of inflicting it on other people, but when the shoe is on the other foot and somebody’s advising us, we’re just as bad as all of you. Hi, everyone. Yeah. It’s pretty bad.

BS: Mm-hmm.

BS: That is true. That is entirely true.

SO: So, okay, so we all hate change, right? Change is bad. And change is perceived as being risky, right? Because there’s the thing I’m doing right now, which I know how to do, and I know where the problems are, and I know it’s inefficient, but I know how to get around it. It’s all known. 

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: And when you walk up to me and say, hey, I found this cool new way of doing content and it’s gonna be awesome and we’re gonna solve all these problems and it’s gonna be so great. My reaction as a human is A, I don’t believe you and B, this sounds like change and change is bad. So what you have to do is you have to convince me that making the change is less risky than not making the change. 

BS: Mm-hmm. Yep.

SO: And, there’s a lot of things you can do to mitigate that, but probably the biggest one is to start small and do like a proof of concept and show some stuff and say, look, you know, we have this ongoing problem and I’ve solved it over here and look at how this just works. And I made this little update and look, it percolated into five different locations automagically and isn’t this cool. So to start to build that confidence and that trust and that knowledge, that understanding of the techniques or the technology or you know the thing that you’re trying to convince people to use to switch to. But the unknown, whatever that unknown is, is always going to be perceived as being riskier than the known, even when the known is bad. Like known bad is actually easier than unknown good.

BS: Mm-hmm.

BS: Mm-hmm, right, because you’re asking people to take a step forward in the dark.

SO: Right. And, you know, the dark is bad and I don’t like it. So now there you get into other issues. We’re talking here mostly about how do you deal with leadership and leadership is looking at it and saying, you know, is the risk worth it? Is the funding worth it? They have X amount of funding, some number. They have one hundred dollars and you’re asking for 50. But there’s eight other people also asking for fifty dollars and they have to pick.

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: You know, two that are going to get $50 a piece out of their eight projects. So your pitch has to be, you know, you’re competing almost certainly for limited resources within your organization. So it has to be a good pitch. I mean, you have to make a compelling argument and, you know, con -KeyRefs are really cool is not actually a compelling argument.

BS: Yeah, how does it impact the bottom line of the company?

SO: Yeah, how can I fix these issues that we are wrestling with as an organization? We have localization problems, stuff we don’t, you know, we’re not managing our content properly and we get all these problems in localization. We’ve got writing issues, our warnings are not standardized and that’s gotten us into trouble because, you know, we got sued and these two documents didn’t agree with each other and they pointed out the discrepancy and that had real-world implications. We’re having trouble delivering content that complies with the EU directives, the machiner directive or the product documentation directives, because we don’t have enough control over the content that we’re delivering. Those are conversations that need to happen, and underlying that is, and so if we use DITA and we redo reuse and we do this and this and this and we automate our formatting,

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: We can address these issues, but you have to start with the business problem and not with the feature.

BS: Mm-hmm. Right. Yeah, Conrefs are cool is definitely not a selling point out of the gate.

SO: I mean, it works for me, but you know.

BS: Well, but if you frame it the right way and get the executives on board with the business reasons for moving, you might actually get the executives saying, hey, con refs are cool.

SO: Right, now the big challenge here is that, you know, we’re talking about leadership as this amorphous thing, but it turns out that what’s gonna happen almost certainly is that the priorities change as you go up the line. So your tech com manager has one set of priorities and a vision or a, you know, amount of stuff that they’re looking at. 

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: And the director above that is looking at something different because tech com is just a part of their responsibilities. And the VP above that, again, so you have to understand what messaging is going to work at every level in the organization. And accordingly, provide the proper message or a message that is going to work. 

BS: Mm-hmm.

SO: So ultimately, this comes down to know your audience, know who you’re talking to and what their priorities are and figure out how, whether and how. I mean, we should start with, does this actually fit into the game plan? I mean, is this the right solution for your organization? If you’re convinced it is, then how do you communicate that in a way that is understandable to your non-interested in content leadership?

BS: And then magic happens.

SO: And then magic happens.

BS: So that’s a big leap from doing a LearningDITA proof of concept course, more or less, to doing an executive pitch. And I know we covered a lot of ground here, and there are a lot of things that we still have not even discussed. But I guess in the interest of time, we do have a lot of resources available to you to start thinking in this direction, being able to put that pitch together, get the data that backs up your position that you do need to move if you are looking for a move into DITA. So we will put a bunch of these resources in the show notes. Sarah, do you have any particular ones in mind you’d want to share?

SO: So I mentioned the Content Ops ROI Calculator, and we’ll get that in there. There’s also a chapter that I wrote called the Business Case for Content Ops, which sort of goes through all of these different factors and the risk management issues. We haven’t really touched on compliance, but that’s another key factor that tends to play into this. That is available both on our site and then, you know, the larger Content Ops book is out there now and available for free. So there’s a whole bunch of interesting stuff in there that might be of use. So we’ll post all of that and links to some of the white papers that are floating around that may be of use to our listeners. And beyond that, if you’re, you know, working on building this case out, I would say feel free to reach out to us and we’ll do the best we can to help.

BS: And that sounds like a good place to close. Thank you, Sarah. 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.