DITA and the structured writing controversy

Some time last year my boss sent me a link to this blog post by Tom Johnson, blogger on technical writing. Possibly to provoke me (kidding! ;-)) but more probably to get me to pause momentarily and check all this ‘COPE’ and ‘DITA’ stuff was in fact the right direction for our organisation to be taking. After all, implementing COPE successfully is a significant undertaking. (Understatement of the year!)

Why can’t we just use the WCMS to manage all our content?In fact Tom Johnson’s post generated a lot of controversy in the technical writing community, and he has since gone back to more clearly articulate his original ideas. But his post echoed an argument that I’ve subsequently heard again and again from my colleagues. If we’re going to be investing in revamping our website, why can’t we just use the WCMS to manage all our content?

Tom Johnson’s point was that structured writing, particularly DITA, isn’t particularly suitable for the web; in fact it is overkill if your output is simply or primarily a single website. And on that point, I would probably agree. However, for CIPD, an ‘actual’ website (‘like the one you’re reading now’ Johnson says), is only one of many outputs.

We can’t manage all of our content in the WCMS, or in a VLE (virtual learning environment), because they are onward channel platforms. They are designed to manage and publish content in a way that is specific to the web, or to eLearning.

And at CIPD we have a uniquely diverse publishing portfolio, with a wide diversity of publishing outputs – textbooks, digital learning, face to face training, informational web content, research papers, and so on.

In terms of formats, we’ll need HTML for mobile apps, e-books, web, VLE. We’ll need PDF for print. But we also need to target our content to different audiences, devices and destinations. We’ll need snippets of content to take flight on social media. We want to re-use and re-mix content we’ve already developed (say an excerpt from a research paper) in new products and offerings (say in a training course).

The number of outputs, formats and uses will only increaseThe number of outputs, formats and uses will only increase. And customers will expect to be able to consume content in the way that is most convenient for them, be it print, e-book, mobile-optimised web, on the platform of their choice, the VLE, a responsive website, a CPD platform, the list goes on… and who knows what’s coming around the corner. The ‘Internet of Things’ is almost upon us. We need our content to be ‘future proof’.

Johnson is partly right when he says that ‘transforming structured XML is a burden’. But so is any transformation of content into publication-ready formats. Even ‘traditional’ typesetting and printing are both highly complex processes. Just because they are usually managed out of house doesn’t make them any less ‘burdensome’. And there are tools out there that minimise the burden of digital transformations considerably, assuming you understand the underlying principles and the tool’s capabilities.

Johnson says that organisations working in DITA (or other structured formats) need to hire a ‘dedicated publishing engineer’ to handle the transforms – or contract someone ‘at high cost’. But ideally by developing XML expertise in house we can directly control the multiplicity of outputs and get content to market quickly, without compromising the interoperability/reusability of the original content asset.

Structured writing isn’t going away. It’s only going to become more important in the digital multiverse.Structured writing isn’t going away. It’s only going to become more important as the amount of content that businesses generate and the number of devices and channels explodes. DITA is still quite new outside of the technical world, and in many ways, what we are proposing at CIPD is quite radical. But my prediction is that more and more content-rich organisations will be looking to the discipline of content strategy (and by extension structured content) as a way to manage their content in the digital multiverse.