One of the challenges when considering moving to a single sourcing authoring environment, such as DITA, is determining the Return on Investment. This often boils down to a key question: how much content can you actually re-use?
Organisations typically attempt to answer this question in a number of ways:
Conducting a semi-manual information audit of the existing content to identify the number of times the same chunks of information is repeated. Unfortunately, this can be a large and lengthly exercise.
If the content is translated, getting reports from Translation Memory tools indicating where content might be repeated. Unfortunately, if you’re not translating your content, you won’t have this information.
Using benchmark industry measures. Unfortunately, these can vary enormously (from 25% to 75% content re-use), and your situation may be totally different.
In an ideal world, you’d be able use an application that could look at all your content and give you a report telling you the where content is repeated. It could do the “heavy lifting” in the information audit automatically for you. This programmatic analysis of reuse within existing content, at an affordable cost, is now starting to become possible.
Often business documents, such as sales proposals and annual reports, are a joint effort between various people and departments. It involves collaborative writing and incorporating existing content. For printable documents, this collaboration can make it really difficult to maintain a consistent level of quality, writing style and “look and feel”.
For Technical Communicators, there’s an opportunity to provide their organisations with systems that produce key business documents in a more efficient way. They have the skills and experience to build systems that can (a) guide a writer through the process of developing a new document, and (b) enforce content and layout standards.
The advantage of a such a system is that writers who might not be familiar with writing a particular document are no longer faced with a blank sheet to begin with. It’s possible to create a system that can build the bulk of the document in a matter of minutes, leaving the writer with the task of customising the information to suit the requirements of each particular situation.
The result of this approach is that:
A document is pre-structured in the appropriate format
Mandatory information is included automatically in the document
Actual writing time is greatly reduced
The skills required to produce high quality documents are significantly lowered
People can contribute easily, and can be guided on how to best write their contributions
The organisation creates more consistent documents
To build a system like this, the organisation needs to:
Create a global design for the document, including contributions from other departments
Define the workflow and sign-off procedures
Develop base content and reusable content objects from various departments
Create boilerplate documents for various situations
Deploy the system to the contributors and editors
The good news is, if it has a Technical Author working for them, then the organisation already has someone with the skills and experience to carry out these tasks correctly. If you don’t, then don’t forget Cherryleaf can help.
Single Sourcing reduces the need to create and maintain duplicate content, by enabling you to use existing “chunks” of content. This means you can have the same information in different publications, and you can have a library of existing content to re-use when you’re developing new documents.
The content is stored independently of the formatting, the same content can be published to different media. These can be used many times to generate paper manuals, Web pages, online Help and e-learning material.
Single Sourcing can significantly improve the way you create, develop and maintain content.
What is DITA ?
DITA is an increasingly popular open source XML-based framework for designing and delivering well-structured technical documentation efficiently and consistently in a single-sourcing environment. Cherryleaf can help you understand when, why, where and how to use DITA.
Many people struggle to see the difference between cutting and pasting and true single sourcing. It’s difficult to come up with an analogy that people understand.
One way is to compare single sourcing to accountancy, and look at the impact financial software has had on book-keeping and accounting. Before the days of computers, companies would have to enter individual sales into a number of different ledgers. If a mistake was made, you’d have to go and fix the problem in all the different books of accounts that were impacted by it. It was time consuming, lengthy and costly. Financial software applications have transformed that process, as they update all the relevant day books, ledgers and accounts automatically.
Image by takeabreak (Flickr Creative Commons)
Single sourcing works in a similar to these financial applications, but cutting and pasting doesn’t. At a recent presentation for Author-it, its President, Steve Davis said cutting and pasting content from one document to another simply creates “graveyard” documents. In other words, it’s fine if you want to leave a document to grow old and die, but it will cause you problems if you ever want to update the document at some stage in the future. You’ll then need to spend time searching for the places that have used that information and then recreate the content in all those different places. You’re like the book-keeper running up and down lists trying to keep them all in harmony.
Single Sourcing manages content so that it can be updated centrally: any changes to important information (such as a legal notice, company overview or terms) will be reflected everywhere that content is used. That’s because documents are not stored as files, but as chunks of information managed by a database of same form. By storing content in this way, content can be easily reused in multiple documents, ensuring greater accuracy and consistency.
It’s also likely to be at less cost – something Accountants also know a great deal about.
Alongside Education and Publishing, Design is a profession from whom Technical Communicators can learn a great deal. The BBC TV series, The Genius of Design, looked at new trends towards green, “cradle to cradle”, design, where components in objects are designed to be capable of being stripped down and reused infinitely.
I’ve never head anyone talk of an infinitely reusable document, but that is, in essence, where we are heading with DITA based content. DITA offers the promise of being able to reuse topics over and over again. Unless the content becomes irrelevant or incorrect, that is.
So can technical authors apply the concepts of “cradle to cradle” (C2C) to its profession? It might offer new and useful ways to explain the value of DITA based authoring.
This interview will form part of Cherryleaf’s Learning Zone for technical writers. The Learning Zone has been our “skunkworks” project for 2010, which we’ve been mentioning for a while now. All the initial content has been uploaded and reviewed, and we have additional content ready to be added. We’ve a few things to sort out before we can go live: User feedback/pre-release review (we’re looking for volunteers) and some shopping cart and folder security protection tasks.
Visualisation Magazine has created a diagram showing how you can use Web 2.0 tools to increase the number of readers of your content – “building an online presence”. It shows the extent to which content can be republished today, through free sites, Web feeds and embedded content. It also shows how you can monitor and receive statistical information on its progress.
So why keep your content tucked away in a Help file, when it can be republished in some many other places as well?