Somewhere between the winding down of Octoberfest and the opening of the Christmas Market, Munich plays host to a different type of event. In stark contrast to the more famous events, this one proceeds without much fanfare. In fact, only a small community even knows about it. It is, in more than a few ways, the meeting of a secret society.
The secret society is made up of people from around the world who collaborate on the advancement and application of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture or DITA. The goal of DITA, and of this community, is to provide organizations with a practical and affordable way to design, create, translate, manage, and publish high-quality content.
The original focus of DITA was what we refer to as Technical Documentation but the truth is that it helps just as much with marketing content, learning content, and pretty much any type of content your organization produces. And all this content, taken together, essentially articulates how an organization works & describes what it produces for its customers. Drawing a wide circle around the types of content for which DITA can be used is important because it reminds us that the integration of content from all parts of an organization represents the ultimate goal that this community has been earnstly and industriously pursuing. And this remains true even if many are only peripherally aware of this fact.
So this November in Munich, as it has now for several years, this secret society met at the annual DITA Europe event. It is an event that is convened under the auspices of the Center for Information Development Management (CIDM) and facilitated by the team at Comtech Services under the guidance of JoAnn Hackos. It was a small affair, which comes as no surprise given its selective focus, but it is one that plays an important role in this community. And this year's event was special, although it is a little difficult, at first, to put a finger on what exactly had changed.
Jang Graat rocks the DITA Europe 2014 Ignite Session
with the song "No Copy No Paste" (sung to Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry").
Now it should be said that the DITA community is not the first to take up the mission of helping organize their content. There have been precursors. This is in fact a reassuring fact because it underscores the reality, and even the urgency, of the need that organizations have to improve how they organize their intellectual assets - literally how they organize their thoughts (which is often a prelude to organized behaviour). The best of these prior efforts fused work on content mark-up standards (from whence comes our notorious love affair with angle brackets) with efforts to radically modernize how key business processes operate. If we go far enough back into history, we encounter the great grand parent of these types of initiatives, and one that looms large in my own past, and that is CALS, Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support or more anciently Computer-aided Acquisition and Logistics Support.
Although it has been all but forgotten, CALS is an instructive precedent as it was really about integrating a massive industrial sector (Defense) and from this goal descended many very practical implications for content standards and for how documentation, product data, design models, could be shared widely and processed intelligently. One virtue that CALS had was that it ensured that the technical details, over which we invariably obsessed, had a very clear business context to which we would frequently appeal in order to guide our technical decisions. Whether the DITA community knows it or not, this is the lineage from which it descends and to which it may now be returning.
And maybe this is what seemed to be new and special at DITA Europe in 2014 - a gradual shift towards positioning DITA more and more as a business initiative and less and less of a niche inquiry into improved mechanisms for reusing and rendering content. If this is the trend then it is good news. For this is indeed where the future lies and it is by finding a route into the industrial modernization agenda that DITA will encounter real champions armed with genuinely strategic business goals and the resources to match.
This idea, or hope, did receive some concrete reinforcement during the DITA Europe conference. Interestingly much of this reinforcement came from German presenters. This is interesting because, up until recently, German industry had seemed to be unimpressed by DITA. Although there were many possible reasons for this, I believe that this reflected the fact that German companies were not overly enthused by any initiative that appeared to be solely focused on documentation problems. Standards merited attention when their application, and their impact, would be more broad and more strategic. To my mind, this thoughtful reluctance was a sign of managerial maturity and sophistication. So when a series of German presenters speak directly and forcefully to how DITA fits into an industrial innovation agenda, including one travelling under the moniker of “Industry 4.0”, then what we are seeing is past resistance change into considered and purposeful adoption.
What we see, in short, is a very good thing. And it is not good because it heralds increased adoption of DITA as a content standard; it is good because it makes it very clear how and why DITA is needed and how the industry innovation agenda can itself be advanced through the deployment of DITA. It is a subtle but important distinction to highlight the fact that it will be the business impact, measured for individual projects and more broadly on an industry scale, that is important. It is indeed the only thing that is important. This is something that is beneficial for disciples of any given content standard to keep in mind. It is a common misstep to start seeing a standard as an end in itself and to start measuring success by a given standard's escalating adoption.
Several individual talks at the conference stood out because they each put forward new pieces of the puzzle, allowing what I seen as a larger picture to come into view. There was a presentation by Michael Priestley and James Mathewson from IBM on the deployment of DITA to the management and use of case studies, a type of content with many stakeholders including marketing and sales. A talk by George Bina and Dawn Stevens looked into the ways in which business rules for content can be expressed so that they become an integral, and interactive, part of the authoring experience. The ignite session from an informal group assembled under the banner of An S1000D-DITA Bridge over Troubled Waters introduced many attendees to the need to integrate historically isolated silos that manage to form around different content standards (ignore for the moment that their group logo looks all the world like Sid the Sloth from the movie Ice Age). To my eye at least, there was a general theme emerging across these different presentations and it pointed towards enhanced business relevance.
The conference was further enhanced by a post-conference gathering of stakeholders in the DITA Open Toolkit (DITA OT); a gathering generously and energetically hosted by SyncroSoft, the makers of the popular oXygen editor, and sponsored by IXIASOFT, DITAWorks, and Gnostyx. (See the DITA OT Day page to access the slides and video recordings.) Despite energetic disavowals by some (in particular by OASIS, the standards body that hosts the DITA standard), there is a close and vital relationship between the DITA standard and the open source processing environment with which it has co-evolved. While using the phrase “reference implementation” is not quite right, due to the onerous expectations that come with that phrase, it is useful to understand the DITA OT as a “model implementation” that can be used directly or that can be leveraged as a point of reference for other implementations. The availability of such a model implementation is one of the most obvious explanations for DITA’s almost explosive rise in popularity within the generally sleepy world of documentation standards. A meeting of stakeholders in the DITA OT was itself a sign that its ongoing evolution has a growing constituency of organizations that have come to depend on this tool kit. It is a sign that the growing adoption of DITA is bringing, and will continue to bring, new types of demands and new levels of expectation. It also reminds us that the ongoing evolution of the DITA OT is a critical part of DITA’s overall potential.
My own contribution to the DITA Europe 2014 program also fit squarely into this storyline. In fact, it fit into this storyline even better than I could have foreseen. My talk was called “Lean DITA: Lean Manufacturing and DITA” and it looked at two topics central to the trend we have been exploring. Firstly it looked at how DITA has been deployed within Lean Manufacturing initiatives either to facilitate “information pull” across the product lifecycle or to encode and deliver standard work instructions that people and automated systems can equally understand and act upon. Secondly it looked at how DITA and its related publishing functionality should be deployed into these industrial environments – how DITA-based content solutions can themselves be made to be “lean”.
All of this points, I would submit, in a very positive direction. The potential is there for DITA to be adopted and applied by a much larger marketplace than it has been exposed to before. In short the DITA community should probably brace itself for life in the big leagues. There will be opportunities, of course, but with these opportunities will come new challenges. Stakeholder expectations will be for industrial-grade solutions that can be fit into an enterprise context. These growing expectations will come to bear on the DITA standards community, on the collaborators on the DITA Open Toolkit, and on the marketplace of vendors specializing in DITA products and services. In the specific case of the DITA Open Toolkit, among the possible responses, and one I would suggest is an attractive one, is not to attempt to be an industrial-grade solution but rather endeavor to be the model implementation that must be present in any industrial-grade production deployment.
Now as was evidenced at DITA Europe, and as has been an attractive attribute of the content standards community from the beginning, there are a great number of people who have devoted years (indeed decades) to improving core content standards such as DITA and on the associated tools and techniques that can be leveraged to build industrial-grade content solutions. These building blocks and this community of people together represent a lot of value that enterprises would be well advised to tap. And it is fortuitous that DITA has arisen when it has because the global marketplace desperately needs a way to manage content with the same precision, speed, and interoperability now expected of all products and services that are deployed into, and actively participate in, an internet of things.