Five Highlights from DITA tcworld 2016

One of the final technical communications conferences in the fall is the biggest: tcworld which draws in over 4,000 attendees, mostly from Germany and across Europe. I came to the conference with some trepidation given that, last year, DITA experts and vendors attending the show got a largely frosty reception, with German CCMS vendors bonding together against what must have been perceived as a common threat to their business.

This year, things were different. The antagonism against DITA that was in the air last year seems to have been replaced with one of understanding and, dare I say it, respect? There was no entente cordiale, but there was definitely a meeting of minds and even some dialog on bridging the gap between the closed, proprietary German CCMS manufacturers and those from the DITA community who attended the show.

tcworld 2016 facade
tcworld 2016 facade

All of the DITA presentations that I went to at the show were well attended, some with easily a hundred or more attendees. And though there was a significant overlap, not all of the same faces were at each presentation. There were several important DITA and related presentations at the show. What follows are some of the highlights for me.

The DITA Interoperability Panel
One of the clear advantages of DITA was mentioned during a panel discuss at the previous tcworld: interoperability. One of the issues with closed, proprietary systems is that it is hard or even impossible to share information between one system and another. One of the clear benefits of working with DITA is that it is relatively easy to move DITA content across different systems.

This was demonstrated at a double-session panel and demo headed by Kris Eberlein. She was present at the panel discussion at last year’s tcworld where this point came up, and so this year she wanted to show this in action. Helping her out with this task were George Bina from Syncro Soft, fellow OASIS member and independent consultant Eliot Kimber, Joe Gollner of Gnostyx Research and our own Jean-François Ameye from IXIASOFT.

Members of the DITA Interoperability Panel
Members of the DITA Interoperability Panel

It started with some sample DITA which were created in one system, passed along to another for editing, reviewed in a third system and then published in a fourth. The scenario outlined for the audience was that of a supply chain of companies sharing DITA content, with one company creating and using a DITA specialization which was passed along to another firm which then generalized and published the content after integrating it with their own DITA material.

The people in the audience could see the progression of the same content across the different software systems. In fact, the hardest part of this demonstration was not exchanging the files, which were passed to each person via a USB memory stick, but changing the display for each of the computers that were used in turn. I can honestly say that passing over and working on the DITA files was easier than switching over the displays (at least for the people on the panel). People viewing the demo also got a glimpse of several DITA-based systems at work, including oXygen, the DITA Open Toolkit, DITA4Publisher, the IXIASOFT DITA CMS and Titania Delivery.

It was clear that, by the end of the demo, not only could data move freely between these different tools, but by having content based in an open standard like DITA made it more “agile” as it could be freely shared and used between partners and suppliers. While seeing people create and edit content was not exactly thrilling, the point was made that open standards foster an open exchange of content.

Big Data DITA at SAP
Sven Leukert and Priscilla Buckley from SAP gave an impressive presentation on how they have organized and deployed a very large DITA deployment within their firm. Some of the statistics are staggering: they currently have over 3 million DITA files in their repository that cover the documentation for 2,800 projects. At any one time, they have over 500 users on their system who are creating, editing or otherwise working with content. This number is half of all of the users who are registered, making for well over 1,000 content contributors originating across 28 different countries. And if these figures aren’t enough, they figure they still have yet to fully migrate over half of their content over to DITA.

Sven Leukert from SAP
Sven Leukert from SAP

This alone would be the stuff for a full presentation, but Sven and Priscilla went to talk about what brought them to this point. It all started when the decision was made to move away from SAP’s own proprietary XML to DITA. Their own proprietary XML was not flexible to support multi-product versioning or reuse, had limited support for metadata management and had limited output options, which required them to create a new output from scratch. DITA offered all of this and more, with the added advantage of opening up the software tooling to off-the-shelf products.

Effective change management was key to making all of this happen as not only was DITA, the CMS and the XML editor new to most of the people who would be working with the content, but because they were also migrating content from multiple source systems, including from recent acquisitions that had not been fully integrated with SAP culture. This included Change Agents for each writing team, regular status meeting and a dedicated half-time person tasked with change management and training.

They also singled out having a strong and trusting partnership with IXIASOFT, who supplied them not only with the CMS but also worked with them on the custom development they required and helped to test these features extensively prior to deployment. They have also been able to reach their goals of greater efficiencies and cost-savings, have improved flexibility in their authoring and production release cycles and have been able to consolidate their systems and infrastructure.

Where do they go from here? They are looking to migrate what they estimate will be a further 5 million objects (topics and images) in up to 50 languages, comprising a further 250 software products over more than 650 individual releases. Big data DITA indeed!

The Intelligent Information Request and Delivery Standard (iiRDS)
One of the more interesting initiatives that emerged from tcworld this year was the Intelligent Information Request and Delivery Standard (iiRDS), which is being promoted by tekom as a new standard for metadata with Industry 4.0 documentation in mind. I was lucky to be part of a chat along with Eliot Kimber and Kris Eberlein as Ulrike Parson of Parson AG talked about the proposed standard. It is part of an effort being promoted primarily by German CCMS manufacturers to enable the output from their systems to be combined into a whole.

The example Ulrich gave was of a system where an engineer had to learn about different parts of a complex machine, where the documentation on each of these parts is created by different companies using different CCMSs. At the moment, this engineer would have to search for and locate all of the different manuals, and then search through them for the individual sections relating to the specific parts she is interested in. This is where iiRDS comes in, as it would describe the individual pieces of this machine from different manufacturers (and their manuals) in such a way so that the engineer could read about the content specific to the individual parts of the larger machine within a seamless reading experience.

This not only fits in nicely with some of the ideas behind Industry 4.0 but could also work with the Internet of Things. This could replace the active search component of the previous scenario with a tablet equipped with a camera, which could transmit information on the part that is being viewed and call up the relevant documentation for it automatically.

The DITA angle to this is that, as a metadata standard, in theory, it ought to be possible to incorporate this same information within individual DITA topics so that they can be retrieved and collated in the same way as the topics from the non-DITA CCMSs. This is still a work-in-progress but the idea seems promising: stay tuned!

DITA Lernen
While getting myself a much-needed cup of tea (I was still feeling the effects of jetlag) I ran into Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle of Scriptorium. In between trying some yummy German chocolate candies and how to get good seats on the German train system, the subject of their LearningDITA.com website came up. This has been a considerable success, with over 2,000 students having registered for the free online course. Alan had just given a talk about his experiences with the newly-launched DITA lernen website aimed at German speakers who want to learn more about DITA. I missed this, but I picked up some of the highlights from Alan, in particular the challenges of converting English DITA terminology over to German. In English a phrase that begins with “When resolving a conref…” is easy for us to understand, as we read the DITA element and attribute names as nouns. But this is trickier in German, as these names either need to be translated or paraphrased. So “conref” (short for “content reference”) either becomes “Inhaltsreferenz” or “Element mit conref-Attribut”. A side effect of this is that the style of speech becomes more formal. In the end there has to be a compromise between comprehensibility and recognition for German readers, so DITA-specific terms (such as “topic”, “map”, “concept” etc.), are kept in the original English, whereas terms without a German equivalent tend to be paraphrased and explained (such as “frontmatter” or “backmatter”, which have no direction German equivalent). I’m sorry I missed the original presentation at the conference, and thankfully it is now available on SlideShare.net.

Slide from the DITA Learning Presentation
Slide from the DITA Learning Presentation

No Copy, No Paste!
For me one of the real highlights of tcworld came during the second evening of the conference, when various musically-inclined technical attendees to the conference came to the stage and played music for the crowd. While I hesitate to call the independent consultant Jang Graat “musically-inclined”, he has done karaoke to existing songs while singing his own made-up lyrics relating to technical communications at conferences in the past. At tcworld, he took to the stage and actually had a live band backing him up as he went through his techcomm-inspired songs, all while Eliot Kimber changed the background slides on cue so that the audience could sing along. Jang’s set consisted of three songs, of which two were “The CMS Song” (sung to Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know”), and “The Transformation Song” (sung to Village People’s “WMCA”); but my favourite was “The DITA Song (No Copy, No Paste)” sung to Bob Marley’s “No Woman. No Cry”.

Jang Graat with the Live Band on Stage
Jang Graat with the Live Band on Stage

While this was a genuine highlight of the conference—who says technical writers can’t have fun?—there were plenty of other opportunities to meet with people who wanted to learn more about DITA that I talked to at the IXIASOFT booth. It was definitely a good conference and I already look forward to tcworld 2017!

About

"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: keith@ditawriter.com.

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