The Four Stages of Cost Savings to Expect when Moving to an XML-based Documentation Process

JoAnn Hackos has published a good article in the recent edition of the Best Practices newsletter looking at where firms can anticipate cost savings when moving to using an XML-based documentation process.

She makes a good case that companies that move to using XML in their production of their technical documentation can look to gain significant savings by following the a staged process:

  1. Reduced or eliminated Desktop Publishing (DTP) costs
  2. Implementing a basic content reuse strategy
  3. Then moving to a more complex/comprehensive reuse strategy
  4. Using a high-level cost reduction strategy

The first stage is the easiest to realize, and the cost savings come in two major areas: greater productivity as the writers no longer have to waste time on formatting content, and in localization cost-reduction.

In my own informal tests I conducted within my own writing department several years ago prior to moving to implementing DITA XML, I found that roughly 50% of a writer’s time was spent formatting a document instead of producing content. Hackos mentions even higher rates than that (“50 to 70 percent”). I even get the first of two quotes in the article relating to this point:

Keith Schengili-Roberts notes in response to my inquiry to the DITA Awareness Linked In group: “… if a doc team does XML “properly” so that they separate form from content, all of the time wasted on tweaking things like header levels, window/orphan control, page breaks, font settings, etc. goes away, and the writer ends up having more time to write than to format.”

The localization costs savings are also apparent as the separation of form and content applies equally well when it comes to localized output — for text as well as for images and illustrations.

The second stage comes into play when a content management system is put into place. Of course it is possible to do stages one and two at the same time, in which case you get the reap the benefit of both stages in a short timeframe.

Stage Three comes into play when further steps are taken to reuse content within a collaborative framework. In this case the main savings come from increased productivity, as the same number of technical writers are able to better leverage existing content and can produce more publications as a result. I get quoted again to help illustrate the point:

As Keith Schengili-Roberts points out, items like “reducing the time required for technical reviews of content” or “reducing the backlog of desirable projects that we have not had time to pursue” likely has less to do with authoring in XML in and of itself but with improved processes that can also be put into practice at the same. Keith argues that, in his experience, doing things in XML finally makes this possible, but it is not a *necessary outcome* unless there is a real push to improve documentation processes at the same time.

Hackos argues that final Fourth Stage of savings can be expected when the effects of a mature CMS-based XML implementation begin to be felt within the wider organization: minimalist writing approaches and reduced topic counts means that there is less content for SMEs to review, as well as more widely disseminated knowledge that is actually more useful (and has greater utility as well). As a result of more consistently-written material, there is better overall compliance and less risk of legal exposure to the firm. This last stage is the hardest to put into actual dollar values, but it is there and should not be left out of any proposal for moving towards an XML-based CMS documentation solution. Hackos argues that a good ROI-based proposal ought to take the potential costs savings to be had at all four stages into consideration.

I find the Fourth Stage to be the most intriguing concept, if only because I hadn’t thought about the organizational implications that a mature XML-based CMS might have on a company. Lessening the risk of legal exposure due to having single-sourced and more accurate material is fairly obvious, though hard to quantify. Taking all of the information to the “next level” and using it as the basis for better “knowledge management” (I hate that term, but it’s the best description of what I mean) is also a logical end-point for this sort of system, but the idea that better information can lead to a better organization overall is an eye-opener for me, and definitely one I intend to put some thought to.

A solid, insightful article, well worth a read.

It will also be interesting to see the results from the survey she launched on the same subject when they come out.


"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:

View all posts by