robots_puzzleSuppose you’ve bought a car, but use it just to get to the office and then return home. So you are keeping the car and paying all kinds of fees (insurance, license, maintenance, etc.) while most of the time the car is staying still. There is nothing wrong with this use, but wouldn’t you get a feeling that the car is under-used?

This is exactly what is happening to DITA. Content reuse, enforced consistency, reduced translation costs, customization and personalization, multi-channel publishing are all very attractive features. But understanding other heights that DITA lets you reach is like realizing that besides using the car to get to the office and back home, you can also use it to travel around the country, shopping, picking up kids after school, and do other great things.

As a structured content format, DITA is much more than a technology for improved content reuse and other often cited use cases. DITA is an enabler for a powerful content automation. It unveils virtually unlimited possibilities to automatically assemble, generate, and aggregate content.

For example, if you have your content in DITA, you can:

  • Assemble entire documentation sets from individual and scattered piece of information automatically and dynamically depending on the context and current user’s needs
  • Assemble documentation based on a bill of materials (especially, if you are a manufacturing company)
  • Aggregate individual pieces of content into new documents on-the-fly
  • Generate diagrams (for example, troubleshooting flowcharts or architecture diagrams) automatically
  • Integrate data from external resources, like databases, into documentation
  • Generate code for software and hardware automatically
  • and much more

(You may want to read about other examples of automated content assembly here.)

Depending on whether you are in DITA already or just considering DITA among other options, there are reasons why you should start thinking about automation capabilities now.

If you are in DITA already…

You likely want to get the most out of DITA because the investment done into DITA implementation needs to be justified. Using DITA just to improve content reuse, enforce consistency, or publishing is fine, but it’s like using your car just to get to the office and back home. You are paying for the car anyway, so doesn’t it make sense to find out more uses cases for something you already own?

If you are in early stages of DITA adoption and just outlining your content strategy, keeping in mind that the content can be assembled and generated automatically would be smart because it may affect your approach to reuse and metadata. Automated content assembly means that individual pieces of information that you create need to be organized and probably even written differently than when you manually put them together into a static deliverable.

Besides, with new authoring tools (Content Mapper, FontoXML to name just a few) and initiatives (LightweightDITA, for example) that hide the complexity of the DITA’s content model from the author, DITA becomes more attractive for people outside of technical documentation departments.

We have customers that are now introducing DITA to marketing, legal, and product management teams. These people have been working in MS Word and Excel for years, and they need a really good reason why on the earth they should abandon the working environment they got used to and move to something they’ve never heard of. An ability to automatically generate documents (which will be also easy to maintain) from both the content created by themselves and information written by other teams is one of such reasons.

Plus marketing, legal, and product management teams would be able to use the information infrastructure that will be common for all teams within the organization, while each team would use those authoring and publishing tools that they feel comfortable with.

 

If you are choosing DITA vs. Non-DITA…

Think strategically: what the technology and tools you are choosing now will allow you to do after your immediate goal is achieved. Will you be able to take your content and work up to the next level or will you get stuck with a very nice content reuse solution, which, however, will not let you move anywhere further and unleash the whole potential of your content? The latter scenario often happens when you go with a proprietary solution because from now on, you depend on where your vendor (rather than you) wants to go.

While non-DITA solutions may allow you to reach your immediate goals and improve (probably, significantly) your current work, remember that DITA is not just about doing better the same things that you do now. It’s about doing things that previously you would be unable to do at all.

If you are focusing not just on improving your own work processes, but also want to let your end-users get a better experience with your products by delivering them automatically selected and assembled information relevant for a particular user in a particular situation, then an ability to automate content assembly, aggregation, and generation is definitely worth your consideration.

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