Sunday, March 23, 2014

DITA in times of contraction

When Pubs managers decide to move their doc content to DITA, all they see is the savings. It's ROI, ROI, ROI. "You have to spend to save," they argue, and they often start spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on software purchases, training, and non-writing personnel. All that's fine when a company is growing and has loads of cash, but what risks are Pubs managers exposing themselves to if the company hits bad times?

As I have argued before, in many cases DITA doesn't so much save money as redistribute it. Where before you spent the lion's share of your doc budget on salaries for writers, now you're spending the most money on tools developers, information architects, editors, and software.

I'll give you an example: I once worked in a DITA shop where a team of 11 writers was overseen by a manager, three team leads, three editors, and two information architects; and it was supported by nearly a dozen tools developers. There were almost twice as many non-writers working on the documentation as writers (and yet writers had to fill out complicated forms for the editors, as well as project-manage the localization of their docs). The CMS was enormously expensive, and then the CMS vendor end-of-lifed our database so we had to spend a pant-load on a new one, including two years of research, planning, tools redevelopment, migrating, and tweaking the migration.

In a DITA shop, teams become complexly interdependent. Much effort is expended on assimilating writers so that they give up their holistic approach to writing, and accept their role in a DITA production line that starts with information developers; relegates writers to the role of filling in content in designated, pre-typed topics; and ends with editors. As it was explained to me, the writer must learn to pass the baton. DITA proponents argue that writers who can't assimilate should be fired.

The CMS and publishing tools are enormously complex so that nothing can be published without the help of a large team of tools developers. In addition, the complex new processes and corresponding bureaucracy require training (and hence trainers) before new writers can become productive.

Now imagine that the company has a profit dip and needs to cut costs. Who and what is expendable?

Before you had a team of writers, and if the company got in trouble you could lay off some with minimal impact. But now, if you have to contract your Pubs department you're in a pickle. The information typing process relies on so many non-writers that it seems inevitable that when companies are in decline, a DITA shop is going to have to give up more writers than a non-DITA shop.

That fragile CMS doesn't run itself, and keeping it going requires expert skills: you're going to have to keep most of your tools developers unless you want to give up publishing documentation altogether. It's probably not possible to give up the expensive maintenance plan for the CMS, either.

Your complex processes are going to continue to require the trainers, team leads, information architects, and editors.

In short, you're left with an expensive behemoth that can't be easily dismantled... unless you decide to ditch DITA altogether and migrate to a simpler solution.

The risk of DITA is fine when there is real justification for adopting DITA: when there is real need for reuse, when translation savings can't be garnered by a simpler alternative like Docbook XML or Madcap Flare, when you absolutely need to enforce strict information typing on writers. The problem is that nearly all outfits that are adopting DITA do not have that real justification. They're wasting money on DITA, and that could get them into trouble when the cash stops flowing.

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