TCW: Eric, thanks for agreeing to chat with us today. Before we dive into dynamic content and DITA, please tell us a little bit about yourself and the company you work for.
Eric: I’d be happy to. I’m a founder and Chief Technology Officer of Flatirons Solutions, which is a mid-size consulting and systems integration firm focused on content management, digital asset management, and XML-based publishing applications. My own career goes back about 20 years in the content management and XML/SGML world, and I’ve been pretty active in the community. I’m currently on the IDEAlliance board, and am also a past president of OASIS both vendor consortiums focused on practical applications of XML.
TCW: It seems like were on the verge of some pretty amazing changes in the way we provide information to customers. What, as you see it, are some of the most exciting things happening in the content management arena?
Eric: To me, the real excitement is when technologies come along that change the whole way we do things, rather than just incrementally improving on what we’ve done before. The World Wide Web was such a game-changing technology; so was the invention of the printing press and the telephone.
Today, the most exciting thing I see is the reality of a concept I call dynamic content delivery—delivering the right information to the right people, at the right time, in the right format, and in the right language—in a tailored, personalized manner, and in real-time. This is something that’s been talked about for years but is now actually possible. And, this breakthrough has occurred at a time when the Web and Web 2.0 technologies have also come of age. This means that dynamic content delivery can occur in the context of rich media integration, rich information taxonomies, and consumer interaction with the content—including wikis, blogs, personal and public annotations, and social tagging or bookmarking.
TCW: Delivering the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format, in the right language seems like something every organization should be striving for—after all, who, in their right mind would want to continue delivering the wrong information, to the wrong people, at the wrong time? You get the picture. What have been the major obstacles to achieving this goal?
Eric: A lot of this has been a limitation of the technology. Although XML has always had the ability to support multiple delivery channels and to filter content to fit specific profiles, the underlying tools have never been fast enough to assemble and deliver tailored content on demand. Added to this are most organizations deeply ingrained processes built around print delivery, and time-honored traditions of writing and delivering books intended for a mass audience.
TCW: Now that we have some content standards, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), for instance, and some mature content management technologies, isn’t about time to make this dream a reality? If so, what is the biggest change organizations need to make to their current way of doing things?
Eric: The old dream is definitely real, and with DITA the technology is there to do this. But as you’ve implied, there’s more to this than the technology. The biggest change is adjusting peoples mindsets from writing books to writing more granular, reusable topics. Books have to look pretty, and flow smoothly from start to finish; whereas topics are standalone objects that answer a specific question, and provide links to related information. Books are carefully planned and edited to appeal to a broad audience of many; topics can be dynamically reused and assembled to meet the personalized needs of an audience of one.
This change has a big impact on content creators, of course, and may often require rewriting key content so it fits into the reusable topic model. But you also find that related review, approval and publication processes must be adjusted to fit the topic rather than book model.
TCW: DITA certainly is a hot topic right now. But, while it may be ready for prime time, those who aim to utilize it seem to be trying to fit a new way or organizing and managing content into their old business processes and ways of doing business. Do you see the same trend? If so, why do you think that is?
Eric: This kind of thing has always been a problem in technology adoption. People ask for new ways of doing things, but in reality old habits die hard. We see this over and over in our consulting engagements—people tell you why the process needs to be changed, but often slip into describing the old process when they tell you in detail what they need. Plus, even when a particular person says they’re open-minded about change, they’re usually worried about changing others who may not be so open-minded. It’s basic human nature.
Strictly speaking, you can implement DITA without following good writing practices or creating reusable topics. But you don’t get the benefits that DITA was designed to provide. For example, DITA won’t stop you from assembling the same old set of publications out of topics that are just an individual breakdown of each of those books. But little or nothing will be reusable, and you certainly won’t have the ability to dynamically deliver personalized content on demand. Even when people embrace the ideas behind DITA, they must often fight the temptation to think only in terms of producing their current publication set.
TCW: In other words, most folks using DITA today are only taking baby steps toward improvement. They don’t seem to get the “bigger picture”. Can you help our readers understand the value proposition of DITA? Isn’t the real promise of XML, and by extension DITA, to help us deliver targeted, personalized content on demand?
Eric: Supporting targeted, personalized content has always been a key goal of XML, and depends on four capabilities that XML has always had:
* support for multiple delivery channels from a single source;
* reusability of content building blocks across publication types;
* filtering content for a specific purpose or audience;
* and supporting powerful, context-dependent search.
What DITA does is to significantly sharpen these capabilities by structuring information building blocks as standalone, reusable topics. When content is structured this way, it becomes possible to freely mix-and-match it into personalized publications—without worrying that the result will be disconnected and choppy, or as some have said, read like a ransom note.
But DITA alone is also not enough. To deliver targeted content on demand, it’s essential that content be dynamically selected, assembled and personalized in real-time to meet a specific individuals’ needs. Trying to create all possible combinations in advance just won’t cut it. Thus the other two essential ingredients are a powerful XML-based query language like XQuery, and a high-performance XQuery-based delivery engine like Mark Logic.
TCW: Gaze into your crystal ball and provide our readers with some examples of how DITA could be used to improve the way some organizations provide information to those who need it.
Eric: What I think is most exciting about the value of this concept is that it brings both top-line and bottom-line benefits, and that the benefits are both customer-facing and internal. For example, I see this technology spawning a major trend to make product and technical information a true self-service function. Today, we can make people search for one-size-fits-all PDFs or HTML pages—but thats not effective self-service because it still makes the customer piece together the information they need to answer their question or to fit their situation. This means they’ll both be unhappy with the product and drive up the costs of telephone and field support. With dynamic content delivery, the content they get is pinpointed to meet their needs. Not only does this save on technical support, but it significantly increases customer satisfaction and the probability of future sales. Internally, the same technology provides a self-service knowledge base for employees to help them better serve their customers.
TCW: As rich media and video documentation continues to become more mainstream, user expectations will change. How might DITA be used to deliver the right types of content to the right users, etc. In other words, can we use DITA to help us deliver video, 3D graphics, podcasts, etc. And, if so, provide us an example that illustrates its potential use.
Eric: The scenarios I’ve focused on look at rich media objects as either topics in themselves (for example, complete podcasts and videos), or as things that supplement a text-based topic (for example, audio samples supporting a diagnostic test, video clips of a technician performing a recommended procedure, 3D graphics that show the inner workings of the mechanism being described). Using the topic structure as its backbone, DITA then helps us deliver whatever package of content types is most appropriate.
TCW: Wow! Thats a lot of useful information. We’d like to thank you for taking time out of your day to chat with us. Is there anything else youd like to add?
Eric: I guess the last thing would just be a plug, if you will, for the specific work Flatirons is doing in this area. In addition to working on both the key standards committees and on real implementations of these concepts, we’ve also developed a pre-packaged Dynamic Content Delivery solution offering that we sell with Mark Logic. And I have a whitepaper available on our site that explains all of this in more detail. And, we’re presenting a free, one-hour webinar, Have It Your Way: Dynamic Technical Content Delivery Using DITA, September 20, 2007 at 2PM ET.
TCW: Thanks, Eric. We look forward to chatting with you again soon.
Eric: Thank you. It was my pleasure.