By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) is seeking participants to help move the adoption of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) forward, pushing the value proposition of DITA outside of the technical documentation arena. It’s called the DITA Adoption Technical Committee—and ironically, there’s nothing technical about it.

The Purpose of the DITA Adoption Technical Committee

The OASIS DITA Adoption Technical Committee members will collaborate to provide expertise and resources to educate the marketplace on the value of the DITA OASIS standard. By raising awareness of the benefits offered by DITA, the Technical Committee increases the demand for, and availability of, DITA conforming products and services, resulting in a greater choice of tools and platforms and expanding the DITA community of users, suppliers, and consultants. Since DITA adoption is stronger in the US than in the rest of the world, especially the European Union, the Technical Committee will actively solicit participation from non-US members and help to facilitate providing information promoting DITA adoption globally.

Image I fully support the need for a committee designed to educate the marketplace on the value of DITA. It is exactly what’s needed in order to move the standard forward. But, in order to make the committee a success, we need excellent communicators with the gumption, know-how, and network to get the word out about the many ways DITA impacts the world and those who live in it. And, we need them to be paid for their efforts.

As a former journalist, I can speak to this issue with respect to publicity. Reporters don’t respond overwhelmingly to press releases, they don’t need (nor want) to understand the details involved in creating DITA maps, nor the convoluted way in which standards are created. What they want are sexy stories of interest to their readers/viewers. We need people who will use new media platforms to expose people to the many success stories that are popping up like weeds after a big storm. There are many cool and sexy uses of DITA that are in use right now. But, it’s unlikely most of our readers know much about them, because there’s no one whose job it is to promote them full time. And, if you don’t know about them, then readers of more general interest business publications—and the folks who run the major corporations around the globe—don’t either.

What’s Needed?

Volunteer PR folks don’t have enough at stake to work as hard as required to get the attention of the media. Sure, they can get DITA mentioned in the obvious places, which is not impressive. Blogs, magazines, and newsletters in the content and technical communication space are hungry for DITA news, but they don’t have a major impact on adoption outside of their own subscriber-base.

What’s needed is a concerted effort to educate major business magazines, airline publications, technology television shows, technology reporters for major newspapers, bloggers and podcasters influential in the technology and general business spaces to report on real-world solutions that just happen to be made possible because of DITA. We also need analysts and venture capitalists to understand the implications of adoption and the value proposition DITA may provide. Money flows from these sources, either directly or indirectly, and to ignore them is a bad strategy.

DITA cannot be the focus of DITA adoption and publicity efforts. Neither can OASIS. The approach we’ve been using is so 1996. It’s old-school and again, it’s not working or there would be no need for such a committee.

imageThe focus has to be on the human impact. How does DITA help make the world a better place? How does it make it possible for humans to interact with one another? How will it help everyday humans in their everyday lives? How can it help governments better serve their citizens? And, more specifically, can it help save lives in a disaster? Yes. How about saving taxpayers money? Yes. Can it help middle school teachers provide better learning materials to their students? Yes. Can it help law enforcement better protect those they serve? Yes. Can it help prevent puppies and kittens from being euthanized? I’m not sure, but maybe.

All of the human interest topics that sell papers and tv shows need to be the focus. It’s no mystery that articles and TV shows about kids, puppies, love, sex, politics, religion, and other human stories are most interesting to the population at large. Therefore, it only makes sense that we find ways to tell the DITA story without making it (nor OASIS) the focus. There are many ways to do this, but again, it won’t likely happen with volunteer labor.

Filter Out the Noise and Non-sense

Promoting the adoption of DITA is not the same thing as promoting OASIS, and yet, I haven’t seen many news releases that focus in on the benefits of DITA without littering the news with way too much self-serving marketing hype designed to accomplish a totally different goal: keeping OASIS in the news (and therefore, attracting more sponsors). This same problem is also a byproduct of most—but not all – vendor marketing programs aimed at getting your interest in DITA to lead to you purchasing their products. Just when they get you interested, they have to declare they are the “world’s leading vendor” (which anyone with a dictionary knows is not possible for all vendors to be—one leads, all others follow) or they make up non-sense vocabulary phrases like “fully DITA-compliant” (there’s no way to validate this claim) or “smart elements” (as opposed to “dumb elements”) that don’t mean anything. They just can’t help themselves.

In my book, this is one of the biggest hurdles to DITA adoption in the mainstream. Let’s strip away all the noise that prevents normal humans from understanding what we technology addicts find so wonderful about DITA, XML, content reuse, content management, dynamic content, personalization, and so on. Let’s find ways of getting ourselves noticed by the greater public by speaking to them in a language they understand. You would think in a community dominated by communication pros, this would be obvious. The first rule of good communication is to know your audience. The second is to understand the intent of your communication. And yet, most messaging about DITA ignores these rules. It’s almost as if the folks creating these materials don’t have any clue who we are nor how to get our attention. And, if they can’t figure that out, it’s no wonder their message is being filtered out by the general business press and by business leaders.

It’s so obvious to me. Delivering the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right language and format is the promise of DITA. Shouldn’t we try using these same principles while trying to attract attention to DITA and promote its adoption. When I am given the opportunity to make this case, most folks respond with a resounding, “Duh! Why didn’t we think of that?”

The Bottom Line

In order to get the attention of the mainstream media we need those with some “skin in the game” (a stake in the outcome) to provide the financial resources necessary to fund a proper outreach program designed to sell the interesting aspects of DITA in ways journalists and business leaders care about. We’ve relied on the volunteer labor pool long enough and it’s not working. Well-meaning consultants who help to form and improve the standard cannot be expected to have the time, energy, resources—nor skills—needed to promote the standard and be billable consultants and thought leaders at the same time. Until we have human cloning, this approach isn’t scalable.

The widespread adoption of DITA will require folks with a demonstrated track record of getting attention to help move these ideas into the mainstream. I have many ideas about how this might work, but the main stumbling block, as I see it, is our continued reliance on an outdated adoption model. If we expect the entire world to change and move toward XML, the very least we can do is to change right along with it.

I’m interested in what you think about this topic? Am I way off base, or right on target? What are your thoughts?