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Published on July 1st, 2013 | by Rahel Bailie


DITA-to-Web: The next Big Thing – Part 1

DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) vs the Web

For the last fifteen years, the Web CMS has reigned supreme as the way to manage larger volumes of content. Professionals at all in the digital space, from developers to designers to communicators, are familiar with at least some of the systems. From the blogging-platform-turned-basic-CMS (such as WordPress and Tumblr), to the behemoth systems (such as IBM WCMS and Adobe CQ), there are literally thousands of choices in between.

The Web World

These thousands of systems are not the same, but they are similar. Each system looks for its competitive advantage by adding some bells and whistles – one integrates social media better, another handles assets (documents, photos) better, one concentrates on workflow excellence. However, underneath all of those “special features” are a few common underlying principles.

At the risk of oversimplification, the systems follow these common principles:

  • Make the interface easy for communicators by supplying form fields in which they can enter (or more likely, cut-and-paste) text, and add assets.
  • Have an integrator create all the business rules (a.k.a. customized code) that governs how the content will be routed with the CMS to be displayed on the Web to users.
  • Connect any post-publishing functions (such as content scheduling, analytics) to the Web CMS.

A Parallel World

In a parallel universe,  a different type of content management software has quietly existed in the shadow of its more flamboyant counterpart. Its roots are in help authoring tools, that were originally meant to publish content to PDFs, or to tri-pane help. Somewhere along the way, it was dubbed “component content management”, which turns out to be an unfortunate choice. The similarity between WCMS and CCMS invites a jump to the conclusion that these systems work the same way. But it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s more like apples to fruit cake – two very different beasts indeed.

There are only about a dozen commercially-available systems on the market, and they work on a different common set of principles:

  • The goal is not to publish content; it is an authoring environment that manipulates content and then lets a communicator “generate” the final content through a “build”, much like software builds are done. (The generated content can then be published or otherwise used for designated purposes.)
  • Communicators work in an XML editor, with an authoring framework  which gives them highly structured content, with granular control over what will be output and how the content will be grouped.
  • As long as communicators understand how to work within the rules of the framework, they get to shape the content in ways far beyond the capabilities of any Web environment (where communicators use forms fields to enter content).
  • The role of the developer is to create the rules that transform the content into a format that can be ingested into other systems, such as a display layer within a WCMS.

Until now, the most common application of this authoring method has been for online help, knowledge bases, and book-form content, such as user guides.

Is there a way to get the best of both worlds? Part 2 next week …

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

10 Responses to DITA-to-Web: The next Big Thing – Part 1

  1. Ann Rockley says:

    I agree with everything you have said so far except the unfortunate use of component content management system.

    I don’t think that “component content management system” was a bad choice given the issues trying to be described at the time. And no, I didn’t coin the term, though I expect I probably popularized it. I started using the term to differentiate these types of systems from enterprise content management (ECM) and document content management systems (DCM) and most importantly web content management systems (WCM). At the time the use of the term content management system was assumed to be web, but clearly that was not the only kind of CMS, and not the type that I was focused on. I described it this way:

    A component content management system (CCMS) manages content at a granular (component) level, rather than at the page or document level. Each component represents a single topic, concept, or asset (such as an image or table). Components are assembled into multiple content assemblies (content types) and can be viewed as components or as traditional pages or documents. Each component has its own lifecycle (owner, version, approval, use) and can be tracked individually, or as part of an assembly. A CCMS is typically used for multichannel, customer-facing content (marketing, usage, learning, support). A CCMS can be a separate system or a functionality of another content management type (such as an enterprise content management system). A CCMS can come in five “flavors”: dedicated, web, publishing, learning content management, or enterprise.”

    If you want to read more, there is a whole chapter on this in “Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy.”

    So I think it is a good term, though it may have become a confusing term as web content has started to move towards structured reusable content.

    I’m eagerly awaiting part 2 for the “punch line.” :)

  2. Noz Urbina says:

    I have to second Ann’s comment. I think that component content management system is a perfectly good term. I think there’s a lot of debate about terminology these days and it’s easy for everyone to find fault in other terms but I think there’s a great lack of better suggestions. Component CMS became popular because it was something that finally actually described the difference. I use it my webinar session that addresses the differences between the 3 main type of enterprise content system (CCMS, WCMS, DMS).

  3. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks, Rahel. I certainly agree with you about the convergence of collaboration — embodied in the world of WCMSs and easy-to-use publishing tools — with smart content — embodied in structured XML and CCMSs.

    We touched on this just last week in the comments to one of Tom Johnson’s technical writing blog posts. The marketplace is demanding tools and processes that allow collaboration and smart content to play together. I’m anxious to hear your take on the current state of, and future prospects for, such tools and processes.

  4. Noz Urbina says:

    I of course meant to also second the part complimenting the quality of the article. It addresses a complex subject quite succinctly and nicely.

  5. Rahel Bailie says:

    Thanks, Ann, for that thoughtful comment. To give some perspective on why I asserted that component content management system was an unfortunate choice, it’s because I have come to realize that there are some basic assumptions about what a CMS does. First off, there’s this assumption that a CCMS has a presentation layer. So the questions are always about how the “front end” gets managed. Secondly, there’s the idea of “components”. Many of the more robust CMSes have components. Open Text, Site Core, to name two that have been around for a long time. But what Web folks mean by components and what we mean by components are two Very Different Beasts. So these two things have been a constant source of misunderstanding and hours of “lost in translation” meetings. And then there are the “well, if we have a good Web CMS, why would we need another (picture eye-rolling here) CMS?

    The best communication technique for these situations that I’ve managed to find is to describe a CCMS as a “feeder system”. So, for example, if you are doing something in Powerpoint, you can manipulate some graphics there. Kind of. But if you want to manipulate photos, you go into Photoshop, manipulate the images where you have some technopower to make them sing, and then import them into Powerpoint. So a CCMS is like Photoshop, and a Web CMS is like Powerpoint. You’ll use Powerpoint to present, but you’ll use Photoshop to do the heavy lifting.

    And now that Web content strategists have “discovered” what they think is component-based content, the problem is going to get worse, I think. We really, really, need an industry vocabulary that can sort this out so that we’re not marketing aircraft to sailors.

  6. Noz Urbina says:

    ‘now that Web content strategists have “discovered” what they think is component-based content, the problem is going to get worse, I think.’

    Agreed. I think this is a major concern we need to be addressing.

  7. Kevin Potts says:

    I find this topic fascinating. As an advocate for single-source content, and working for one of the bigger ECM players, I think the drift away from web-centric models is healthy. (Even with the conflicts around “components” and other language.)

    What are some good examples of CCMS systems? Which do you consider the most viable for a large organization?

    Looking forward to part 2.

  8. A great debate and I’d love, like Kevin, to see what you consider great CCMS examples.

    On another note, would it be somewhat trite to mention that after 13 years as a Web Editor I have never found a perfect WCMS? They all seem to be very time-consuming when you are trying to submit/curate copy.

    From my experience, large media organizations really fail at being responsive to breaking news, targeting audience or attracting potential sponsors because of their CMS lacks the ‘correct’ semantic rules. But you know all that already don’t you…:)

    That’s why I’d love to see your great examples of DITA/CCMS installations. Why are they only now gaining greater publicity?

  9. Fred Blue says:

    Was there ever a part 2 of this post?

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