Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

27 October 2011

Don’t be Complacent and Content

Clark @ 6:33 AM

Yesterday I attend SDL’s DITAFest.  While it’s a vendor-driven show, there were several valuable presentations and information to help get clearer about designing content.  And we do need to start looking at the possibilities on tap.  Beyond deeper instructional design (tapping into both emotion and effective instruction, not the folk tales we tell about what good design is), we need to start looking at content models and content architecture.

Performance EcosystemLet me put this a bit in context.  When I talk about the Performance Ecosystem, I’m talking about a number of things: improved instructional design, performance support, social learning and mobile. But the “greater integration” step is one that both yields immediate benefits, and sets the stage for some future opportunities.  Here we’re talking investing in the underlying infrastructure to leverage the possibilities of analytics, semantics and more, and content architecture is a part of that.

So DITA is Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and what it is about is structuring content a bit. It’s an XML-based approach developed at IBM that lets you not only separate out content from how it’s expressed, but lets you add some semantics on top of it. This has been mostly used for material like product descriptions, such as technical writers produce, but it can be used for white papers, marketing communications, and any other information. Like eLearning.  However, the elearning use is still idiosyncratic; one of the top DITA strategy consultants told me that the Learning and Training committee’s contribution has not yet been sufficient.

The important point, however, is that articulating content has real  benefits. A panel of implementers mentioned reducing tool costs, reduced redundancy savings, and decreasing time to create and maintain information.   There were also strategic benefits in breaking down silos and finding common ground with other groups in the organization.  The opportunity to wrap quality standards around the content adds another opportunity for benefits.   Server storage was another benefit.  As learning groups start taking responsibility for performance support and other areas, these opportunities will be important.

And, the initial investment to start focusing on content more technically is a step along the path to start moving from web 2.0 to web 3.0; custom content generation for the learner or performer.  A further step is context-sensitive customization. This is really only possible in a scalable way if you get your arms around paying tighter attention to defining content: tagging, mapping, and more.

It may seem scary, but the first steps aren’t that difficult, and it’s an investment in efficiencies initially, and into a whole new realm of capability going forward.  It may not be for you tomorrow, but you have to have it on your radar.


  1. Hey Clark,
    You know I’m all over this stuff. The interesting thing about DITA is that it is one of only a few XML standards that goes beyond marking up the ‘event’ or ‘object’ and allows you to dive in and markup at the word level if you wanted to. This of course is where the power comes from since words that are marked up can be parsed out by processing agents from their current home and moved into different contexts. However that being said, the shortcoming of DITA as with other XML models, is the assumption that the content marked up in DITA isn’t a end user facing content repository but is content creator’s repository to put content together. DITA still wants you to create ‘Topics’ or ‘Objects'(in the case of learning) as opposed to run time processing by the end user creating their own packages. The semantics of DITA were created to help the documentation person and doing a deep dive into the semantics will clearly show this. Where standards need to move to is beginning with the assumption that there are no ‘topics’ only those created by the actual content consumer.

    Comment by Reuben — 29 October 2011 @ 8:13 AM

  2. Reuben, thanks for the elaboration (why I *do* think of you as a guy “all over this stuff” :). I agree that it’d be nice if we can assume topics are created by the content consumer (or the ‘casual’ creator). The interesting issue is how we do this. I think, for the casual creator (i.e. someone using social media) it might be a mixed-initiative scenario, some by system some by user). How it works for the content consumer, I’m not so sure.

    Comment by Clark — 29 October 2011 @ 12:10 PM

  3. Hi, Clark —

    Chris Benz published a great article about DITA September 27, 2010 in Learning Solutions Magazine, for anyone interested in some quick details about DITA . See it at http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/524/what-is-dita-and-why-should-you-care

    Bill Brandon

    Comment by Bill Brandon — 30 October 2011 @ 1:16 PM

  4. Hi, Clark,

    I’m glad to see you’ve found DITA. If you want to learn more about this flavor of XML, check out my Learning Solutions Magazine article from last year. The article not only provides a primer on DITA, but also introduces the relatively new DITA Learning and Training Content Specialization. http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/524/what-is-dita-and-why-should-you-care

    In the not-too-distant future, I see DITA serving as the primary way of sharing content between documentation and training. For some organizations, such as IBM and Cisco, it is already becoming that.


    Comment by Chris — 30 October 2011 @ 5:11 PM

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