Who Needs a CMS?
Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.
by Jo Levitt
Imagine you run a team of technical writers who have been working the same way for years. You start to feel that there is never enough time to do even the basics, though you used to produce high-quality work. You have customers in five countries, and you are spending a fortune on translation. You have related products with separate document sets, and you know there is duplication.
You wonder about the new ideas, such as content reuse, that everyone talks about, but you have enough on your plate keeping up with your current work, without taking time out to investigate things that might be irrelevant to you. What can you do?
Traditional methods have worked fine for years in the group, but could you save money by using an XML-based tool, perhaps using DITA? Would a Content Management System (CMS) help?
Is everybody else doing it?
The simple answer is no. Don’t think that everyone but you is using DITA and CMS systems. In fact, many organizations have thought about it and decided DITA is not relevant to them or that they don’t need it yet. Others are racing to stay in one place, and not even thinking about change.
Do I need this?
The first thing to do is to consider your needs. Following are some broad areas:
- Output types: printed output or PDFs, and also online help or web-based material
- Multiple releases of documents for the same product, maintained concurrently
- Several similar products, with differences which are, or could be, broken down in a modular way
- Any other kind of duplicated content
- Translation requirements – how many languages?
If you have any of these situations or requirements, then you might benefit from single-sourcing or XML-based systems. And depending on the complexity and combination of your needs, you might need to manage your content using a CMS to get the most benefit. Then, if you decide to proceed, you’ll need to carry out a deeper investigation.
Isn’t a CMS incredibly expensive?
It depends. There are many big systems available that are intended as company-wide investments, which cost a lot of money to buy and implement. However, there is also a growing number of systems designed specifically for technical communications departments, such as Author-it and XDocs. These are less expensive and simpler to implement, because they are more focused on the specific needs of a technical communications group. There are also tools, such as Flare, that are priced more like a single user tool which meet some of the needs and may be appropriate. Flare can also be useful as a trial for something more comprehensive.
If you move your content to XML then decide to change which XML system you use, the second change is much easier.
So what’s next?
You may feel as if there is no time to take a breath to look into this. Your see your workload constantly increasing and your resources constantly decreasing. This is exactly why you need to hollow out a small space of time to consider your needs. Consider blocking out half a day away from the office for you and your team. Plan to discuss the existing needs of the company and the direction in which you see it going.
What to look for
A company could have different customers using different releases of the software, each of which must be supported, or different customers each using a different combination of software modules outside the core set. Or, both scenarios might be at play at the same time. This would be a prime case for some form of CMS, depending on the specific requirements.
If you manage translation into multiple languages, then a CMS may offer you no effort reduction, as long as you are using a good translation company with efficient translation memory tools. However, sending pure XML for translation can offer significant cost savings over translating an entire document, like one prepared in FrameMaker. If your documentation is written within an XML-based system, then the document structure and format is language-independent. A translator receives XML for translation and returns XML in the second language. The translator wastes no time formatting and laying out the pages of the final product.
If the review process proves that the company could benefit from new methods and you are very pressured, then that might be the moment to get outside help. Often, it is difficult to know what the best method is or the best tool. But once an initial decision is made, it is usually worthwhile to pay for an expert hand to hold along the way.
There are a few ways to conduct an implementation process. Choosing a DTD (Document Type Definition), which is the structure behind your XML, is one implementation issue that industry standards has made easy. In most cases, DITA is the default, unless you have a particular requirement which dictates another choice. Other implementation issues were discussed in my previous article, Implementing Single Sourcing—how not to do it!, which was a case study of two particular implementations.
To help you figure out what is right for you, initial consulting costs are normally on a per- hour basis. Usually, this expense is worth it, simply because a good consultant has a lot more experience than you do. If you take the time to do the research yourself, it will likely cost your company more than paying an experienced assessor to analyze your data and to recommend the best methods and tools for you. Another benefit of using outside advisors is that they are independent. Typically, an outsider can more easily assess your work against a general standard and give you more accurate estimates of the effort needed for implementation.
The cost of training staff and the pain of the change depend on the number of staff and the state of the existing documents.
The cost of buying and maintaining the necessary tools can be anything from the price of a single user, a simple piece of software, to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a site license for a major CMS and all the other software necessary for document production.
The benefits of a CMS depend on the type of system you choose. A full CMS implementation including DITA-XML and a system for multiple outputs should result in:
- Reduced costs of writing due to reduced duplication
- Better standardization across all types of documentation
- Easier updating across all documents
- Easier collaboration across teams and continents
- Better control of the information produced
- Reduced translation costs, with increased benefits as more languages are added
This article has barely scratched the surface of the issues it is covering. However, I hope it provides at least some direction for further investigation.
Change is often scary, but there are good reasons why many technical communications departments have made the switch. Usually, most organizations that have suffered from increased demands can use a CMS to work towards the high quality and standardization they strive for, while saving their companies money.
About the Author
Jo Levitt started her working life as a software engineer, moved on to software process improvement consultancy, and is now at her career peak as a technical writer! She uses her process improvement background to help writing teams through the changes associated with object-based writing. You can find Jo on Linkedin.