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Can You Afford to Go It Alone?

Your content is your number one asset and conversion is not a commodity

In this technology-driven world, information is as easy to obtain as the click of a mouse...only if the content can be accessed through its digital availability, that is. With this in mind, it is important to realize how heavily content impacts every aspect of a business-from a potential customer finding you, to making a decision to buy from you, to customer service agents assisting customers and internal teams, to engineering and MRO supporting R&D and repair, and so on. An influx of mobile technologies supporting non-traditional usage (e.g., iPads replacing flight manuals) only adds to the demand.

Indeed, one could question how any company in the twenty-first century could remain competitive, let alone profitable, without digital content at the forefront of its overall business strategies and objectives. A survey conducted in 2012 by Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL) showed:

  • 27% of the respondents estimated their content to be 75% or more of their organizations' value
  • Only 24% reported that all of their content is in XML
  • 26% reported that none of their content is in XML
  • 73% will need up to two years to complete their conversion

Respondents' publishing plans for the next two to three years reveal an understanding of the need to move toward greater electronic content delivery. An easy majority of respondents, fully 74%, expect that at least three-quarters of their content will be published electronically two to three years from now, 55% plan mobile applications, and an astounding 72% expect to make their information available through eBooks, Kindles, smart phones, and tablets. We also see a 16-32% increase in those expecting to use learning management systems for publications.

If your content is important to your business long-term and you have identified the information that is most critical to supporting your business externally and internally, yet your content is stowed away in unstructured formats, then what are you waiting for?

Successful strategies are driven by content, not the other way around! You need to be prepared to deliver your content in any form, at any time, to anyone who needs it.

Why digitize?
Customers clearly want easy access to content in the format of their choice and businesses can benefit greatly from content reuse across different sectors. One misperception we've seen in companies just starting the digitization process is an over-reliance on PDF files, which do not address these needs. PDF is a digital page layout, not a file format. It is incapable of providing your organization with the same benefits of structured formats such as XML or the content reuse and interchange capabilities of digital data standards such as DITA or S1000D.

Better content distribution supports an improved customer experience, which means content can stay flexible, meeting customers' varying and evolving needs. Today, businesses are justly concerned about new and changing technologies and the need to deliver content to those technologies in a time-sensitive manner. Customers are demanding new ways to find and use content - the company that delivers it the most effectively and efficiently has a better chance of gaining market share. Telephone support is rapidly becoming too expensive and customers want help delivered in a variety of ways on their own time. Digitization is quickly becoming a business requirement and a competitive necessity, while just a short time ago it would have been considered an option.

What are the questions you should ask to identify the need to digitize within your organization? This list will get you started:

  • What percentage of our content is redundant?
  • What percentage of our content is currently in a structured (not PDF) format?
  • Are we currently able to support our customers regardless of the particular means used to find or interact with us?
  • Are we currently competitive from a digital perspective?
  • Are we able to provide data versatility to our customers and internal resources teams?
  • Are we readily able to expand quickly into new markets?
  • Is our content able to improve our users' experience?
  • Are we able to accept content from suppliers?
  • Are we able to interchange content with partners?

And, to build the business case:

  • How much does one customer service call cost us?
  • How long does it take us to launch a new product including relevant documentation?
  • Are we cost-effectively managing content distribution across departments and divisions?
  • Are we able to increase content reusability, which in turn reduces translation and authoring costs?
  • Are we prepared to support mobile technology?
  • How much business have we lost over the past two years to more agile competitors?
  • How much are we investing in new mobile technologies? Can our content support them?
  • How much do we spend annually supporting and maintaining our content (staff, systems, etc.)?

Digitizing your content is an important investment, one that will result in increased revenues and decreased expenses. Data that is maintained in a more structured, easily configurable format will increase customer service capabilities and decrease time to market, as well as create expansion into new markets and greater data versatility. Additionally, publishing and translation costs are reduced, while authoring productivity and information reuse are increased. Documents are often converted in order to comply with regulations or industry standards, support distribution partners, and/or meet consumers' expectations. For these kinds of documents, inconsistent data can raise red flags, but consistent, well-converted content eliminates questions about companies and their product quality inconsistency. Consistent communication is critical to improved user experience and the delivery of an impressive ROI.

Why XML?
XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a means of representing textual information so that only "tagged" ASCII data is used within a document. No formatting information is contained in the document itself and the document typically conforms to a predefined structure. XML may also contain mechanisms that link text within a document to information within the same or other documents.

Perhaps the most important aspect of XML is that text elements can be identified on the basis of their significance in the context of a document. XML tags are user-defined for each document. A document tagged with XML can then be viewed as fielded text, so documents can be broken down into their component parts for storage in a CMS (Content Management System), and then reassembled in different ways for multi-channel publishing without the need to track multiple versions. By reusing common content, text can be changed once, and that change will be reflected everywhere in the document where that content has been reused, ensuring that common text remains consistent.

An XML authoring tool with a CMS provides the ability to store and reuse information objects that are smaller than a typical document. Each object gets stored together with metadata that may, for example, define a range of products for which an object is valid. The main purpose of the CMS is to make it easier for an author to find and reuse an existing information object rather than create a new one. Using a CMS, information reuse can be increased by up to sixty percent. As more and more companies prepare their content for the digital world, XML is proving to be the data format of choice.

DITA is an XML-based international standard originally developed by IBM as a modular, reuse-friendly DTD (Document Type Definition) for software. DITA is ideal for projects in which you want to reuse some of the same content within a document, between documents or even among different projects. And documentation that must be translated can benefit greatly from DITA's topic-based modules because a given chunk of content need only be translated once, no matter how many times it appears throughout a set of documentation.

Many companies implement DITA because they require reduced translation costs, increased content reuse, and have a reduced need for composition. A major goal for most companies is to be able to multi-purpose content without a great deal of effort. In these instances, a modular approach built around reuse supports these goals while also driving content value. The potential for taking more work through the process with no increase in headcount is huge.

Additionally, more and more organizations now produce their content in various ebook formats, particularly for user guides, repair and service manuals as well as training materials. Using DITA for authoring also facilitates ebooks as an additional publishing channel.

How do we develop a content conversion strategy?
Simply put, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to data conversion. Converting legacy data can be a daunting task. If the proper process is not in place early in the equation, a migration project can easily get derailed. It is important to note that each organization will have unique priorities based upon their content type, content volume, user base, and methods of distribution. However, with proper planning, expertise and the right approach, you can be assured of high quality results delivered on schedule while producing the ultimate ROI.

There are issues specific to digital conversion which you will need to consider prior to formulating your approach. For example: How can you tell if your content is ready for conversion across multiple platforms? Does your company have dedicated expertise in XML, DITA and conversion technologies? Do you have access to customized automation tools to help you avoid costly errors? Are you prepared to manage the Quality Assurance (QA) process on the back end?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," it may seem impossible to take the next step forward on your own. And you're hardly alone. In an April 2013 CIDM (Center for Information-Development Management)/Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL) joint survey of industry trends, 229 individuals responded on how they are publishing today and how they expect publishing content to change in the near future. The results underline the uncertainty and confusion decision makers can face when deciding if the time is right for content conversion. 54% of those who participated in the survey expressed concern about their readiness. The potential issues keeping them from moving forward were typical but not, in actuality, insurmountable. Of that, 54% said they needed support from technology experts to get the work done. A majority felt they needed to present strong business reasons for change to upper management and over 40% said their own team members needed convincing. About 75% were afraid they didn't have the staff bandwidth to handle conversion and 23% felt they needed outside expertise to help them change their content delivery methods. The one constant in this equation is that change is always challenging, even once the decision to convert has been made.

Minimize your risk and maximize your results by following a plan:

  • Organize your team and resources: Most importantly, consider the BEST use of your resources and how you could/should integrate partners into your team. The most successful conversion projects are those that have been managed through such "hybrid" approaches.
  • Set your priorities: It is unrealistic to think ALL your content needs converting and ALL will happen simultaneously. Identifying and organizing your content according to priority is critical, as it helps and will help you to determine your project's logical phases as well as what content should not be converted at all.
  • Clean up your content: The cliché garbage in, garbage out" could not be truer than as applied to conversion. In order to get a clean output, redundancies and errors must be removed first across your document sets. This will translate to investment savings of time and resources during the conversion process itself.
  • Build your process: The more manual your process, the more likely it is you will experience significant inconsistencies and errors to deal with at the end. This is where a trusted partner can help by defining the potential for automation, which will in turn guarantee high-quality and consistent tagging.
  • Prepare...test...refine: Then do it again! "Refine and configure" should become your mantra. Quality conversion is a result of proper preparation early in the process and continual refinement during it. You must plan for the cleanest output possible. Catching errors early avoids multiplying them, hence minimizing the need for costly QA on the backend.
  • Manage production: Understanding the specific requirements and data idiosyncrasies of the project will help better define the management process that is required. An independent Quality Assurance (QA) review is generally warranted (and highly recommended) to manage the production phase appropriately and save costs in the long run.
  • Avoid the bottlenecks: Ensure that people are fully allocated to the project and have the expertise and support needed for successful completion. Delegate or outsource as needed to fill in the gaps. Document everything along the way (in multiple places) and build time into your schedule, anticipating the unexpected, because it will happen.

How do we choose the correct approach?
You have decided you are ready to implement a content conversion project. What approach will be most effective for your organization? To help you answer this question, we will refer back to that CIDM survey. We wanted to learn about what plans the respondents are making now to move to a new delivery environment. 55% expect to do their own content conversion in-house with no additional help or training and 31% say they will get training to learn how to handle the new methods they need. 46% will use a combination of in-house and outsourced work, while only 2% expect to rely solely on outsourcing for the conversion of their content. Notice that these are expectations, and don't necessarily match up with the reality of what can or should be done in any given situation.

As holds true for most ventures we humans embark upon, many organizations approach content conversion projects with rose colored glasses, assuming they have the manpower and expertise, and will save a ton of money. The reality is that this idealist approach rarely is the outcome. DCL has a myriad of case studies where "things" went very wrong midstream or never even got started. Critical deadlines were missed, budgets blown, people lost their jobs, and conversions had to be redone from the start after extensive clean-up and more. Should you speak with any of these clients, you would learn a very valuable lesson: "DON'T GO IT ALONE!"

Of course, these horror stories do not mean you must outsource your project 100%. Considering a hybrid approach designed to meet your specific organizational requirements is generally the most effective way of ensuring the expertise that is critical to delivering a successful project accurately, on time and on budget. For example: If your resources are limited and budget is tight, you should probably only consider outsourcing. If you have a small team in place and a somewhat looser budget, a trusted partner can train and supervise your team. And for the brave at heart who decide to go it alone, you MUST have a partner complete an independent Quality Assurance (QA) study as your content is converted.

While the temptation at this early stage is to run out and gather bids from potential vendors or simply approach the plan with blinders on, you would be better served by taking a step back and considering the overall project requirements, and determining what pieces would benefit most from outsourcing. Discovering the elements that could easily be derailed by lack of expertise or manpower is paramount. A trusted partner will work with you to review everything early on so nothing will surprise you later. 
To help you identify potential areas of concern, it helps to know the basic production phases:

  • Analysis: Identify issues up front, fully understand the requirements, anticipate the outcome, and identify redundant content for potential reuse.
  • Conversion specification: Compile a conversion specification and trial samples, prepare the project blueprint, and provide a final preview to make certain everything is on track.
  • Program configuration: Automated conversion software is configured to deliver high quality results and live data is run through the entire process as a final check.
  • Production process design: The process is further refined and configured, ensuring that logistics and quality assurance steps are in place and in sync.
  • Volume production: Extensive planning and QA ensures production runs smoothly and on time, enabling high-volume, bulk conversions that require the incorporation of automation into the process.

Then you should consider the types of support you will need throughout the process in order for you to identify which Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) may be missing within your organization and which roles will be outsourced:

  • Consulting/Strategist
  • Architecture developer/specialization expert
  • Trainers
  • XML experts
  • Content experts
  • Project management
  • Program management
  • Conversion operators
  • Production tracking
  • Software developers
  • Filter developers
  • IT
  • QA experts
  • Editors/writers/authors

Key takeaways:

Your content is your number one asset and conversion is not a commodity. The process must be handled with care from the very beginning and a qualified team must be in place to guarantee success. With this in mind, choose your vendors wisely and don't base your decision purely on cost. Your vendor should invest time with you on the front end to minimize surprises mid-conversion, or worse, the need to redo entirely. Your vendor's process should include identification and cleanup of content inconsistencies before they wreak havoc on the back end and impact your schedule as well as your budget. Also, consider your internal team, expertise and available tools. If your team does not include an SME in one or more of the areas listed above, get help from a data conversion partner you can trust.

There is a cost to do-it-yourself conversion. The most expensive conversion you will ever do - regardless of who does it - is the one that does not produce the desired outcome: quality content, on schedule, at a reasonable cost. There simply are no shortcuts to doing it right the first time.

More Stories By Mark Gross

Mark Gross, President & CEO – founder of Data Conversion Laboratory, is a recognized authority on XML implementation and document conversion. President and CEO of DCL, Mark also serves as Project Executive, with overall responsibility for resource management and planning.

Prior to founding DCL in 1981, Mark was with the consulting practice of Arthur Young & Co. Mark has a BS in Engineering from Columbia University and an MBA from New York University. He has also taught at the New York University Graduate School of Business, the New School, and Pace University. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of automated conversions to XML and SGML.

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