Reflections on CMS/DITA Europe

OK, I asked for it. I posted, in a public forum, that the price of attending the CMS/DITA Europe conference was too high for a lone consultant such as myself. The folks at CIDM, who organize the conference, told me to put my money where my mouth is, and graciously offered me a one-time discount that made it possible for me to attend – for which, many thanks.

I am not totally comfortable about receiving a privilege that might not be available to some people less in the public eye, and I seriously debated whether to accept or not. After consulting with some colleagues whose opinions I respect, I finally decided that yes, I would attend, but would also share my experience of the event here in this blog, honestly and publicly, regardless of which way it went.

Truth be told, I rarely attend conferences where I am not presenting or performing some official function. This time, however, I was there to listen. I wanted to attend DITA Europe because it is really focused on DITA, and I am in the middle of a DITA implementation with a client. My hope was to gain some insights and tips that could help me.

The DITA Gestalt

The attendance at this conference was a concentration of DITA practitioners, vendors and super-geeks. A goodly proportion of the OASIS DITA technical committee, working on the specification for DITA 1.3, were on site with us. This was a love fest, a revival meeting, a chatauqua of the structured-XML-documentation-DITA-flavour set. Hallway conversation centred around specializations, constraints, DTD tweaks and keyrefs. A number of us “old fogeys” also traded stories about “back in the day” – meaning, more or less the 80’s – much to our own amusement.

The conference featured two tracks – a technical track and a management track. I would estimate that most people were there for the technical track. I tended to flit between the two, but probably spent more time on the technical side.

It was a small conference, slightly over 100 people. This made for an interesting dynamic, though I think if there had been perhaps 50 more, there would have been a better balance between critical mass and intimacy.

Although not everyone was an expert on DITA, it seemed that no one was a rank beginner, either.

The conference was held at the Frankfurt Airport Sheraton Hotel. This was, perhaps, an unfortunate choice. While it was a convenient site (just across an overpass from the airport itself), its location pretty much eliminated any connection to the fact that we were in Europe, in Frankfurt, or, indeed, anywhere at all. We were in a quadruple-glazed, hermetically sealed fishbowl for the entire time, and venturing out of doors, while possible, was not tantalizing. The lack of real connection to place was, I also feel, especially unfortunate for the relatively high number of North American vendors and presenters at the conference.

For those who don’t know, DITA uptake in most of Europe is very much behind North America. The resistance or reluctance to adopt DITA often varies by country and culture, but the net result is that European practitioners are still relatively few, and they are considered mavericks.

The Programme

So, there we were, a bunch of the technical communication avant-garde, gathered to celebrate and commingle.

The first day, I was somewhat disappointed. Many of the presentations I attended seemed to be a bit fuzzy about the level of attendee they were addressing. For example, the narrative was often pitched at a relatively basic level, involving illustrations that were, from a technical point of view, complex and quite interesting. However, these illustrations were shown briefly, too briefly to permit a careful reading of the XML code displayed, and without any but the most cursory explanation. This was, for me at least, a frustrating experience.

I was more than surprised to see a presentation, at a DITA practitioners’ conference, aimed at convincing people to adopt DITA. This was, in my view, a waste of a valuable slot. Perhaps this was because the presenter was also a vendor/exhibitor? I don’t know.

The highlight of day one for me related more to networking with fellow practitioners and getting more quality time with some of the exhibitors than you get to have at some larger events.

Though I enjoyed networking with vendors and learning about some products that were new to me, I appreciated less the relatively large proportion of presentations that were oriented to one vendor’s tool or another. A few vendors, most notably Adobe and Syncrosoft (OXygen Editor) did useful, interesting and mostly vendor-neutral presentations.

On day 2, I hit presentations that were closer to what I expected from this conference. Solid technical how-to information aimed at people with at least some DITA experience, and discussions of where DITA is, and should be going. In the management track, I attended presentations that gave solid advice on DITA and CMS implementation and project management, as well as thought leader pieces that tied management and technical orientations together.

One last comment on this conference: I was truly shocked that there was no conference WiFi service. No conference at this level, dealing with technical issues, should ever be without it. I know that hotels charge outrageous fees for this, but there are alternatives.

Bottom line on this conference: a positive experience with a mixed review.

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About Ray

Ray Gallon is co-founder of The Transformation Society, a research and consulting company, and owner of Culturecom, a company that provides business process improvement through communication. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. He has been quoted as saying, “Since the beginning, I have been, paradoxically, communicating and shooting myself in the foot. I find that this combination leads to fascinating outcomes that have made me one of the most fortunate people I know.” Ray is a university lecturer and a speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).
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10 Responses to Reflections on CMS/DITA Europe

  1. It seems typical for Europe that you cannot get free wi-fi at the conference site.
    Thanks for the report on DITA Europe. I went in 2008 (where I also presented), and the hotel then was centrally located in Munich.
    It’s always difficult to have a truly informative presentation within the time allotted when you are speaking to audiences with a varied skilled level, and you have to get through 25-30 slides (or whatever). I’ve started to think in terms of these presentations allowing me to focus my attention. One definite exception I remember was a presentation (at WritersUA) about a deep dive into the DITA Open Toolkit.

    • Ray says:

      Lois, most conferences I attend in Europe (where I live) have WiFi access. Before the CMS/DITA Europe event, there was an oXygen users’ group meeting in the same hotel, and they found a way to provide WiFi access.

      Focusing presentations is a basic skill for presenters. Presenting is, in itself, a skill and an art, part theatre, part knowledge transfer, part education, part standup comic (sometimes, anyway). It’s important, if the time is limited, to also limit the content. Then you can cover it properly.

  2. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks, Ray. I found this review to be insightful and valuable.

    You make a good point about the mismatch between the attendees’ knowledge level and that assumed by the presenters. That would seem to be the fault of the conference organizers. However, I don’t have enough background to say for sure. Was the Call for Proposals clear about the attendees’ knowledge level? Were sessions classified into beginner, intermediate, and advanced? If DITA is to gain greater acceptance in Europe, I hope that these issues will be addressed in time for next year’s CMS/DITA Europe.

  3. Stuart Mudie says:

    Hi Ray! One of my colleagues attended this conference, and I just shared your thoughts with all our team.

    • Ray says:

      Hi Stuart, I’d be interested in your colleague’s feedback. Interesting to know if her/his impressions coincide or not.

  4. To Larry K.
    (a) being clear about the attendees´knowledge level:
    See this excerpt from the CMS DITA Europe conference page:
    “Who should attend?
    Technical writers
    IT professionals
    Information architects
    Publications managers
    Tools specialists
    Anyone interested in implementing XML DITA or
    learning more about this new standard for topic-based authoring”
    –> If presenters missed the point (did not check their audience), it’s their own fault
    (b) About sessions classified into beginner, intermediate, and advanced:
    – Have a look at the agenda
    http://www.infomanagementcenter.com/DITAeurope/2012/agenda.htm
    Sessions were sorted in “technical track” and “management track”. Don’t you think it’s clear enough?
    Additionally, smart people have a chance to attend a presentation and have a nice conversation with the speaker during the coffee break. This is a good opportunity to go deeper in specific questions.
    (c) about “If DITA is to gain greater acceptance in Europe, I hope that these issues will be addressed in time for next year’s CMS/DITA Europe.”
    Interesting comment… Have you got any experience organising Tech Comm conferences in Europe? Have you ever attended any CMS DITA Europe conference? Are you sure the organisers were so inexperienced that they made such beginners’ mistakes ?

    Having attended both Tekom and DITA Europe, I know where the value is. Tekom is heavily involved in ignoring DITA and disregarding anything that is not “home-made” (i.e. Funktionsdesign). Presentations in German did not allow questions and some TC World presentations were horrifying (Having a California-based speaker explain Europeans how to internationalize their content could have been funny… it was just pitiful)

    • Ray says:

      Bonjour, Marie-Louise, I’m not sure why you mix TEKOM into this. My review does not mention it, and it is not a comparative review, not with TEKOM nor any other event, it is my assessment (personal to me) of my experience, and stands alone.

      My observation of the level of attendees at this event is that ALL had a fair experience already of DITA. If the objective was to attract people who know nothing about DITA and persuade or inform them, that objective was not met, in my opinion.

  5. Ray says:

    Larry, just so it’s clear, this conference is part of a long series organized by the CIDM, which is to say, JoAnn Hackos’ organization. They do lots of them in North America, too, so I don’t think experience is the problem.

    I don’t think that the definition cited by Marie-Louise above of the target public speaks to levels of skill, rather to job functions. In the call for proposals for DITA North America, it states that the public is at varying levels. If so, I think presentations should announce their target level and be clear about it. In the case of DITA Europe, the reality of the attendees was that yes, there were varying levels, but no one that I met could be classed as a DITA beginner.

    • Larry Kunz says:

      Thanks, Ray, for the additional explanation. I thought that DITA Europe was a CIDM event, but I wasn’t sure. That being the case, I know that the organizers’ skill and experience aren’t the problem. (And I’m glad I hedged my initial statement by saying “I don’t have enough background to say for sure.”)

      As others have pointed out, presenters need to make clear what they expect the audience’s experience level to be. That said, I have one suggestion for the conference organizers: Include basic/intermediate/advanced checkboxes on the call for papers. It’s not enough merely to divide the sessions into Technical and Management.

  6. Marie-Louise Flacke says:

    – There were at least 3 attendants who had not implemented DITA. They have been involved in plain XML or Docbook and wanted to get a better view of the standard.
    -. “convincing people to adopt DITA”: the need is for tech doc teams who are reluctant to switch to DITA. While managers are happy to start a DITA project, their team members are afraid of “crossing the chasm”.

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