On Content Reuse

A truly excellent post on content reuse guidelines and thresholds was posted today to the stc-single-sourcing mailing list.

Julie Kumasaka asked: “Does anyone use a guideline or has anyone come across a guideline recommending what percentage (or some other measure) of text from two sources should be the same to be worth single-sourcing them?”

Mark Baker (mbaker@analecta.com> posted an excellent reply:

I see this topic has generated a lot of discussion, which, unfortunately, I don’t have time to study properly at the moment, so I will offer the following thought and hope it is not totally redundant with what has already been said.

The point is not to reduce redundancy in content. The point is to reduce redundancy in effort. Reducing redundancy in content is just a means to that end, and it should only be done when it can be shown to achieve that end.

In the case of conditional text, it makes a huge difference whether the conditional content is volatile or stable. Setting up and testing conditional text is more work than simply writing the content twice. The win comes if using conditional text for some content lets you reduce the effort of maintaining other content.

If the stable parts of your content are conditionalized, you only have to go through the pain of setting up the conditions once. You set it and forget it, and then just update the unconditional content whenever it changes. In this case, using conditional text saves you a lot of effort, no matter the proportion of conditional to unconditional text.

On the other hand, if the volatile parts of the content are the conditional ones, you will constantly be maintaining the conditions, still writing two different pieces of content, and having additional work to test your conditions. In this case using conditional text will not save you effort and may create additional effort. Again, this is true no matter what percentage of the content is conditional.

In short, if you conditionalize stable elements of your content, you win. If you conditionalize volatile elements of you content, you break even at best, and probably lose. Looking at the balance of volatile vs. stable content is therefore a better indicator than looking at the percentage of conditional content.

Mark

How to Evaluate a Vendor

Unless you’ve done a full discovery process, I never trusted the generic vendor-provided survey/ROI reports. One of the ways that I’ve found to really learn about a product is to try to get enough funding to take one of the vendor’s low-level training classes. That’s a lot cheaper than buying a product and then finding out it didn’t hold up (why does any company think it’s a good idea to just buy and find out?). The training class method is good, because, when they’re training you on a product, you usually have someone who knows the product inside and out. This gives you a direct channel to ask better questions and get the real answers – instead of the sales-guy spiel. Might be an option?

Gathering requirements is a difficult task, but it’s something that we do every day. There are always some general requirements that fit with nearly every single-sourcing project.

Here’s a brief list of the kinds of requirements you’ll want to consider. It is by no means a complete list:

  • General System Requirements
  • Additional Tool Requirements
  • Workflow Requirements
  • Performance Requirements
  • Data Object Requirements
  • Network Requirements
  • Benchmarks for Requirements Verification

These are the underlying requirements that define any good system: the ability to control document source, the ability to create and produce documentation products for customers. The goal of a good requirements document is to capture and define requirements for a new system above and beyond these basic requirements. A good requirements document includes these basic, best practices requirements, in addition to the problem-specific requirements that can only be defined in terms of your business processes and needs.

These are the kinds of requirements will help to ensure a system that encourcages user participation. It helps you to design a system that can provide real benefits to the user and to the company. A well-designed system will provide many opportunities for small efficiencies in addition to any benefits due strictly to upgrading to new technology.

It is my intention here, then, to lay out some best practice requirements, to get requirements documents writers started. This is a jumping off point. Not an end point. The real end point includes all those intangibles that only you know about as the in-house expert, the requirements document writer.

Want more?

Avoiding Vendor Lock-in

The goal of object-oriented tool development is to avoid vendor lock-in. Lock-in is not determined by the cost of the application but by the method of its implementation. The level of integrated customization determines the level of vendor lock-in.

One-of-a-kind software (fully custom or “one-off” software) is both desirable and necessary when no other solution is available. Unique software is custom-built for one specific purpose; it cannot be used by multiple customers and cannot be rented.

Customizable software (tightly integrated software) was a natural development of productized custom software. Customizable software was an attempt by vendors to create generic applications that could be set up according to individual business requirements, specifications, and needs. In a very real sense, customized software is harder to upgrade, expand, or replace than completely unique software: customized applications have as much single-purpose code as they have COTS application software, but the single-purpose software is tied to both the particular COTS application as well as the particular COTS application version. This means that all of the customizations must be upgraded whenever the application upgrades, if it can be upgraded at all.

Open standards software development (API tool development) is a direct response to the customizable software development over the last 20 years. API tool development focuses on isolating the impact of an application-specific code. For example, rather than implementing customizations entirely inside a particular vendor’s customization language, API developers create the small custom tools required to implement specific business requirements. They isolate required functionality in a small custom code components and then build an API layer to communicate with a specific vendor’s application. This way, when the application required upgrade, developers only need to upgrade the API layer: the customization layer does not significantly retard the ability to upgrade or replace any particular vendor product at any time.

NGES-MS is facing this situation with Vulcan today. Vulcan is tightly integrating the functionality of Epic with Visual Source Safe. As a result, NGES-MS is tied to Epic 4.3.1. Although Arbortext charges an annual maintenance fee, we cannot upgrade Epic to take advantage of new features, Because Vulcan is customized COTS software, upgrading Epic will not occur until Vulcan upgrades all of their 4.3.1-specific code.

And Vulcan is all custom code that attempts to bridge the gap between two commercially available products.

That’s vendor lock in.

In addition, NGES-MS is facing a deadline: it is highly probably that Interleaf will stop functioning with the next release of Windows (Windows Vista). Interleaf has been in use at NGES-MS since 1995. Interleaf might have still retain long-term prospects, if other factors were not at work to place the documents and data it supports at extreme risk. NGES-MS discovered that with the release of Windows XP, RDM became inoperable. Windows XP is scheduled to reach end of life in 2006. Extended support will end 5 years after mainstream support ends, in 2011. Documents still in Interleaf after 2011 will likely be unrecoverable.

Today, 78 percent of NGES-MS Launcher documentation is not supported in the Vulcan/CAE data model. Given the laundry list of features currently facing the Vulcan development team, it’s unlikely that Vulcan will be able to support the additional document types in time and we would simply be exchanging one highly-customized, proprietary system for another.

On the other hand, S1000D is written with interoperability in mind, but without limiting this to the lowest technical application. Although it may appear rigid or involved with tracking irrelevancies, the specification defines application behaviors; it requires vendors to provide data interoperability (a “way out”). If a product claims S1000D-conformance, developers supporting this format will never find themselves held captive. If a vendor is compliant, support staff will always have at significantly less expense options than if they were dealing with a proprietary or highly customized environment.

S1000D is not a tool. By its own definition,

S1000D is an international specification for the procurement and production of technical publications.. for [use in] the support of any type of equipment, including both military and civil products. (Chap 1.1, Page 1)

For the first time, interoperability is considered important from more than the technical (software engineering) perspective: a usability perspective is also involved. The uniform presentation of content increases both author and user efficiency. If every manual is created in accordance with the same specification, and content is always presented the same format, the learning curve for new personnel can be drastically reduced. In fact, a novice user becomes productive much more quickly without interference from the manual, in order to complete the job at hand. The majority of the S1000D specification addresses this very issue. By thoroughly defining how manuals should be constructed, the specification improves overall quality for every single person who uses the manual.

Besides defining the schema and enforcing interoperability, the real revolution S1000D offers is that it is completely modular. A data module is a data module is a data module, and output is done via assembly. S1000D will force users to change both the way they work and they way the “have always done things.” New policy decisions will be required. S1000D requires changes because, it demands following best practices. The end results, the benefits, really do outweigh the costs.

Can projects using S1000D be tailored, expanded, and customized? Yes.

Do you have to use their process? Yes.

Do you have to change your processes? Perhaps.

The best part of the S1000D specification is that, once agreement occurs between user, customer, supplier, and other internal groups, the implementation can still be tailored business requirements.

The “known standard” benefits are self-evident.

As with other documentation formats, S1000D reduces support costs, facilitates modularity and reuse, and allows users to view electronic documentation via a common Web browser or other interactive electronic technical manual (IETM) viewer.

S1000D indicates that it is flexible system. In contrast, most of the commercial world is adopting IBM’s Darwin Information Type Architecture (DITA) format. Many early DITA users have struggled with its overly generic character.

This was a conscious choice by the DITA architects: DITA legislates only the framework (topics, tasks, references, et al), but requires users to flesh out the details through “specialization.” Those who have used DITA out of the box have customized it and are now looking for something better.

S1000D is better. While it has many similarities with DITA, it goes even further. S1000D represents an emerging technology. This means that the tools are not fully developed and that vendors have not yet fully embraced it. However, because many organizations are adopting it, vendor support will grow. Working with this standard, we can leverage the same benefits that we would get by using any other.

S1000D is specific to air, land, and sea systems. S1000D captures more information (for documents supporting these products) than any documentation format to date. The specification is essentially complete. S1000D is ready to use today. It has more leverage for information authored and for tools that serve documents, on a smaller-than-document-level basis. In addition, S1000D has significant COTS vendor support and a wide community of practice to draw upon.

Because the DOD has specified that new documents be S1000D-compatible, and because migration is inevitable, going to the new system now is most cost effective. S1000D is XML, and XML transformation tools are immediately available. S1000D is the full-blown schema; all that remains are refinements of the data that the S1000D format contains.

We see several valuable side effects of this implementation in Aerospace and Defense. First, we believe that S1000D provides a neutral response to the DOD. This gives the entire SP community adequate opportunity to say: “S1000D is being investigated.” Second, the trial implementation provides a genuinely independent evaluation.

Third, because they will be supporting Vulcan output as well as IETM and pdf, as a bonus, they will be able to provide the roadmap for Vulcan-S1000D transformations without delaying current deliverables, or diverting attention away from current development efforts. If S1000D/Vulcan interoperability ever becomes desirable, the SP community will know the requirements, how much work will be involved, and a starting point (their transformation code). This information becomes available without derailing current deliverables or distracting the Vulcan implementation team from their primary focus.