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DITA in the World Interview Series: DITA in China

Together with SDI's CMS partner DITAToo we continue to have a closer look at DITA use around the world. Next up is China, seen through the eyes of our Shanghai Office Manager Péter Acs. Peter was interviewed by Alex from DITAToo

Péter has been in the field of technical communications for over 5 years. He is responsible for the day-to-day management of operations, client relationships, and business development for SDI in China on a national level. Péter was involved in planning and facilitating SDI’s entry on the Chinese market from the first steps.

Earlier, Péter has worked for SDI as a project manager and a consultant on information development systems, information architecture, and business process mapping. Prior his years at SDI he has worked in the field of business consultancy specialized in trade relations with China. Péter has gained a B.S. in Economics from Budapest Business School, has pursued studies in Electrical Engineering, and speaks fluent Chinese.

Alex Masycheff: How would you estimate the level of awareness of DITA in China?

Péter Ács: DITA is quite well-known amongst professional technical writers working in major cities, but only a few had practical hands-on experience with DITA. Many of them are very interested in latest technologies in our industry and are finding ways to learn and improve their skills in their free time – but during their daily work they are still using unstructured or old-school authoring systems most of the time.

Alex Masycheff: Can you roughly estimate the level of DITA adoption in China?

Péter Ács: Very low, around 5-10% at most. Only major multinational companies with a local presence have adopted DITA through their globally applicable standards. One well-known exception with local roots and corporate-wide DITA implementation is Huawei. We have not yet come across any small or medium size local companies who manage their content in DITA. A vast majority of these companies still use MS Word as their main authoring tool.

Alex Masycheff: What industries mostly adopt DITA in China?

Péter Ács: Almost exclusively IT and Telecom, but recently we also see growing interest in the automotive sector.

Alex Masycheff: What is an average size of a team that adopts DITA? I intentionally ask about the size of the team rather than the size of an entire company because from our experience I can say that there is no a clear and direct correlation between the size of a company and DITA adoption. Even in big companies where there are several documentation teams, often isolated from each other, DITA can be adopted by a certain team, while another documentation team keeps working in an unstructured way or uses a proprietary structured format. So what is the situation in China?

Péter Ács: Due to the fact that DITA is mostly used by big multinational corporations, we can almost always speak about an extended team of 10+ writers at least.

Alex Masycheff: Why did your customers decide to move to DITA?

Péter Ács: Usually due to a global initiative/rollout in their parent company. In most cases local branches of multinational companies have to closely follow directions/processes from their overseas HQ.

Alex Masycheff: If the move to DITA is initiated by the parent company, who usually initiates moving to DITA there? Does it look more like a bottom-up strategy when content authors succeed to convince their management to adopt DITA or is it a decision initiated and made by the management?

Péter Ács: This is hard to define and varies on a case-by-case basis, but if present, documentation managers definitely play a key role in this process. Higher/middle management does not have the required technical insight to trigger or even consider such changes. On the other hand, if there is no documentation manager in the company hierarchy, that makes very hard for content authors to trigger and explain the benefits of DITA adoption to their management.

This is a typical scenario, when an external consultant such as SDI can help to bridge the gap between the expectations and needs of a business-oriented manaement and the technical writing team and carefully explain the cost justification and ROI of DITA implementation that otherwise may seem costly.

Alex Masycheff: What is different about DITA adoption or perception in China?

Péter Ács: Information development is clearly seen as a cost center for most companies in China, the keyword is often to get things done as cheap and quick as possible. Purchasing expensive authoring or CMS systems or going through long migration procedures do not fit into these boundaries.

Compared to other locations it is harder to convince decision makers to spend on DITA investigation and/or implementation for future ROI. However, the perception of DITA being cutting-edge technology in the authoring industry can play a much more significant role in the adoption process than at other countries and can be a key decision driving factor if other conditions are met.

Alex Masycheff: How do you see the future of DITA in China?

Péter Ács: DITA is certainly on the rise, a fact also shown by growing interest in the DITA training services provided by SDI China.

This process is currently mostly driven by international trends and high awareness/interest in DITA amongst technical writers. As more and more local companies are entering the international market not only as suppliers but also through direct sales, demand for quality documentation in large volumes is expected to increase. These changes, combined with the steadily and quickly increasing staff costs in the information development sector will call for the need of streamlining and optimizing authoring workflows – we expect these to be the main contributor for future DITA growth in China.

Alex Masycheff: What are the main factors that still prevent companies from using DITA in China? What could be done vendors, consultants, OASIS, and the DITA community in general, to eliminate or minimize these obstacles?

Péter Ács: Consultants are in a hard position having to battle with local competitors, who often recommend cheap, but obsolete or ineffective tools and processes at unbeatable prices. Many decision-makers will not consider DITA, if they have another solution proposed for a fraction of the price – even if it may cost more for them in the long term, or is not scalable properly. Raising DITA awareness in China could help with this situation.

But most vendors feel the DITA market in China is immature, or impenetrable due to cultural differences. This is probably true, I would not recommend vendors to enter China alone without the help of consultants who know the local market.

The Chinese DITA community has very little support from global technical writing and DITA communities or support groups with no local presence from any of these bodies, partially due to the hard entry for NGOs in China. Webinars and trainings are targeted for US/European audiences and time zones, and technical support is only provided from overseas.

In the past year, SDI has conducted a webinar-series specially targeted for China on the benefits of DITA and structured authoring and we were surprised by the huge interest and good feedback we received. We see this as the way forward and will continue this path – spread the word on DITA so companies are more aware of its benefits and the value it can bring to them.

There is a disappearing obstacle as well: High demand for technical communicators is skyrocketing wages in the industry. In first-tier cities the cost of hiring an experienced technical writer is closing up with Western averages. Earlier as an easy and affordable solution companies simply hired more staff when facing bandwidth issues– this is not feasible anymore, and many are turning to sustainable authoring solutions and workflows that can reduce their costs, or at least balance the ever-increasing salaries.

About the Author

Hans Garritzen

Hans Garritzen is the VP, Business Development for Europe with SDI. With over 13 years of content creation, migration and localization experience, Hans is constantly looking for improving content creation processes. Hans is an active member of the Finnish Technical Communications Society.

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Julian He
Friday, January 17, 2014 2:39 AM
Pretty good article!, Just want to add a few of my observations, esp. in telecommunication and IT industries:
1) DITA awareness and adoption are still low in China. As mentioned, some MNCs may have their special teams of tech writers located in metropolitans of China such as Beijing and Shanghai, but most of them are still in an early stage of maturity.
2) As mentioned Huawei might be an exception in China with a relatively mature organization on technical communications, but it probably refers to its Indian research center where a number of Indian TWs are employeed. Its domestic resource on TW doesn't weigh much.
3) Domestic companies in IT and e-commerce industries are booming recent years (taking BAT as typical examples), but they still need to improve their awareness on technical communications, and therefore strengthen their capabilities on the same, in order to step out of China and compete with legacy MNCs on an international stage.
4) Technical writers in China suffer the low professional maturity without domestic branches of STC (and other international organizations alike). It is actually disconnected with the other part of the world on TW perspective.
5) With localization getting more and more important and the booming of social media, technical writing may combine all these together to bring a better (qualitative and quantitative) ROI justifying the value of TWs.
Péter Ács
Friday, January 17, 2014 2:39 AM
Thanks Julian for the additional observations!

Very good point about professional maturity. I have seen many Chinese TWs hitting a "wall" where they simply cannot improve their skills anymore due to lack of professional support in China. Even if this limit is pushed farther gradually, so does the applicable limit elsewhere too. To cross the barrier and eliminate the restrictions on the professional maturity that can be reached, the China TW community needs to be integrated better to worldwide societies.

Also, the perception of Chinese TWs has suffered from bad legacy experiences. We had clients telling us they do not want our China team to work on the documentation because of their bad deliverable and content quality produced by their former China-internal teams or by other suppliers. This is a hard to overcome obstacle.

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