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People, processes, and change

XML: To train, or not to train

Steve Manning
The Rockley Group

XML continues to grow in use for content creation, which means that more and more content contributors are faced with authoring in XML. But how much XML do you need to know? And therefore, for managers, how much XML training do you need to provide to your content contributors?

XML is still the "go to" technology for complex content management (CM). It's also gaining popularity for simpler CM implementations. But it leaves open questions for managers who need to work out training, questions like:

  • Who gets training?
  • How much training?
  • Generalized or specialized training?

So how much training in XML is necessary? There's a school of thought that training should focus on job tasks more than on technology. For example, in an article on effective training for employees, Todd Wilmore, a management consultant, suggests linking the talents needed for successful job performance to specific business outcomes. [1] So, how much training you require depends on the tasks your employees will perform. To determine what training you need, you can break XML implementation into two phases and consider the training required for each:

  • Training required to author in an XML environment
  • Training required to set up and maintain your XML environment.

Training required to author in an XML environment

Let's start in reverse order, assuming the DTDs and authoring environment are set up-and are set up correctly! Ideally, authors should not need any training in the nuts and bolts of XML. Why? Because in a production-worthy XML authoring environment, authors do not need to see the XML code at all. The XML should be hidden. It is, after all, just the data-format for the content. Let's think about this in relation to other authoring environments. Do you need to know RTF to use MS Word? MIF (Maker Interchange Format) to use FrameMaker? Postscript to print to a Postscript printer? No. However, authors will still need a certain degree of XML training, because a shift to XML represents a paradigm shift that initially, many authors have trouble dealing with. In an article on XML in the publishing industry, Bruce Kulik and Dan Nigloschy of Media Entities, Inc. suggest why authors may have found the shift to XML problematic:

For the most part, XML authoring tools were seen as difficult to use and author unfriendly. They imposed a rigid structure to which the authors were forced to conform during the process of content creation. This was in direct opposition to the way in which creative authors approached their work. [2]

This is where the training needs for authors lie. Authors need to understand structure. They need to understand structured authoring-including what it is and how to do it, as well as its benefits and limitations. They need to understand the structure they will be following, and how to follow that structure (and the contained content) in the tool you are using. They also need to understand the concepts of reusable content in relation to their writing. They need to understand their information models, which show the structure of information products, including which elements take reusable content. Therefore, you need to focus authors' training on understanding the information models they will write to.

For more information on educating authors see Educating authors for content management

Training required to set up and maintain the XML environment

With most XML implementations, it is the set up and preparation that demand the most technical knowledge and accordingly, a move to XML requires specialized training for those who will be setting up and maintaining the system. Generally, there are two roles required to set up and maintain an XML environment:

  • DTD/schema designers
  • stylesheet designers

DTD/schema designers

At the beginning of your project, you must develop information models for your content. For XML, the model must be codified in a DTD or schema for use in your authoring tool. The authoring tool reads the DTD, compares the structure in the authored document to the DTD and validates the structure. You will need someone who knows how to create a DTD based on the information model, or who can modify existing DTDs to provide production-worthy DTDs for your authors. You could use a consultant or the consulting services of a tools vendor to create the DTD or schema for you. But, just like content, DTDs have a life cycle. They will change over time as new needs are identified. So, even if you have a vendor or consultant create your original DTDs for you, you must have a DTD expert available for the inevitable changes.

The individual you designate as your DTD expert will require special training. The basic concepts of creating DTDs are not difficult to pick up. Still, there are techniques and approaches to coding that will make DTDs more efficient from both an authoring and a maintenance perspective.

Stylesheet designers

Another technical aspect of setting up and maintaining the XML environment is designing stylesheets. XML separates format from content, which is one of the characteristics of XML that makes it as flexible as it is. However, once your content is authored, it still needs formatting. To create formatted output, you process your source XML documents with stylesheets. There are basically three types of stylesheets: display, transformation, and formatting.

Display stylesheets provide a formatted display-in the authoring tool-to the author. (An authoring interface where XML tagging is exposed to the authors is not necessarily an effective interface for authors to write in. The tags can be distracting, or even intimidating.) A display stylesheet provides formatting instructions to the authoring tool, so the text can be rendered on screen with specific formatting characteristics. For example, you can do a number of things to provide authors with visual cues about structure without them having to see the tags; you can use fonts and font sizes to differentiate between levels of headings, and you can use formatted lists, numbered lists, indents and extra line spacing.

However, this formatting must be defined in the display stylesheet. The format of the stylesheet will depend on the authoring tool you use. Some use XSL as the stylesheet language. Others use proprietary language. For effective implementation, you must either ensure that the users have sufficient knowledge to modify their display stylesheets, or you must have an "expert" in the authoring software create the stylesheets for all to use. Having an effective display format is critical in helping authors deal with the paradigm shift, so having someone who can create and manipulate display stylesheets is critical.

Raw XML: not what the author should see:

Formatted content in the XML authoring tool:

Transformation stylesheets, on the other hand, do not affect the authoring display, but transform your XML markup to another markup language, like HTML or WML (Wireless Markup Language). Transformation stylesheets use XSL (eXtensible Stylesheet Language) as the stylesheet language and in its basic form, XSL is pretty easy to learn. However, it has some pretty powerful capabilities for manipulating the content to meet output needs. You will need at least one individual on or available to your team who can become the transformation expert.

The third type of stylesheet-a formatting stylesheet-converts your XML markup to formatted output, like PDF. Like transformation stylesheets, they make use of XSL, but all parts of it. XSL-FO, not used by the other types of stylesheets, uses concepts from CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and provides more procedural formatting directives for paper-based output. You will definitely need someone with the skills required to create and, more importantly, maintain your print stylesheets.

The technology you use and the outputs you deliver will determine the level of complexity of your stylesheets. However, it's an area where you should not scrimp on training. Whoever will create and/or maintain your stylesheets will need solid knowledge in the stylesheet technologies to be effective.


From the perspective of XML technology, the training that your department will need must focus on the setup and maintenance of the XML structures, that is, the skills to create and maintain DTDs and stylesheets. For authors, implement your authoring system so they don't need to see XML and then focus your training on structured authoring and the information models that they will be writing to.


[1] Employees need effective training

[2] XML Centric Publishing

Copyright 2004, The Rockley Group, Inc.