Digitizing Your PDFs: What to Look For

Digital transformation can be a minefield for standards development organizations (SDOs). The evolution of standards from paper-based to digital-ready has tracked from paper documents to PDFs. Where once standards were read page by page to determine the requirements of the individual organization, today’s businesses are increasingly using digital tools to not only consume standards but to conduct operations – be it a PDF reader with search capabilities or a content management system. From Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets to PLMs, technological advancement in business shows no sign of slowing down.

DRM-protected PDFs have become a popular method of disseminating standards, allowing SDOs to place some controls on using copyrighted material. The limits are beginning to show, however. Copy and paste is the dominant method of using standards today – in other words, the relevant material from a standard is copied or re-keyed into an operational document.

Consumers of standards do not want to rely on copy and paste. As soon as they do so, that material is a maintenance liability as content is edited (whether accidentally or intentionally), becomes out of date, etc.

There can be little doubt that standards content needs to become more flexible and controllable at a micro level rather than solely at the document level. Below are key considerations for digitizing standards on their continued evolution from paper-based publishing paradigms.

Traditional standards Digital standards
Evolved from book publishing models
Ability to create documents yet manage as components, e.g., a single clause.
Copy and paste is the dominant method of use
Smart-linked to customer systems
Limited ability to track usage
Traceable back to the master document
Updates must be manually identified
Automated workflows for updates
No way of linking back to the master source.
Unlocks value for both producers and consumers of standards
No way of tracing edits.
Ability to be enriched at a micro level


When it comes to converting your PDFs, it is essential to ensure that your content can be tracked over time and through multiple revisions. This is a crucial consideration for both the SDO and the organization consuming the standards – the former to understand how its content is being used, the latter to be able to demonstrate to regulators and other stakeholders how, for example, a part on the floor came to be made a certain way. Additionally, making sure your content can be tagged optimally ensures content can be found more easily and provides the SDO with fine-grained control.

Given that standards use rigorous citation methods and have many dependencies to other documents, it is also important to ensure that links don’t break over time and that staff can be notified when something needs to be updated.


A key question regarding structuring your content is whether you want to go down the XML route. Indeed, if you’ve heard of the benefits of structured content, the term is often used interchangeably with XML. The central advantage of structured content is in its ability to identify components – i.e., the smaller segments of content such as a clause. These segments can then be reused, enriched, and tagged for downstream use.

However, XML editors can introduce a great deal of complexity to the process, requiring subject matter experts to undergo a steep learning curve to adjust to the tool. Indeed, this learning curve can be so significant as to require ongoing training, additional resources, and even lead to abandonment of the tool.

Look for a method that allows you to structure content as components but won’t take SMEs away from familiar tools like Microsoft Word.


Implementing a component-based content model allows your SDO to work, not only with increased flexibility and control, but also with greater efficiency. With a single source of truth in place, you can create content once and reuse it as required. This eliminates the need to manually make updates or identify what needs to change to reflect recent reviews.

Additionally, putting in place systematic controls and formalized edit and approval workflows can help guard against unapproved edits and give your organization full visibility over how its content came to be in its current form.

Reduced duplication

When your model for managing content is based on a paper-based publishing model, identifying what content needs to change in accordance with the latest review cycle can result in duplicated content and indeed, duplicated efforts.

The ability to control content at a micro level and reuse as needed also helps tackle this issue. A content management system with the capability to manage content as components, detect what needs to be changed and alert the user means this process can be fully automated and carried out without duplication.

From digitizing to digital transformation

With much focus on XML on the path to smart standards and Standards as a Service, it can feel like a mountain needs to be climbed before your SDO can begin addressing digitizing standards. Given the level of complexity that XML editors can bring, your organization should assess the necessity of strict, structured tools and weigh that up against achieving a component-based content model using Microsoft Word. Talk to us about enriching and converting your PDFs without the learning curve of structured tooling.