How content professionals can influence organizational change
When working with content, operational change may be needed but hard to generate. How are content leaders making change happen in their organizations?
Michael AndrewsPublished on Nov 16, 2022
Last month, Kontent.ai sponsored two important content strategy conferences, Button and LavaCon, both taking place in person for the first time since the pandemic. You could sense the energy as content professionals at last reconnected with their peers.
The events gave me a chance to share my perspectives on content strategy topics with participants. And they allowed me to compare my experiences with other speakers and attendees about current challenges that content professionals face.
While the conferences had slightly different focuses – Button emphasized content design topics while LavaCon went deeper into content management issues – they both featured discussions on how to influence change in one’s organization.
The problem of sprawl
Large enterprises are dealing with what one speaker referred to as “sprawl.” Different teams, answering to different stakeholders, find themselves developing separate bundles of content, which aren’t coordinated.
Enterprises are revamping how they manage the infrastructure that supports their products by connecting internal systems, processes, and data. How does content fit into all of this?
Two pervasive challenges are the need to support larger-scale work with limited resources and to coordinate fragmented operations (“silos”). These issues are not new, but they have become more urgent.
Content should be connected to product design and support operations. But in practice, how content is managed is disconnected from how other parts of the organization relying on that content do their work.
In some organizations, content operations are perceived as existing apart from mission-critical customer and technical initiatives. What’s worse is that rigid, out-of-date content practices can become an obstacle to transformation, especially when routine tasks are manually intensive or require constant re-decisioning. If content is seen as a problem to minimize instead of as a core capability, digital or customer transformation initiatives may shortchange attention given to content needs.
A recurring theme at both conferences was the centrality of content to how customers interact with products and services. How should content professionals position content’s relevance to broader initiatives without becoming consumed by administrative details that are of marginal importance to content-related decisions? And what are the boundaries between content and product management or product support? Many kinds of stakeholders depend on content, but not all value its contributions.
Do content professionals need to assume other kinds of responsibilities to achieve status and influence in their organizations? Opinions on that question were mixed, with some speakers and attendees emphasizing the value of broadening one’s skills, while others warned against lowering expectations about the need for specialized knowledge or raising expectations that content folks can become mythical unicorns who can do every kind of task.
Content operations depend on well-functioning systems. Most attention gets devoted to how to develop a new process that might improve outcomes. But equally important is getting others to adopt that process. Well-functioning systems depend on buy-in from a range of stakeholders.
Speakers at both conferences talked about “being in the room” when important decisions are being discussed. The challenge is to be in the room at the right time. Content professionals don’t want to hear about a big decision-making meeting after it happened, nor do they want to suck in meetings that are focused on administrative or technical details that aren’t relevant to their content-related responsibilities. Why is a decision important to content? How will it impact content, or how might content impact the expected outcome of the decision?
Enable change by promoting relevance
Content professionals and other stakeholders must overcome status quo inertia, where it feels easier to stick with what you currently do – even if it causes problems – than it is to push for change. They may feel they have limited influence. But given that your work context is constantly changing, continuing to use status quo practices is often not a viable option.
Even when you boldly advocate for change, your ambitious goals can encounter organizational headwinds. Some speakers shared anxieties about surprises that threatened to derail their goals. They may worry about making a mistake or a wrong choice that would hinder long-term success. Or they may doubt they can get executive buy-in at the right moment and sustain executive commitments. Multiple speakers talked about personnel and resource disruptions. They’ve seen a turnover in staff, including executive sponsors. Some teams have experienced a surge in hiring, only to be followed by pressures not to backfill open positions later.
Uncertainty is part of navigating change.
Try to build a broad constituency for content in your organization so that you keep content a priority even when executives shift their focus. Content is important to almost any business goal.
Several sessions talked about how to “manage up” (get executive attention and buy-in) and lead when lacking explicit authority (because you’re missing the ideal job title, budget, or staff). These skills are important for navigating organizations and building bridges between content goals and other organizational priorities.
Know your internal audiences and tailor your messages appropriately. Separate what needs to happen from how it gets done.
Executives are interested in problems that impact the success of the areas of their responsibility, but they might not be interested in the details of how to deal with the problem. Find metrics that show progress that will speak to executive priorities.
Those implementing changes need to know exactly what to do, even if they aren’t so concerned with the broader business ramifications of the problem. The more that you’re able to think about issues from both perspectives, the more influence you’ll gain in shaping change.
Show the relevance of problems when you communicate your goals to executives and colleagues whom you must depend on for successful outcomes.
- Do they understand the nature of the problem and its gravity?
- Can you articulate the problem in concrete terms that they can understand, expressed as metrics they utilize to prioritize their work?
- Do they feel the pain of the problem, or does it seem remote and non-urgent?
Getting changes adopted depends on people feeling they are ready and willing to implement something new. Make sure that staff feels recognized and supported.
Content leaders can motivate their teams through mentoring, advocating for their needs, protecting them from burnout, and creating career growth pathways.
Invest in projects that also invest in people. Staff want and need to learn up-to-date skills. Learning new things to support changes involves an investment of time and energy. Don’t make staff learn faddish, unproven methodologies or proprietary tools that could soon be jettisoned or won’t be used elsewhere. Focus on implementing foundational practices that have a track record of broad adoption and seem poised for continued growth in usage and sophistication.
One conference session addressed how businesses should communicate major changes so that they don’t overwhelm their customers. The advice emphasized prioritizing messages, breaking them into digestible chunks, and sequencing those messages, so they are delivered when they are needed. That advice applies internally to teams working on the content experience as well. They shouldn’t have to absorb every detail about planned changes at once.
Another session provided a case study of how to get disparate teams to adopt a new design system and make it grow. Many of the recommendations for doing that successfully drew on the same principles from UX and content strategy about thinking about customer needs. Your coworkers are customers of your work.
How modularity can enable change
At Kontent.ai, we embrace a modular approach toward working with content. We believe that content should be modular, and the systems used to support that content should be modular too. Modularity allows you to simplify complexity and coordinate resources and activities more effectively. Modularity makes resources more flexible.
I had an opportunity at the conferences to talk about how to apply modular thinking to change how we work with content.
At Button, I gave a presentation on why product content needs a content model. Too often, the content in user interfaces is developed in a piecemeal manner, often on a screen-by-screen basis. Different products are developed separately. There’s no overview of how all this content fits together. Having a content model lets product teams think about their content in a modular way. The content can be planned and coordinated more easily.
Marketing content also benefits from modularity. At LavaCon, I moderated a panel with content strategists from Hilton, Atlassian, and Intralox, who are dealing with large-scale issues. We discussed how a headless CMS fits into content operations and strategy. Panelists spoke of the need to think beyond webpages and toward making content available for various channels. The questions from the audience highlighted that in many organizations, content staff need to provide a growing diversity of content.
Some other sessions discussed how organizations are trying to patch together various specialized content tools and systems that were never designed to work together. While the intention is understandable – staff are trying hard to collaborate with their colleagues and spare customers the headaches of fragmented backend systems – these efforts fall short of solving the core problem. Teams need to move away from relying on closed systems and toward open ones that are designed to connect with each other.
Modularity also eliminates the anxiety about how to proceed. A few speakers expressed skepticism that unifying different parts of an enterprise content ecosystem was achievable. Indeed, overcoming years of fragmentation does seem daunting. But it would be a mistake to presume that your organization needs to solve years of problems all at once. I pointed out that I see many organizations moving toward unifying their content operations in an incremental manner.
Modularity is a mindset. You can make your objectives modular by chunking them into projects that will deliver value by themselves but, when combined, will support each other and deliver even more.
The widely used tool of customer journey mapping can be adapted to improve content operations. Think about content’s internal journey inside your organization: who deals with it, what happens with it, what are the friction points within processes, and where are processes poorly connected?
Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Problems that need fixing will gain more visibility and resources when they are recognized as company-wide problems rather than local ones.