The role of governance in preventing content debt

Content debt is a common problem in large organizations that often goes unrecognized. The presence of content debt reflects the absence of governance. 

Michael Andrews

Published on May 11, 2021

In earlier posts, we’ve seen how content governance addresses many specific problems and issues relating to content coordination, quality, and effectiveness. Let’s look at the broader impact of governance on content operations and why enterprise executives should care about it.

Every organization understands the importance of financial health. They need cash reserves to deal with contingencies quickly and be able to invest in future initiatives. Any debt they have must be manageable with a path to paying it off. 

A similar principle applies to content. Organizations need to prioritize their content health by monitoring and managing their content debt.

What is content debt?

In recent years, the content strategy community began focusing on the issue of content debt. The problem they’ve identified is similar to the technical debt that developers have wrestled with for many years. In the words of the user experience professional Suzanne Chapman, “web content debt is the new technical debt.” She notes, “the big problem with technical & content debt is that they hold us back from doing new and better things.”

Debt demands attention. It’s an obligation you owe, which you’ll need to pay back in the future. You are operating on borrowed time, and the future eventually catches up with you. And if unmanaged, the burden of debt can become so great that it prevents you from moving forward. The longer it’s around, the harder it is to pay off. You can’t postpone dealing with it.

 “Content debt is the hidden cost of not managing the creation, maintenance, utility, and usability of digital content,” says Meridel Walkington, Senior UX Content Strategist at Mozilla, makers of a well-known web browser.

A basic symptom of content debt is when teams feel like they are always behind. They can’t dig out. They are weighed down. 

An array of problems can arise because of content debt:

  • Bottlenecks
  • Compliance failures
  • Conflicts
  • Delays
  • Duplication
  • Inconsistency
  • Quality problems
  • Rework

Yet not all of these problems will be immediately apparent to everyone. Melody Kramer, a communications expert formerly at 18F, the US Government’s in-house technology and design consultancy, says that the “buildup of content debt may not be as apparent as technical debt, because it’s unlikely to initially cause software to break.” 

Despite its stealthy profile, the symptoms of content debt are recognizable when you look for them. In the case of one Mozilla product, the “content debt included issues of quality (missed opportunities to communicate value and respond to user questions), governance (varying content quality with limited organizational oversight), and structure (the need for new content types to evolve site design and improve social shares and search descriptions).”

To summarize the dynamics:

  • Content debt is generated when content is produced to meet a momentary need rather than long-term ones. 
  • Content debt accumulates because enterprise content isn’t developed and maintained with a sound process.
  • The poorly developed content becomes a drag on content operations. 

The consequences of content debt can be pronounced and worsen over time. Melody Kramer cautions that “a failure to plan for content-related debt can cause major headaches down the road.”

Some discussions of content debt emphasize the role of individual contributors: their attitudes (such as being in a rush) or abilities (such as not understanding long-term consequences.) But the root source of the problem is the absence of content governance. When content standards are lacking, content debt is inevitable. Kramer talks about the problems that arise when “no one in the organization thinks documenting processes is in their job description.”

How does governance curb content debt?

Content debt is a by-product of misaligned operations. As we’ve discussed previously, governance provides direction to enterprise content operations. That helps with two overarching problems. 

First, it improves the quality of content, increasing its longevity and making it easier to maintain. Meridel Walkington at Mozilla argues that standards are needed to support content creators. “The quality of that content is dependent in part on how the content system supports those authors in their endeavor… we can make it easier for them to do so with more actionable guidelines, tools, and governance.” 

Second, governance promotes the harmonization of different content activities. It encourages teams to think about content as a whole so that it works well together. For example, Mozilla’s goal was to “create better content that could be used not only on their product page but across the content ecosystem.” 

Governance enables content operations to be aligned at scale. The enterprise isn’t reliant on the expertise of a few individuals who know how things should be done. Common standards, developed with wide stakeholder input, guide important tasks. Policies, processes, and content administration provide the tools for enterprises to control content debt.

Policies: No more subjective decisions

Having documented policies and guidelines will preempt staff from making consequential decisions about content based on their personal opinion or by copying a past practice they noticed without knowing if it’s right.

Policy standards clarify the basis of decisions, so they are uniform over time and among various teams. By consulting a policy or guidelines, different people will make decisions that are consistent. 

For Mozilla, guidelines give authors “clearer requirements, explain why each content field mattered and where that content showed up, and provide them with examples.”

Process and procedures: No more winging it

When common processes are lacking, the coordination and reliability of content operations suffer. Having standard processes and procedures removes the tendency to do work in an ad hoc, poorly managed way. 

Without a standard process, the US Government’s 18F consultancy found that “tasks might be completed by staff without any kind of written documentation. Others might over-rely on the institutional memory of individuals.”

Relying on the institutional memory of individuals (“Do you remember how we did this last time?”) is not a viable way to curb content debt. Enterprises need agreed and documented processes and procedures.

Content administration: No more siloed systems

Enterprise content debt is also a consequence of content teams relying on separate systems that aren’t connected. Assorted tools and systems operate in silos, making content operations fragmented. Various teams will adopt different practices, and it’s hard for teams to coordinate activities with one other. 

Adopting common enterprise settings for the systems supporting content operations will boost efficiency and consistency. One critical element in this setup is the enterprise content model, which provides a common structure for content that allows pieces created by different teams to work together. Mozilla’s Meridel Walkington observes: “Creating a content model takes quite a bit of information and input upfront, but it pays dividends in the long-term, especially when it comes to addressing and preventing content debt.”

Governance as a path toward content maturity

Content debt can build up over many years, holding back the maturity of your content operations. 

A governance program provides a systematic approach to overcome accumulated debt. Enterprises can prioritize the problems that hold them back and develop standards to address them. The more extensive the scope of enterprise content governance, and the more widely it is followed, the more mature content operations will become.

Enterprises can use governance to transform their sometimes-sprawling content operations, so they no longer are an obstacle in the way of their ambitions. Governance strengthens operational capabilities, enabling enterprises to achieve more with their content.

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