Editor’s Note: The Content Wrangler is presenting a weekly series of twelve articles that provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce customer support websites. Columnist Robert Norris shares how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online knowledge bases. His sixth installment examines the characteristics of an enterprise content strategy that recognizes that–in addition to marketing to potential customers–we must address the needs of actual customers, staff and partners.
A strategy is a set of guiding principles that, when communicated and adopted in the organization, guides how people should make decisions and allocate resources. A solid strategy provides a clear roadmap for priorities and actions.
Despite the fact that C-level and board leaders find the concept of harvesting and sharing knowledge enticing and invest heavily in knowledge-sharing technology, expectations of phenomenal boosts to productivity are rarely met. This article asserts that many organizations are being ill-served by content strategies that myopically focus upon marketing to the detriment of actual customers, staff and partners.
For decades, the bulk of a typical organization’s content-related attention —and talent—has been focused almost exclusively upon selling potential customers on the value of its goods and services. But as our digital presence scales, stakeholders are discovering that users of our technical support, extranet, intranet and self-help knowledge bases are grappling with inadequate and outdated content which incurs a steep price in time, energy and damaged credibility. Faced with this disparity, a fundamental question that any content-related decision-maker ought to ponder is:
How can we leverage our content production, distribution and management capabilities to serve all of our audiences?
For advocates of a comprehensive content strategy it’s important to be aware that there are likely to be systemic reasons why our organization has not already instituted one. Chief among them is a lack of visibility for knowledge-sharing operations at the executive level. While the latest PR campaign is scrutinized for weeks by very interested C-level executives, it is doubtful that the performance of the intranet or customer help system is discussed in depth. Moreover, executives rarely engage these systems on their own to solve problems since they typically have assistants handling problems on their behalf. Yet another factor is that–while multiple departments produce knowledge-sharing resources–ownership of the knowledge base itself often falls to a technical team less focused upon content efficacy than basic system performance.
Overcoming obstacles when developing a content strategy
To overcome these and other obstacles, advocates for change make a persuasive business case to decision-makers that alerts them to the problems and risks of ad hoc publishing and demonstrates how a comprehensive content strategy will boost the ROI from knowledge-sharing investments. Helpful insights on how we might shape that message will be shared in the forthcoming article, “Making the Business Case for an Enterprise Content Strategy.” For the purposes of this week’s topic, let’s assume that we have successfully garnered leadership’s support for expanding our content strategy and they have turned the tables by tasking us to draft the necessary elements for their consideration.
When our organization’s leadership recognizes that we have multiple, important audiences—each of which are deserving of readily discoverable, timely and useful information—we’ve taken a huge step toward invoking a truly enterprise content strategy by recognizing that:
In addition to our goods and services, we are in the business of publishing
With this empowering mindset, we recognize that it makes no sense to exclusively concentrate our scarce publishing resources —writers, editors, graphic artists, SMEs—on crafting web copy for elusive potential customers. Our need to disseminate current, accurate and useful knowledge across the enterprise has placed us squarely in the publishing business and those organizations—and content wranglers—savvy enough to embrace the opportunity will reap the rewards.
In addition to our marketing channel, we must support audiences ranging from the new hire, to the customer support rep to our vital distributors and—most importantly—our loyal customer. No longer can we tolerate putting these audiences on the back burner when we roll out a new product or upgrade. Critically, we realize that these audiences have very specific needs for which we have the expertise—if not yet the processes —to craft and maintain targeted knowledge base resources. Moreover, we recognize that the task of creating and publishing these resources must receive the same diligent attention to detail that we apply to our goods and services because poor publishing reflects upon our credibility just as harmfully as does a poor product or service.
Content operations. This is an opportunity for the organization’s content wranglers to impart their wisdom and shape the initiative. After all, to those of us who do this for a living, publishing operations are conceptually straightforward. After a resource is authored or acquired, the life-cycle includes:
- Production: edit, enhance, engineer the structure
- Approval: review, vet, release
- Publish: configure for discoverability by adding meta-data and setting prominence
- Curate: couple with useful ancillary resources
- Improve: identify and address deficiencies via feedback and telemetry
- Re-certify: periodic review
- Update: accommodate changes from minor updates to revision
- Retire: archive
An organization that strategically addresses these operational requirements and invokes responsibility and capacity for content quality control will produce knowledge bases that inspire enthusiastic and confident reliance which will directly impacts productivity, brand credibility and return on investment. To that end, let’s devise the framework for a content strategy that will equip us with the both the mandate and resources we wranglers need to produce and maintain exemplary content.
A framework for content strategy
The following elements of a strategic plan are proposed as a baseline from which advocates can shape their organization’s strategic approach:
Strategic Goal: Provide immediate access to useful, accurate and timely information to meet the needs of each of our audiences.
Concept: We will achieve our goal by devising an enterprise publishing program that coordinates content development, production and management efforts.
Business case: The aggregate ROI for our investments in content operations will increase as we better leverage our capabilities to optimize productivity. Simultaneously, our enhanced content quality control will mitigate risks and reduce losses due to avoidable mistakes.
Practice: As new roles and processes are refined over time, the organization will develop productive routines comprised of planning, production, publishing and maintenance. The outcomes will include improved effectiveness, economies of scale and risk mitigation.
Guiding Principles: Successful strategies are based upon establishing specific, guiding principles for operational decision-making. The following suggested principles address key aspects of an effective enterprise publishing initiative:
- All content for individual resources is derived from authoritative source material.
This principle establishes the foundation for professional accuracy from which collaborative content production will be fostered.
- Topical content ownership is established at the executive level to instantiate accountability.
Since every resource we publish incurs a burden of maintenance, this principle places that burden on the shoulders of someone with the resources and authority needed to prioritize the effort.
- Resources are crafted with an eye toward developing a standardized production process using labor-saving tactics and technology.
This principle underscores that we will approach publishing with the same business mindset that we employ with our goods and services while asserting that there is no place for ad hoc publishing.
- Copyright is respected, intellectual property is protected and digital record retention is prescribed.
This is a commitment to integrity and record-keeping, e.g. source material is archived.
- Publishing is coordinated across departments to ensure oversight, consistency and usefulness.
This approach ensures that key stakeholders participate in the process and respect the impact of their actions upon others.
- Our technologies are engineered to be adaptable to changing requirements.
Since we will be in the process of evaluating that which works (and that which doesn’t), we expect that changes will be required. This lack of certainty leads to a technical approach that promotes discovery and effectiveness before we focus upon efficiency, e.g. rapid prototyping.
- When resources are scarce, leadership is alerted and will collaboratively set priorities based on a cost-benefit analysis.
This commitment ensures that leadership is engaged and no single stakeholder exerts undue influence to the detriment of others.
- We actively monitor feedback and telemetry to surface symptoms of deficiencies that we will address as the system is constantly refined.
If our initiative is successful, we will face relentless demand for more and better resources which we will gratefully receive both to advance our effectiveness and impart a sense of ownership to our users.
- Our knowledge-sharing operations are focused upon helping our audiences solve important problems.
This principle ensures that we are purposefully producing and publishing resources geared to real-world needs, e.g. producing problem-solving toolkits.
- What should this principle be?
We hope our readers will contribute one or more suggested principles (or refine an existing one) to round out this list.
Implementation: Successfully invoking our content strategy requires that we establish a set of operational mechanisms by which leadership’s vision is enacted at the operational level. The following elements will be useful in this regard:
- Guiding Principles. The C-level will authorize a set of guiding principles (similar to the list above) that set expectations to inform operational decision-making.
- Codify Roles & Responsibilities. Each staff member involved in content operations will have their content-related roles and responsibilities documented in their job description. Absent formal documentation, processes and tasks cannot be reliably established.
- Sponsors’ Committee. Executive stakeholders – typically VPs – must meet periodically to provide oversight, set priorities, resolve disputes and recognize achievements.
- Operations Committee. Key operational managers must meet routinely to track progress, share concerns, brainstorm solutions and balance the workload.
- Phased Implementation Plan. A milestone-based plan crafted with the input of key operational personnel will help inspire participants and provide impetus for the necessary collaborative effort.
- Style Guide. A comprehensive style guide will equip colleagues to produce resources that comply with the organization’s publishing requirements.
- Periodic Reporting to the C-Level. The Operational Committee should be tasked with periodic reporting of progress to the C-level. This requirement establishes professionalism and accountability while boosting a collective sense of urgency.
- Publisher Resources. Contributors to content operations require training and self-help resources. In many organizations, content contributors suffer – like proverbial cobbler’s children – from a lack of resources upon so much time and energy is expended. In contrast, this commitment recognizes that our publishing contributors are a very important audience. In practical terms, crafting resources for our publishing colleagues is an excellent opportunity to test the efficacy of creative concepts.
So, let’s assume a small group of us put a package together and brief the executives on what is needed and how we recommend it be done. As the last PowerPoint slide fades and the lights brighten, you can bet your year-end bonus that one of the executives will forcefully state something akin to:
“Just how are we supposed to enact this publishing approach when our plates are already overflowing. It’s taken us a year to produce our latest HR manual. Is this even feasible?”
And you know what? That person just earned her paycheck, because it is absolutely the essential question and–truth be told–we don’t know if our concept is feasible either…but because we anticipated the challenge we are prepared. We’ve planned a feasibility study, but needed the authority and resources to conduct it and our most vocal critic just laid the groundwork for us.
Last Week: In case you missed it, here’s a link to Hey, Where’s our Content? part five of the twelve-part series.
Next Week: Robert’s seventh of twelve articles, Your Content Strategy; Is it Feasible?, proposes an approach to evaluate the practicality of enacting our new content strategy by tapping those who will do the work to assess the challenges and draft the plan to overcome them.