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 seventh installment focuses on evaluating the feasibility of a new content strategy by engaging those who will do the work to participate in an exercise to surface and tackle real world challenges.
Creating an Enterprise Content Strategy: Is it Feasible?
Leadership has asked us to evaluate the feasibility of an enterprise content strategy that consolidates our department-centric content development, publishing and management efforts. Return on Investment (ROI) will be determined by improvements in quality, timeliness and usefulness of content for target audiences and measured by changes in demand. Resourcing requires an implementation plan. Before the IT or Communications VP grabs the reins, a savvy board member convinces the C-level that every department must contribute to this enterprise initiative. The first step is a feasibility study. To get started, we identify key operational stakeholders needed to form a temporary feasibility study group and we prepare for the kick-off meeting.
So far, so good.
Obstacles to Content Strategy Success
What are the chances that knowledge workers from across the organization can be drafted to participate in a feasibility study and collaboratively achieve its goals? Even the least cynical among us can provide a lengthy list of landmine issues, e.g. lack of capacity, expertise, technology, enthusiasm, or trust. Moreover, there are built-in barriers to cross-departmental collaboration. Consider the following:
- The marketing team’s mission is to spur enthusiasm, often by setting high expectations and glossing over limitations
- The engineering team is most concerned about accuracy and usability, often resulting in dense techno-jargon laden with caveats
- Meanwhile, legal is focused on reducing liability while customer support must prepare to solve problems as they arise
Unbeknownst to many departmentally-siloed contributors, their work may have a profound—and unanticipated—impact on the challenges confronting their colleagues. For example, rare is the support agent who has not borne the brunt of a customer’s frustration spurred by technically accurate, but nearly indecipherable instructions. Nevertheless, we have our marching orders and must put forth a good-faith effort to collaboratively solve the myriad challenges we face.
With the kick-off meeting looming, the most debilitating weakness we must collectively overcome is our individual ignorance of the priorities and practices of our colleagues from other disciplines and departments. From subject matter expertise to copy-editing to structuring to technology, branding and customer support, we each have to quickly develop awareness and empathy for the complexities challenging others. An effective way to achieve shared awareness is to grapple with a real-world problem.
We are tasked to determine if our strategy is operationally feasible. Our approach involves asking the organization’s content wranglers to brainstorm how the organization should tackle a content-development project while adhering to the tenets of the proposed strategy. The ensuing examination will enhance our collective understanding of the challenges, e.g. bottlenecks, gaps, scarce resources, and needed skills.
Consider what must occur when Human Resources (HR) opts to change a key benefits provider and each employee needs to make well-informed decisions before a looming deadline.
A facilitator helps the group outline the basic parameters:
- Topic = employee benefits
- Topic owner = HR
- Audience = staff
- Channel = intranet
- Success = zero employees suffer an avoidable benefits problem due to the change of providers
Thereafter the group delves into the nuts and bolts. It’s important to realize that the details of who, what, when, where and how, are unique to our organization and that we must adapt department-specific approaches into standardized processes and procedures. For example, our HR department has not yet had access to the professional-quality editing, graphic enhancement and formatting that our marketing department has developed. Nor do they have the technical publishing skills of our IT colleagues. In the past, HR made due with internal resources. In this scenario, their skills and expertise are being augmented with the very best content production and publishing resources our organization has to offer. Even so, the discussion will identify many problem areas, chief among them that there are daunting capacity issues and that the necessary workflow does not yet exist. These specific findings will help us shape priorities for the implementation plan.
Establishing a Baseline
Though each organization’s workflow is necessarily unique, the publishing tasks that must be accomplished are generally consistent. To organizations with effective enterprise information management programs, the following list of tasks and activities represents business as usual.
Note: Doubtless, it will be challenging to maintain the group’s focus and foster collaboration. Though it is important to let the group derive the key steps, the facilitator may need to judiciously guide the discussion toward the baseline approach. To that end, the facilitator has a cheat sheet.
Each task below includes a dozen necessary activities the group should eventually identify and describe:
- Assess: evaluate current knowledge-base content manuals, FAQs, policies, training materials, etc., and flag those items that will need to be retired, updated, or certified as still valid
- Acquire: Gather and adapt resources from new provider
- Target & Track: Define the information needs of each group of benefit recipients (target audiences) and establish compliance tracking
- Engage Experts: Coordinate the efforts of subject matter experts (SMEs) to edit resources and author original resources, including explicit user instructions
- Produce: Production includes authoring, editing, enhancing, structuring and approving
- Support: Orient the support team to the upcoming changes and arrange for their feedback on new and edited resources
- Publish: Configure and describe new knowledgebase resources. Associate related resources for ease of use, e.g. forms, instructions, and exemplars. Adjust prominence of key resources to ensure content is readily discoverable
- Communicate: Coordinate with the communications team on announcements regarding deadlines, options, and implications
- Train: Coordinate with the training team to update curricula resources, e.g. onboarding
- Solve: Establish escalation protocol and resources for problem solving on behalf of individual staff colleagues
- Refine: Coordinate tweaks to knowledge-base resources in response to user feedback and support center insights
- Commend: Recognize and acknowledge those who contributed to the success
Assessing the Impact of Failure
Just as it is important for the group to collaboratively problem-solve to determine feasibility, it’s also important to assess the implications of failure. Once the framework is defined, the facilitator can re-energize the discussion by shifting focus to the potential results of failing to accomplish the necessary tasks. When working with a group, helping them to consider shared risks typically fosters a sense of urgency and commitment. The list below is offered as a baseline:
Each potential problem below includes examples the group may cite:
- Tasks overlooked: resources were not flagged and retired
- Needs unmet: important information needed by one or more types of beneficiaries is unavailable
- Quality disparity: gaps, inconsistent depth of coverage, inaccuracies, glaring need for editing
- Service-level failures: escalated problems left unsolved
- Confusing guidance: clarifications needed for announcements and instructions
- Discovery problems: intranet search surfaces conflicting information
Developing a Conceptual Workflow
Now that we have collectively established the requirements and surfaced potential problems, we can turn our attention to imagining the necessary workflow. Optimally, one of our colleagues is a business analyst equipped with the skill and tools to capture and depict our concepts. Absent that, we can adapt the organization’s existing workflow documentation to help us identify and label key elements of the process. And if exemplars are not available, we can move to the whiteboard and diagram the flow in a manner that makes sense to us.
As we configure the workflow, it is likely that our group will have firm ideas about processes, capacity and capabilities within their domain, but will struggle with the details surrounding interdepartmental collaboration. After all, we are trying to document a process that does not yet exist. To prevent the group becoming hopelessly bogged down, it is important for the facilitator to frame each challenge being tackled with questions that focus the group upon identifying what needs to be done rather than how.
Once we have the workflow for publishing the resources needed for our HR scenario, we can then dive into specifics. In this process, it’s often best to establish momentum by tackling the low-hanging fruit of tasks that can be handled in a routine matter—albeit with some tweaks. As we evaluate each step, we identify and label those steps that will be complex and/or require major changes and move on until we have assessed the current feasibility of the process. Via this approach, we are likely to have much of the workflow fairly well detailed while the tougher challenges are labeled as such. This depiction of that which is doable today in conjunction with that which needs resourcing to accomplish will be the deliverable from our feasibility study that we will brief to our decision-makers. In practice, the feasibility study as described above has been accomplished in two days.
Tips for Success:
- It may be difficult at first to convince stakeholders that it is necessary to engage those who will do the work to conduct the feasibility study. However, it should resonate with leadership that an enterprise strategy that consolidates departmental efforts requires buy-in from every corner and that the first step should be to determine feasibility by engaging the experts.
- An enthusiastic study group will tend to generate creative solutions to the tough challenges. One should absolutely capture those ideas, but it is premature—and possibly self-defeating—for those in operations to jump to solutions before alerting leadership to the problems. Those of us in the trenches tend to make assumptions about resourcing and will try to make do with what is on hand. It would be a serious negotiating mistake to offer solutions—at this point—that require us to do more with less. Given the compelling business case of a consolidated content strategy, leadership is likely to be prepared to make investments. Our task is to present them with the facts they requested so that they may consider the options and act in the capacity of their authority and responsibility.
- It should be emphasized from the outset that a successful feasibility study may find that our concept is infeasible. Empowering the group with that mindset goes a long way toward building trust and credibility.
It’s important to recognize that what leadership decides is beyond our control and dependent upon variables of which we may be ignorant, e.g. a pending merger, liquidity problem. At this point, we should mentally prepare for a spectrum of possible outcomes, including:
- Embrace the change: “Let’s set up the sponsors’ and operations committees.”
- Stiff-arm: “Our plates are full, but we will take this under advisement.”
- More tasking: “Tell us how to solve these tough challenges.”
- Question the validity: “We briefed the Board and they want us to bring in a consultant.”
- Power grab: “Since this about communications, our department should run it.”
Regardless of the outcome, our work is not yet done since we have one card left to play. With gracious acceptance, we simply shift their focus back to the inadequacies of the current strategy and underscore the wisdom of establishing guiding principles. This action requires no funding and assures that our hard work has resulted in a strategy that can foster meaningful change.
In short order, we have progressed from alerting leadership to the limitations of our existing content strategy to crafting a proposed strategy that consolidates our publishing efforts which resulted in a sanctioned feasibility study conducted by we content wranglers resulting in findings that put the ball squarely in the court of our decision-makers, followed by the adoption of guiding principles we will use to justify much-needed improvements. This is a remarkable accomplishment!
Last Week: In case you missed it, here’s a link to Devising a Content Strategy to Serve Every Audience, part six of the twelve-part series.
Next Week: Robert’s eighth of twelve articles, Best Practices for Fostering Support from Stakeholders, shares insights into how we can gain the support of stakeholders in middle and upper management.