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Content Strategy, Part 2: Naked Truths and Fundamentals

by Rick Wilson

September 26, 2011

Feature

by Rick Wilson

September 26, 2011

“Analysis begins in earnest by developing a list of rigorous questions that force introspection and real discovery – people, processes, policies, technology, budgets, current assumptions, new assumptions, etc. It is the ‘reality check.’”

To paraphrase Samuel Coleridge, poet and philosopher: “The worth and value of knowledge is in proportion to the worth and value of the source [content].”

Rick Wilson's 3-part  article on Content Strategy

So, how do you create and distribute knowledge? And how do you measure and weigh the value?

A couple of notions

I really don’t have a complete answer, but I have two notions to start with. From them, I believe that there is a direction to take in stressing the importance of content strategy and what to do about it.

Notion One is a carry-forward from Part 1 of this series: Content is information. Furthermore, content can open up “prospects” of experiences yielding knowledge for an end-user (or an audience) when in specific contexts.

Notion Two is that content has rhythm and flow, which arise from the movement of content through a sequence of processes that, in the end, assist in opening up the “prospects” noted above.

Notion One suggests that we want to enhance content in any way possible to foster the “prospects of experiences yielding knowledge.” Notion Two suggests that the “processes” are what contribute to how we know that we are achieving Notion One, and that we can know how well we are doing it.  

If Notion Two seems a little “fuzzy,” here’s some background on my thinking.

The naked truth

We are in tune with methodology and processes woven into systematic structures for content development. It’s been the long suit of instructional systems design. It is not conceptually alien to how the digital media world approaches content development for the Web. However, in the grander scheme of knowledge evolution, businesses in the latter part of the twentieth century began looking at what they get from content versus what they invest in it. Today, we are experiencing a resurgence of, if not demand for, the same accounting. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee content appearing as a balance sheet line item in any financial accounting reports any time soon, with the exception of patents or similar capitalized intellectual property rights. Yet our organizations expect to attribute some worth to knowledge and take some measure of its value.

I’m coming to a “naked truth” about content management – regardless of our professional leanings. I see a “content value-chain” that is highly enterprise-business influenced. It takes the form of stages, with each stage having a collection of activities. Each activity contributes more to defining and creating knowledge assets, and more value to the content in which the “knowledge” is embedded. (The content value-chain concept has some drawbacks to its applicability. A value-chain follows a precise order of activities as the work product progresses from one to the next activity in the chain. This is not necessarily true for content. You may have new information introduced anytime and anywhere, and additions to previous information create by-products from existing information or even new information. Instances also occur where content simply may eclipse one or more activities in the chain.)

The distinction from a traditional value-chain model is that content may not always move through the process stages in a linear fashion. The variations occur particularly when content moves into distribution channels. In addition, there are certain allowances for content in the mobile or social learning environment to skip activities or stages, or to take on distinct processing behavior. Nevertheless, there are recognizable and definable stages.

Content strategy framework

Rahel Anne Bailie, noted Content Strategist in the print media world, in her conference presentation at Intelligent Content 2011 defined a content strategy framework as “a repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout its entire lifecycle.” Table 1 offers my characterization of a seven-stage framework. There are many activities in each of these stages.

Table 1. Content strategy framework

Stage

Definition

Generating

Activities and tasks to collect or create information, and prepare and structure it

Transforming

Processes using human interactions and technology to produce information in forms suited to making it distribution-ready

Managing

Organizing, identifying, structuring, aggregating, storing, versioning, analyzing, and preparing information for its various intended uses

Transferring

Searching, exposing, exploiting, and expressing in ways that move information from source to source through a variety of delivery systems and communication infrastructures

Using

Consuming information for personal, professional, and organizational applications in forms that meet the audience needs

Adding Value

Creating/recreating, mixing/remixing, using/reusing, and repurposing such that content consumers extract the value and increase the worth of information

Evaluating

Analyzing, tracking, examining, measuring, quantifying, and qualifying information to understand the types of uses, to determine outcomes of uses, and to recognize need fulfillment from its uses – whether externally prescribed or self-determined.

 

It’s not difficult to see how what we do in the learning world as “content architects” fits into these stages. Equally important, this framework applies to all consumable content that an organization or individual produces for purposes of knowledge transfer or acquisition. We might also want to underscore another “naked truth” – content really is just content in the eyes of consumer. Our fancy definitions of content and elaborate orchestration for its use do not change this simple reality. Appreciation for what we do is truly in the eyes of the beholders. Any value in content, no matter the motive for its production, becomes recognizable because somebody did something with it or to it.

Assuming that this framework is reasonable, the more deliberate we are in managing the stages and their related activities, the more measurable the tempo and pulse of the content’s rhythm. Increasing our awareness of the flow of content does contribute to understanding about the influence the content is having, and how it is producing its effect.

However, what is happening to content, based on Notion One, is happening on the “outside,” and content consumption is only half the story. The other half has to do with what is happening on the “inside” for content. All organizations have their communications, intended to build brand identity, market products and services, provide customer support, and educate internal and external audiences – and more. The communications originate from many sources, involving many resources. Feeding, directing, controlling, and related activities are the inside jobs. Harnessing the content machinery and mechanisms to achieve an effective impact on audiences is at the heart of the questions posed at the outset of the article.

Here’s a question for you. Does your organization have a standing editorial policy and content production guidelines? Next question: Is the part of your organization focused on learning accountable for adhering to the policy and guidelines? The answers are probably “yes” and “no.”

Master the fundamentals

It matters that content has a strategy driving what it is doing. It matters that we can understand and be accountable for our content sources and uses. So, we have a framework, but that is not a strategy. The content strategy is what we build to know what we will be doing in each stage in the framework. How do we do it?

Put the user at the center

Let’s go back to the content consumer level and reinforce my first notion. The most successful content strategy, in all cases that I have come across, begins with Fundamental One: Users are people too (from the first article in this series). Content needs to drive the user experience, and users must be at the center. I’m talking about how your content becomes part of fulfilling the user’s needs. It has to do with an audit and analysis (Fundamental Three). The first thing content has to do is show up. For example, job readiness development probably means that content about the job shows up in a learning path or in a HCM (Human Capital Management) talent management structure. Next, there could be content that is accessible through performance support systems, on-the-job orientation, online job-aids, and now a social learning model. Finally, there is content that fills in gaps between knowing the skills and actually doing the job. These are case studies, FAQs, information relating products to experience with the products, and workflow simulations providing a view of how the job activities and tasks fit into the business.

Consequently, content must be searchable and discoverable. Remember, “…specific contexts” means the individual wants or needs something relevant and finding it will have dependencies on search criteria – certain words to define and find information. In the “Generating” stage among the activities there is the process of structuring content. That means having repositories (searchable databases – e.g. SharePoint, LCMS, CMS, etc.) with cataloging and indexing built of metadata based on some taxonomy.

Next, the information in the organization is just “stuff” until somehow it is in a structure where you can attach meaning to it. It could be the LMS/LCMS, along with other sources. In mastering Fundamental One there is a bi-directional process. On the inside, the activities require a systematic processing of all content with a vetting that selects the information expected to be part of the elaborate knowledge asset “library.” (An important note is that being part of the library does not mean being “in” the library – a whole separate topic.) The ongoing activities in this stage are determinations about structure, governance, life expectancy, application, and so on. From the outside the activities include mapping digital world metadata about the contexts of your content, e.g. everything important to job readiness, to insure that your taxonomy recognizes the important elements. In fact, it is probably critical that some “jobs” have an external character, because more and more, the people performing the job are not directly part of your workforce nor connected directly to your organization. So the concerns about the sources and uses of content are about the users/audiences, and having a correlation between them and what the content can do for them. Your “audit” and “analysis” produce entries for the content structure matrix, which have to fill the “value gap” between user and content. I’ll provide samples of the audit and analysis models that I use in the last article of this series.

Define your channels

The value gap also reconciles what forms the content needs to take – back to the content eco-system image of the previous article. Where is your user or audience? How will they expect, or how will you expect them, to reach and retrieve the content? What will the user interface be? And, what will the user experience provide? Now, content strategy takes on the channels for delivery with Fundamental Two: The channels are many and different.

The complexity of multi-channel content management is already on your radar, if not a direct challenge to your efforts. As with the process to develop strategy with the content elements, the channels that are going to provide access and use are core considerations. The first step is to document what channels are in use and specifically what interactivity, experience, frequency, and types of use are occurring. The predominantly-used channel is the Web. Your audit and analysis should expose the uses of the Websites – portals (internal and external), intranet(s), corporate/enterprise Websites, social media sites, CRM/ERP/HCM self-service interfaces, and content access dashboards. Some organizations have separate mobile access servers and application services. If it permits distribution of or access to content associated with the business, it needs documentation.

As with the first fundamental, the objective is to identify how the organization digitally touches its business world. Beyond the connectivity, the concern is for how the channels are used and you could use them. The biggest single weakness that I see is organizations failing to have channels that enhance the conversation with their constituents. Nothing is more possible and more important than the ability to know what is going on with content consumers and influencing the conversation occurring about the organization. More potential “knowledge growth” occurs because your audiences hear you and you hear them.

Having a number of experiences working with LMSs in organizations, I have found that there is a huge unexploited potential in that technology. It can and should be an integral channel. Similarly, the Web portals and mobile channels are expanding the horizons for the touch factor in terms of greater and timelier reach, as well as relevance, because the content is just right and at the right time.

Know what you have

In each of the discussions above I’m talking about audit and analysis, Fundamental Three. I just touched on the approach of creating a matrix and defining a variety of elements to quantify or qualify as you document content. What you produce is an inventory of the information comprising the content – where it is, how it is stored, what the use is, who owns it, who approves it, what its status is. The matrix details even more information. The audit considers all the in-force rules, policies, workflow, alignment with business applications and goals, legal requirements, confidentiality or intellectual property rights, editorial guidelines, development practices, delivery and use controls (including technology), and maintenance and oversight. Audit also deals with localization – language translations and cultural indicators.

Analysis has other implications besides the ones noted with user experience and channel. There is a recognized syndrome called “navel-gazing,” where one spends so much time on looking inside that the outside (real world) is left out or under-considered. Analysis begins in earnest by developing a list of rigorous questions that force introspection and real discovery – people, processes, policies, technology, budgets, current assumptions, new assumptions, etc. It is the “reality check” and the documentation produces what we call the strategic foundation. It is the reference guide used to make decisions about purpose, direction, goals, and requirements. IT IS NOT THE CONTENT STRATEGY!

So, with this content strategy framework as a foundation we are a good way toward answering the two leading questions. We have a workable approach – methods, procedures, and processes. We are through the core fundamentals.

Next

Let our content strategy party begin. The final article will explore more fundamentals and something about emerging technology. I will offer a closing on how to keep pace with the velocity of knowledge and pace of content growth, including a model that considers all the moving parts of an effective and efficient content strategy, with sample documentation and outline of a content strategy.

References

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Aids to Reflection. (2010). New York: Cosimo. (Originally published in 1825.)

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this article is really warming up to the central topic, putting the user at the focal point, while avoiding "navel gazing." looking forward to the next installment!
Enjoying this series - thanks for taking the time to write it!

Sorry if I'm missing the mark, but if effective learning experiences - those in which a learner transforms information into knowlege they can use to gain experience - are what we're after, we should include the same types of "rigorous questions that force introspection and real discovery" in the content that we apply to our process. In my limited experience we present tons of information to the user and don't ask them to reflect on it at all.
I can't seem to find Part 3 -- did it come out last October?
Part 3 was delayed for some months, but finally appeared in April 2012. The links in the first two parts are not correct. Part 3 is online at http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/875/content-strategy-part-3-digging-into-the-fundamentals

I apologize for the error, and for the delay in addressing it. The links in Parts 1 and 2 will be corrected.
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