Fail early and fail often. This could stand as the clarion call of agile methods. Don’t tell, show – is another version. A close relative of this one is “talk is cheap”. In my military training, one rather extreme edict we learned was “a bad plan executed with speed and violence is better than a good plan” with this being a rather unbalanced variation on Patton’s already strident observation on the subject of strategy. Basically all this boils down to “learn by doing”. If this line of thinking is applicable to both software projects and battlefields, it is even more true for content strategy.
The need for an action-oriented approach is particularly germane with content strategy for one very important reason. Content is a complex, composite asset that has been designed, prepared and managed so that it is intentionally separated from the ways in which it will be formatted and used. Until you try it out, you really don’t know if your planned content assets are going to be effective on any delivery channel, let alone all delivery channels. You need to push the publish button and see whether users are able to find the published result and whether they find this information useful given the tasks they need to complete.
In one recent webinar, Getting it Right: Building Quality into your Content, I place this observation at the center of the discussion. Establishing content quality is complicated by the fact that we can only assess that quality by testing the usefulness of the myriad of information products derived from that content.
Now clearly this should not be taken as pointing us towards a scattershot approach where we leap in and just start doing things. There has to be a plan guiding our activities and this plan must be something that can be adapted as experience provides feedback. Otherwise, there is no way to organize the lessons learned from experience or even to know what lessons might be taken away from each investment. So we need a way to frame a plan quickly and to then initiate a series of escalating experiments that really do move us towards improvement and ultimately towards success.
So we arrive at the real question to be weighed: How should we advance a content strategy so that we can kick-start the learning cycle that is essential to a successful outcome?
In another recent webinar, I approached the question of speed. A Content Solution Quick Start Program looked at how a content strategy initiative can stir up useful data quickly and then to articulate and demonstrate a plan of action. This presentation stressed the importance of being “fast”. It turns out that several current projects, and innumerable past ones, have underscored the importance of moving quickly on content strategy initiatives. Essentially, in today’s organizations you really need to make an impact rapidly and to fortify your position without delay. If you don’t, management attention will be diverted to something else and you will languish, perhaps forever, on the back-burner. But being fast is not much help unless it establishes something of merit, something that is compelling enough to earn you some greater latitude to innovate. So you don’t really want to hit the ground running with a “bad plan” – you want to hit the ground with a good plan that you have made so tangible that people can get excited about it and that can be put into practice very quickly.
So in these two webinars a common theme emerged about what makes for an effective content strategy. The twin goals of speed and quality both depend on collecting and leveraging useful data on what is needed by users and how those needs can be efficiently satisfied. So we see in both cases an emphasis falling on deploying rigorous methods for collecting data and on deploying a continuous stream of iterative implementations that, by also collecting practical feedback data, push the effort along more and more quickly.
The fundamental truth is that management attention is now such a precious commodity, and one that tends to be highly fickle, that you have no choice but to address it in the only way managers can process information – with compelling business improvements backed up by supporting data. When you are wielding this combination of tools, it is remarkable how quickly bureaucratic barricades can be breached and how quickly financial resources can be unlocked. And when things get rough, and they will get rough, it is heartening to know that the weapons you are wielding are solid ones.
There is more that can be deduced from the observation that a content strategy must be action-oriented. For example, it does take long to realize that this bias toward action mandates the adoption, and exploitation, of open content standards and similarly open content technologies. Only with these types of tools can you hope to adapt as quickly as you will need to when you really start to learn about your content and what people really need to do with it. This orientation also makes it clear that a content strategy cannot only be about what content an organization needs to invest in. Unless you also attend to how that content will be sourced, managed, delivered and used, and how content technologies will be leveraged to make your content processes scalable and sustainable, then a content strategy will not be worth the paper it will be printed on (and printing it will be about all you can do with such a strategy). And this orientation should make it clear that implementation experience, even extensive implementation experience, should be a prerequisite for anyone claiming to be a content strategist. Unless someone can help you move from talking about plans to taking concrete actions, which is something that can only come from real implementation experience, then you have to question the merits of this counsel.
The autumn of 2014 on my schedule will feature some conference workshops where I look forward to engaging with practitioners from various branches of professional communication to discuss a practical approach to content strategy that lives up to this call for both speed and quality. One of these events is a full-day workshop called "The Nuts & Bolts of Digital Content Strategy" at the Digital Strategies conference in Ottawa, Canada, at the end of September. Another is a half day introductory pre-conference workshop, called "Content Strategy, Technology, Engineering and Management: A Practical Introduction", at this year’s Lavacon conference in Portland, Oregon. I look forward to the discussions that will be stirred up and for the feedback that these discussions will doubtless provide.
Webinar Slides on Slideshare