Resolved: better content governance

As we head into a new year, it’s a time for reflection on the past, and resolutions for the coming year.  A perfect time to consider content governance.  Content governance involves developing goals, policies, processes and standards to improve the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of content across an organization.  At its core, content governance is about managing change: changing individual perceptions and practices, changing how individuals and departments work with others, and dealing with the external technological, social and market changes that make habitual ways of working increasingly difficult.

Like many things involving change, content governance is not easy.   Social media has exposed cracks in the apparent coordination of organizations.  As people talk back to organizations, organizations find they have trouble telling their story and listening to their customers at the same time.  The forces of change affecting content can test the conventional responsibilities of marketing and IT and customer service.  Governance grows in importance as the range of internal stakeholders affected gets more diverse, and as business processes and audience needs become more inter-related.

There are various activities and outputs associated with establishing content governance, such as setting up a committee, selecting priorities, and developing plans.  (For more on the basics of governance, see chapter 17 of Ann Rockley’s Managing Enterprise Content.)  Owing to the variation in organization structures, types of content contributors, categories of audiences, and forms of content, there is no one “best practice” for implementing content governance.  If there were, content governance wouldn’t be the thorn it often is.  Some organizations use governance to define details at the working level, others focus on a more strategic level.  Some provide toolkits and guidance, others demand compliance.  Each organization needs to develop and evolve its own practices in the context of their capabilities and objectives.  Rather than provide a tour of the procedural side of content governance, I offer some propositions to help you think about how to get value from your content governance, whatever model you adopt.   These propositions are meant to stimulate deeper thinking about your content governance, to think beyond fire fighting, and ask what’s lacking, and what more could one be doing.

1.  Lead by showcasing excellence.  Set up a center of excellence (CoE) relating to content, as suggested by Michael Brito.  There are many ways to do this, but the key thing is to find an aspect of your content practice that’s underperforming but critical, and explore options for improvement, either through looking at practices elsewhere or trying internal experiments.  These learnings can be refined into inspiring examples to showcase, and into new practices to use.  In the role of solution finder and advocate, a CoE can raise the profile of content strategy, and build buy-in for governance.

2.  Start a content innovation program, focusing on your collaboration capability.  The world moves too fast to plan for every contingency.  Organizations need to get better at improvisational responses that offer both reliable outcomes, and are repeatable.   Being able to respond to diverse and sometimes nonstandard situations requires a high degree of collaboration.  Model some “special” scenarios that could happen that deviate from the norm, and brainstorm how you’d like to handle those.  Identify situations where collobaration is needed to get the right solution.  There needs to be enough leeway in processes to allow for such collaboration, without undermining the standard process.  Having an innovation program will help maintain a balance between being overly loose and overly tight.  You don’t want workflows that freeze up or act stupidly at a critical moment.

3.  Love silos for what they are, not what you want them to be.  Silos (or in some networked organizations, pods) are very real, but it’s easy to dismiss them with clichés.  “Break down silos” is a tired phrase that doesn’t suggest a path forward.  Silos reflect responsibilities and expertise, and provide for accountability in organizations. Content governance won’t make generic bureaucracy go away, even if there is too much of it.  Silos need to be more content aware, but don’t expect them to become content centric, making content their top priority — that’s the responsibility of your content-focused silo.  Each silo is optimized to deliver specific outcomes.  Work with all of them to develop success metrics for content that can relate to their success metrics.  Content is a cross-cutting function, but so are many others, and the content champion needs to understand all these priorities.

4.  Denominate the value of content in customer terms.  Unless you are selling content, it can be hard for everyone to see its value the same way.  Frame the value in terms of the customer relationship.  Who owns the customer relationship? — Everyone.  What are each of these people responsible for offering customers?  And how does content relate to that?

5.  Do a swim lane audit.  Elaborate processes can give a false sense of quality.  They often slow down agility.  Inclusive, internal process check points convey the appearance of stakeholder buy-in, but may signal stakeholder over-involvement.  Consider your entire content supply chain, from ideation to distribution.  Examine the resource costs and value of each step.  What low value activities can be streamlined, what tedious and time-consuming ones can be automated?

6.  Account for parties outside your organization.  Partners, vendors, and customers need to be considered in your content governance — you will need to rely on them in some way, at some point.  Role play their interests, and imagine asking them for things that would help you help them.

7.  Partner with content experts, but don’t outsource your critical capability.  When things don’t work well, it can be tempting to sweep them under the rug.  Outsourcing critical content operations can help improve outcomes in the short term, but it can also hide structural issues.  Governance requires engagement by senior management so they know how robustly the content capability is operating, the commitment of different stakeholders to the content process, and how content capabilities can support the evolution of the brand.

8.  Find common cause with distant relatives.  Many organizations can seem like sprawling families, divided between immediate family and distant relatives.  Reach out to people further afield. Work with other business units and geographic units outside your immediate organization to identify common issues, and see if you find goals you share.  Even if you end up pursuing different approaches, it can add to learnings, and evolve into similar parallel practices.

9.  Separate content governance from other governance initiatives. It’s hard to do, but you need to.  There is no question that content depends on other functions.  For example, how the IT department procures systems may impact the capabilities of your CMS, and what it can deliver.  There’s a temptation to fold content governance into website governance, marketing reviews, social media policy, or IT planning.  You will quickly get off topic, and unable to develop a governance framework specific to content. The strategic value of content gets swallowed up by tactical decisions relating to peripheral dimensions.  Get a robust content governance established, demonstrate the value of content in its own right, then address harmonization with other initiatives.

10.  Don’t mix up planning and execution — give both strategy and tactics their due.  Planning for governance can be slow and deliberative, execution must be agile.  Don’t rush planning — it is the basis of having a strategic direction, setting your headline objectives.  Don’t turn execution issues, such as how to reduce the time to publish, into a strategy exercise.  Strategic planning helps identify the competitive elements of your content offering and capability based on business value and brand differentiation.   Once you have clarity on the essential elements needed, you can package these elements into a process that can be done agilely, and fine tune how to best execute workflow and delivery.

11.  Practice deep introspection about what your organization knows, and what it is sharing with customers (extra credit).  Here’s a paradox: organizations often publish too much content (in terms of value to customers), but sometimes have stuff of potential value that is not available to customers.  Organizations typically only audit what they’ve published, not what they know.  There may be useful information somewhere on your organization’s IT systems that is not published that could benefit your customers — especially if you are a B2B.  Content may be in documents, or in databases.  Think about your knowledge as a brand differentiator, and dig deeper to see what kinds of expert content you have hiding on internal servers that could refashioned into something consumer facing.  Because such content may seem “unusable” in its current form, it may seem like junk.  But usability does not necessarily equate with value.  Inaccessible content may have potential value.  Organizations sometimes publish usable, easily accessible content that offers little value.  The task is to get potentially valuable content into usable formats so it can deliver actual value.  If you have nothing hiding that others would want to access, congratulate yourself.

Some people expect 2014 will be a breakout year for omnichannel content, where organizations can relate to their customers through any channel.  Apart from the technical and information challenges, a key requirement to deliver on this vision will be well-functioning content governance.  There has never been a better time to confront the structural issues holding you back.

— Michael Andrews