Hello and welcome to Towards a Smarter World. This is your host, Cruce Saunders, and I'm joined today by my good friend, Rahel Bailie. Rahel is a senior consultant and operations at content ecosystems, and has contributed as an author to many books in the industry, including Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits.
She publishes, writes, teaches and helps to move the conversation across the industry forward. She's got major experience in digital transformation. She helps organizations to leverage content as an asset, and she has a strong record of delivering end to end content systems that make content happen at scale.
She's got experience with Content Operations, and defining those for global content management. She also teaches in the world's only Content Strategy master's program in Graz, Austria. That is a huge background for somebody that has been influencing our industry for a long time and we're so privileged to have her on the show today. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you for having me. It's lovely to be here and I don't recognize the person you just introduced. I'm kind of looking over my shoulder saying, I guess I have been around for quite a while. So you kind of accumulate accomplishments, I guess.
Well, and you've been involved in these trades, all the different kinds of content trades for so long. And you've got a lot of perspective on the evolution of the role and content, of content, for organizations. You really helped inspire a lot of content change leaders or making innovation happen in their organizations. And there's a lot of different labels for the content trades and the various practices and disciplines from Content Strategy to Content Engineering to now it's very popular to talk about content design, and build whole departments around that concept.
Why have you started focusing on content operations in particular out of those various practices which you have experience really in all of?
It's an interesting kind of route that I took. And I don't think it's that atypical, though, of content people. So I was always focusing on efficiency. And back in the late 1990s, 1998, 99, 2000, I worked for a company where I was the only writer in the Vancouver office and everyone else was in Los Angeles. And I spent every Friday morning filing, paper filing, and then sending things by FedEx to Los Angeles. We had a boss who had been Peter Principled - she was really in a position that exceeded her abilities.
So what happens then is people start to focus in and micromanage rather than focusing everything forward. And so she was very happy with this hamster wheel of activity in her department. And I'm thinking there must be a better way. And we were about to open one of the first offices in Bangalore. And I thought, you know, sending stuff by FedEx to Los Angeles every Friday is one thing, but starting to send stuff around the world, it's crazy.
We should be really using technology. Let's leverage what we've got. And I went to my internal client, who was the head of professional services, and I said, look, you know, we gather all these statistics. We keep them because of ISO and then we send them around and he's going "You get these statistics? I do this manually every week. I list things in order and I start counting them in the folder." I'm thinking, "but we have all of this."
So we kind of collaborated together and we ended up building what he said was a content management system, you know, a very small one. But he said, oh, really, what you want is a CMS. And then I went off on medical leave and came back and he had built it. He was so excited to show it to me, look what we've got. And then I promptly got made redundant because it was very threatening to my boss that we were automating all these things. And I went out on my own and started talking about these things as a consultant.
So I've been talking about Content Operations for almost 20 years. But 20 years ago, when you said Content Operations or operationalizing your content or systematizing your content, it kind of went in one ear and went out the other. People didn't really relate to that phrase itself. They kind of went OK, but they didn't really know what you meant.
Then when Dev Ops came along and that became so ubiquitous in our, that term became ubiquitous in the technology area, then when you start saying things like content ops, they go, Oh, that's like Dev Ops, but only for content instead of a code. Oh, yeah. All right. Now we get it. We don't know how to do it. We don't even know if it's important, but we know what you mean. And that's like a huge leap.
And who started me on this kind of forensic trail for the first time, I use the word Content Operations in a slide deck was Dean Barker because he was saying I just discovered something from, it's probably 15 years ago now, because this is a year or two ago that he tweeted something about it and said, that's the first time I use the word Content Operations. And so I thought, I'm going to look back to see when I did that. And I've been talking about it for almost 20 years.
So it's been a long journey and it's been a bit of a bumpy ride, but that's always where I focused my attention. Now, before we had a discipline that focused on Content Operations, Content Strategy was the closest thing to it. And really right now, when I say that you have to have a strategy that you implement and what you get out of that strategy is your operational model.
And whether that's as simple as, oh, we have social media and we need to figure out how to schedule and automate the tweets across several platforms, or whatever it may be. That's a very simple example, but that's operationalizing your social media. We schedule things. We get them to these triggers that trigger publication. We don't sit there and make ourselves reminders and log in every five minutes to Twitter and log into the blogging platform and log in to wherever it may be that we need to engage with our audience.
We have a way of operationalizing it. So let's operationalize our main function, which is, you know, producing content. And that's kind of this convoluted way of doing it, because if you're going to operationalize it, you have to have a plan. Well, what is a Content Strategy, unless it's a plan? I don't think of myself as a Content Strategist as much anymore. I think of myself as more of a facilitator of some sort of transformation that's going to operationalize your content production.
Interesting how it's like running a company. There's always a strategy employed, but then once the strategy makes it to implementation, there's got to be engineering and there's got to be operations and it's that function that's got to work day to day.
It's the same thing. And so if you do what I do, it's all around operationalizing in some way.
Yeah and it's interesting, there's so many different investments in the enterprise or other forms of operations management and Supply-Chain thinking, you know, where there's an investment made in the way something gets produced that's core to the business's value, top line revenue and bottom line revenue, like there's a process.
Interestingly, content's been left behind. Why? Why is that? Why does content often get the short end of the stick, even though, as you were saying, one of the most important things to an enterprise?
It is. But everyone thinks that they know how to do content and that's to do, you know, to use Microsoft Word or Google Docs or whatever. And I say that's for casual business use. That's not meant for content production. And content as a product, where you have to have a production system, for it is a relatively new thing. You get people who are making the decisions and they don't understand. They've never worked in content. They haven't suffered the pain.
And the content people that have to work with their systems are always really kind of gung ho, go get them and then they'll suffer with us because they don't realize what they're missing. They've always used Word. So the situation perpetuates itself.
And it's really quite frustrating to see content, people working ridiculous hours all weekend to get something done for Monday because of a lack of tools, I mean, or a lack of process, and most usually as tools and processes. But they're put into these situations and then they're kind of abandoned and people don't realize that they're being abandoned.
And even the content people themselves don't realize they're being abandoned. I often say that if you ask people how to get across an ocean and they don't know the airplanes exist, they will always describe a boat. And you kind of go, but there's this thing called air travel. And they look at you very suspiciously and they stop and then they describe a different kind of boat. They'll just keep describing boats till the cows come home, unless you can actually show them an airplane and how it works.
Yeah, it is a paradigm shift of that nature. It's a paradigm shift from moving content in one whole encapsulated system that involves chunks of content tightly coupled to design, to moving pieces and parts through a multi-stage lifecycle in a way that the tools will support.
And we're dealing with old tools and we're dealing with some new tools and we're trying to stitch those together into the future of modular content production, and that can be challenging.
Is that one of the reasons, the state of tools, that the enterprise you feel has been having a hard time taking kind of an integrated approach to content? Because of this sort of old versus new approach to tech and the split nature of things? Or what are the sources of the hesitancy?
So they invest in accounting software. Why? Because they value money. They will invest in Content Operations tools for marketing. Why? Because they value marketing when it comes to the rest of it. They aren't the cool kids. We don't care. Yeah. Content is king, marketing content is king. The other stuff we don't care about, we don't understand it.
We don't see the value of it. We wish it would go away. I had one situation where the big pain point was that it was a B2B company and they couldn't understand the APIs. And customers were complaining about API integration. How many tech writers did they have? Zero. How much did they invest in their APIs? Zero. And that's because they just didn't know, didn't care. So if they don't value it, they're not going to invest in it.
So when you say we need to really invest in this, we need the right kind of writer. They don't get that. Our engineers can do it, and, well, but they're not writers. They don't know how communication theory works, or learning theory and they don't... If they could do it, they would have done it already. So why don't you have that kind of writer? "Well, you know, we don't want to; I'd rather hire a developer, an extra developer."
And I see this over and over and over again. You need a content person. No, no. We're going to, we're going to have a UX person. We're going to have a developer. We're going to have a data scientist. And then when COVID hit, all of a sudden the devs now have to work 80 hour weeks for weeks on end to do what they didn't want to do before and which, you know, the content people would have helped them remediate.
So you've still got people doing hard coding content into the code. You've got people putting stuff in Excel spreadsheets, building little wonky interfaces, Excel all over the place. And we've had people have to look for compliance statements. And it took them two weeks to find all 30 of them or whatever it was. Two weeks. And you say, OK, well, you know, in those two weeks you just spent a lot of time on doing this, and we could have had them in one central place.
So the writer is looking at it and going and this part of it is they don't understand how writers work so a writer is looking at one compliance statement and they think, I better just check all those other compliance statements. Well, if they're all in one place, you can just look at them and update whatever you need to update, hit send, it goes to the reviewer, the reviewer says, yeah, looks good, hits approve, and it comes back and you push it out. Instead, you've got people running around looking for it for two weeks.
Yeah, it just reminds me of a client case we had where the real high volume publisher, millions of content items and thousands being produced at a time.
They actually had their writers say that they spend fifty percent of their time on content transformation and they were estimating another 20 to 30 percent of their time on content finding, this finding stuff. So they were only spending 20 percent, like one day a week of their time actually authoring and the rest of the time basically dealing with the overhead of content. And it's invisible.
So every time they just maxed out a writer, they just had to hire another one. But maxing out a writer was artificial because that writer didn't have the ability to either find the pieces that they need within the content easily, or be able to automatically transform it. So they're moving it from system to system, place to place, without having a chance to either delegate that or automate it. So that's the whole sort of... It's like invisible.
But that really missing piece for Content Operations is just so critical. You mentioned another thing, too, which is the implications on policy and governance and especially in regulated environments. It's just it without a direct Content Operations function, so much is left up to chance.
Can you speak to the role of content ops for policy and governance in particular?
Oh, my goodness. Yes. So I'd be curious as to how many of your clients have come to you because they've run out of spreadsheet management capacity. I had at least two clients, possibly a third. That was the impetus for Content Operations that you kind of go really?
And I kind of blame regulators, too, because the regulators come in and they look at code governance, they look at data governance, and they never really dig into the content governance.
I mean, if I were working at. One of these agencies, oh, boy, if they should be flying because I know where all the bodies are buried, right, to be like show me who made that change and when and and just sit back and watch the scrambling. Because it's always scrambling. And they know that it's scrambling and they're just counting on the fact that the person who comes in to do the audit isn't going to ask those questions.
Well, yeah. And, you know, that whole dynamic with the regulators is one of the reasons we really believe in the idea of the Core Content Model having a shared set of metadata elements for things like policy, regulation, accessibility, privacy, anything where the content we need to relate guidance for the content with the content sets. You know, it's like baked into the content because otherwise all of that stuff is just a scramble, like each department trying to figure out what can be done with the content we have and where it lives and in what systems.
And a lot of times they're having to go get a copy of the content, pull it over and then perform some operation on it, which just splits up the content more and more and more. And it's very, very hard without orchestrating function for those things to then get back together and into the CMS in a coherent way for ultimately for delivery.
And so there's all this risk running around. And so it seems obvious to me, and this is why I'm curious if you could dove into kind of tips we might be able to offer folks who also see the craziness like we do, like they see it, they know it's there, they're living it, but they're dealing with just the status quo.
How can people help drive the conversation forward and make tomorrow better than today on all of this stuff?
It's a hard one because content people by definition have to be good writers, whereas if somebody is a developer or a data scientist, they may not write. So it's not like you could say, come and work with us for a month and become a writer because their writing skills may not be up to that. But unless they actually experience the pain and see the pain. So when they have pain, they write some code and they fix it. They automate it.
But they aren't embedded deeply enough with content people to understand the pain well. They don't understand the way they work. They don't understand. So you really need somebody who actually lives it, or that you can hand over a very good set of requirements to and an explanation and then have them run with it. And when you say we want to use these efficiencies that were developed 20 years ago, you get people turning up their nose and they go, oh, XML, that's old, that's boring. That's like my my father's code. I don't... Can't we do it with, and then they will name something, you know, because JSON comes up a lot. Can't we do it with JSON? And it's like, no, no, it's just not robust enough. It's not meant for that. You know, you really want this. It's Web. But this is operations. It has nothing to do with Web. We will transform it.
You want to use HTML5? We can put it HTML5. We can do it really efficiently. But you need to have that power at the back end. And so I think that, you know, content is just in this, in a Venn diagram. It's in that middle part where all these other disciplines that use content have their own things that they're efficient about, and then content is spread over all of them.
And so nobody wants to own it. Nobody wants to improve it. Nobody wants to really deal with it. And so it just kind of sits. And unless you have somebody at the table like, you know,
Unless you make them do it, they won't do it. You know, it's like brushing your teeth. They'd rather have a toothache all the time than actually brush their teeth.
How do we arrive at the place we're at today? What has been the sort of landscape of the enterprise conversation that's given us this sort of mess that we're in today?
So, you know, when IBM kind of developed the DITA standard and it was based on learning theory and particularly adults, kind of not adult education, but that idea of just in time information. Nobody RTFMs, we don't sit down and open the manual and read it. But when you want that one piece of information, you want it to be there because you need to fix something. I need to change the cartridge in my printer or whatever it may be, and so they based it (DITA) around the knowledge of how people learn and how people comprehend, and how they retrieve information.
And then they had it built by people who understood and they worked together with them. That doesn't really happen in most of the real world. And we do have these two parallel tracks. So TechComm was doing what today we would call UX Writing.
So they were doing it for desktop systems. And the standard came about that was meant for software and they had ways of isolating labels and all those content variants that can change, that are volatile. And they had a way of reusing content and transporting content and so on and so forth.
And then this other stream kind of came along and it's everything Web. And they weren't hiring writers because they saw that as luxury. So the engineers were doing it themselves. And then you got all these like really terrible error messages and terrible interfaces. And then they got UX people in there and then the UX people started doing it. And then they realized that they weren't particularly great writers. And then now we have something called UX writers. So they're doing the same thing the tech writers did, except tech writers had all of the systems to do it really efficiently, but they're using spreadsheets.
So it's almost like you take that time-line, make a copy, and then push it back 15 years. And that's where UX writing is at. So it's not like we have a linear progression. It's splintered.
OK, so we're dealing with a mess and there's a lot of people who recognize it like we do. They see the mess and they need to be able to advocate for a better tomorrow.
What advice, what tips do you have for folks who are in the trenches seeing the problem and wanting to make it better?
So I think that you can do a few things that will give you some quick wins. So as much as I hate to say it, if you're not using a spreadsheet, start tracking things with a spreadsheet. That's like step one, because at least you know where everything is. So it's the kind of semiautomatic as opposed to automated.
Another piece is to , then you're going to need to figure out how to deliver the content for that personalization.
So once there's that a ha moment: the content needs to get broken down and now we have people copying and pasting into the CMS. Then what's the next step? They would go like, how do we automate this more?
I think it's also for content people. It's important to educate yourself. So how many content people have actually sat down and looked around at vendors or gone to a meet up and tried to learn about this stuff? This is kind of the, if this is if you think that this is the boring stuff, find a way to get interested in it for a while.
You don't have to do it forever. But you get interested in it for a while because there are things out there. You might say, OK, we're not ready to go to your full-fledged this System X, but maybe System Y, you know, where it's a light touch. It doesn't give you all the bells and whistles, but at least all the content is in one repository and it has API capability. Great. Like it's the first step towards operationalizing, but to adopt it, you have to know it's there. So go find out about these things and then ... whatever you can do.
So governance is a big part of this. So when you say the word governance, either everyone's keen to jump in and say this is mine, or they say, oh, that's above my pay grade. I don't want to know about it.
So I took a little tip from Lisa Welchman and you call it, you know, Web Operations. So if I was to code something and you were working on this piece of content and then you were to hit Submit who's responsible for it? And they'll go, oh, my director.
OK, so when you hit submit, it goes to the director. Oh, no, we don't bother him with that. So you kind of get to the point of backing your way into a governance model through the example of having to code something into a workflow because people understand that machines need something concrete and absolute. So when you use that as an example, now you get this, oh, the director is ultimately responsible, but they delegate the responsibility for workaday things to their managers and it only escalates when it's contentious.
So, OK, so we have workflow A, workflow B, variant A, variant B, and thank you very much. We don't have the system yet, but we're going to use this now to grow things. So then you get away from that thing where five people have it and nobody will sign it off because everyone's waiting for someone else.
So, you know, use whatever kind of metaphors are available to you, just put a little bit more structure into your work and then, you know, you can talk to people in marketing operations and Content Operations for marketing.
They have big systems and it works on the rhythm for campaigns. So to manage campaigns and agencies and so on and so forth, but they'll have a workflow module. Maybe we can use the workflow module. We can't use any of the rest of it because our cadence is very different. But maybe we could use the workflow module. And that's like step one.
So, you know, you can kind of increment as you go. And, you know, if you don't know, go talk to someone who does know. Call someone. Go to a meetup, get some advice.
There are lots of resources out there and they're starting to be more and more about Content Operations and, you know, just call up somebody and have a chat with them. They can steer you in the right direction if nothing else.
That's great. Thank you, yes. We've been putting together the Content Operations practice with Kit here. It's been an interesting process of needing to come up with frameworks for, for example, orchestration models like just how can we document Content Operations in a way that can be a living, an ongoing and actionable form for day-to-day functioning. And so it's interesting because a lot of the Content Operations best practices out there today are so isolated, there's only a few vendors talking about Content Operations and there's no, I think, single group helping to kind of build the conversation around Content Operations.
So there's a lot of innovation happening, but it's happening inside companies, inside consulting firms, inside private conversations between folks.
Yeah, like a dirty little secret, if you will it's not a dirty little secret, it's just a little secret, is that I spoke to a technologist, a very respected technologist, very smart guy. We started talking about Content Operations, and this is before the term was even popularized. And he said, we have a client, very big client right now, and I can't tell you who it is. And we built a Content Operations model for them and they felt it was such a competitive advantage that they made us all sign NDA's.
We can't talk about it outside. We can't say what's in it. They put the documents in a link in a SharePoint and they lock down access to it because they don't want anyone stealing it. So that's how much value they saw to this operational model. But it's locked inside the company. No one will ever know about it because they don't want their competitors getting their hands on it. And so when you think about it, you say, well, hold on, OK, that's internal and it's that much value.
Maybe we should look at our own operations. Right. So it's very interesting. And it's also it's interesting to watch the light bulb go on.
And a lot of the operational, like the gigs that I've gotten where it's clearly about Content Operations is in response to that burning platform thing. The regulators gave us one year to prove we followe the law and we can't find the documents and they've got these Blue Mountain boxes stacked up behind them.
And it's like we know we have to do this digitally, please help us. So the light bulb went on because they're going to get sued and they're going to have to pay a million dollar fine.
Yeah, well, regulation is one of those things that just drives a lot of interest in operations, because all of a sudden it's like, all the our ability to even manage the content in a way that will allow us to respond to regulatory incidents entirely depends on an operational function that doesn't exist. Oh, so there is that.
But there's also this idea that really that your friend was discovering, which is that organizations that figure out Content Operations is valuable want to protect content as a competitive advantage, because what they're determining is we have a way of taking our intellectual capital as a business and leveraging for repeatable business value, in a way that our competitors can't.
And therefore we're able to respond more nimbly, produce more downstream effects, increase our capabilities, manage a massive set of content with more nimbleness and cost effective deployment, and get a better return on our invested capital inside of our content systems, our tech. Right? And getting a return on assets, that's better.
So it's like this massive boost. We operate into the organizational competitiveness as a function of an operational backwater today. And it just seems like that's going to shift. The whole nature of the dialog around operations, whether it's through regulatory, privacy kinds of issues, that's where content suddenly is a part of the front page headlines. Right. Or it's where we're content somebody at the C-level discovers the value.
I think that that sort of budget shift will happen with that. And I'm wondering if you see anything that organizations that are content producing can do to help facilitate that shift or make it happen in a way that results in the riches that really should be coming into content teams.
Right. Because it's incredible to see what those dollars get back for an organization when they're deployed. And yet it's still arcane.
One of the gems that James Matheson told me once we were at a conference and I was talking about implementing, and blah, blah, blah, and he said, "Look, so it costs you three million to implement. You save three million. Nobody's going to be interested. You lose a sale because the content is not right or the content is not there, then they'll sit up and take notice."
And those words stayed with me to this day because . But one of the business drivers is operational efficiency, and that's the least important. They don't care if workers are suffering. Let's just put it that way.
They don't care as long as the content gets to where it needs to be at the time it needs to be. They only care that they're suffering when they say, why aren't you getting out there faster or why aren't you getting it out there more accurately or whatever the external business drivers are. And then they look at that and they go like, OK, I guess we'll have to fix that.
So I know the five business drivers. So one is time to market. I've been told. Oh, we only make money for the first six months and then the knockoffs come along. And so the faster we can get to market, the more profitable we'll be.
There is expanding your territory. One time the marketers were: oh, we're going to go to a trade show in Europe it'll be our first one. We're going to sell in all these languages.
And it's like, oh yeah, but you're going to have to produce content in all those languages. And we have asked for thirty thousand dollars to implement something and they had said no. And then they said, well, we're going to lose like two million dollars worth of business because we can't deliver this content. We said, OK, give us sixty thousand, we'll deliver something. They went "sure, only 60?" So, you know, when it was only fixing the back end, thirty thousand was too much. When it was losing two million dollars in sales, all of a sudden the sixty seemed like a bargain.
So there's time to market. There is the expanding, expanding your reach and that could be expanding in different languages or more kinds of content, etc..
One is risk management. So how many times you want to incur a fine for having the wrong content or not updating cost? No, whatever the case may be.
And the fourth is around brand, UX, and loyalty and so on. So if your content is not accurate, they think you're trying to pull one over on them. If it's unclear, you're going to lose people because they don't know what your product does and so on and so forth. So it's all around that brand loyalty and lots of things roll up into that.
And then, you know, the fifth one is the operational efficiency, but that only works usually if all these other things are one of the other things that is broken. If all those things are working, they're not going to care about this one.
That's beautiful. Yeah, that's a really clean value framework that I think is very useful for influencers and content change makers. So I think that's a very good place to wrap up. I think the difficult thing that all of us are struggling with is that content is fundamentally more important than the investments in it.
And we deal with that disparity all the time. And so a lot of these conversations where we'd like to be talking about specifics of innovation within Content Operations practices end up coming into questions of sponsorship and funding. And this is true with clients. We end up creating innovation, showing progress and then needing to make an incremental approach because there's a lack of a portfolio kind of thinking mentality in the enterprise. And so the things you're talking about are helping to really kind of show the way for some of the kinds of levers that create more portfolio thinking around content.
Rahel, I think as we're moving forward in this era of content, we're in a period of transformation, organizations are certainly transforming and quickly in the light of needing to do things in a distributed way and knowledge is needing to move in that distributed way. What is your final plug in short form, the executive pitch for Content Operations at this juncture in our history?
Well, I think that's what it is. You have content chaos and that's what you're doing, is putting it into some sort of order. I get people all the time asking me, can we do it like Company X? And what they don't know is that maybe the week before, the month before, someone from Company X has called me from their content team and said, we are in such a mess.
What do you, can you give me some tips? Because they're not coping. But from a cool perspective, a coolness perspective, they're considered, you know, hyper cool. So there's a lot of difference between the hype and the reality. And I think that having that chaos and putting it into order is probably the biggest the biggest thing you can hope to accomplish.
Thank you so much. For those of you interested in following Rahel, she has a tremendously interesting set of insights streaming on @Rahelab on Twitter and is also available through her books and writings.
Just Googling her name will come up with a lot of material. Is there anywhere else that folks need to know to look?
I do have some resources on my website. I launched it not long ago, so it's kind of thin on the blog so far. But there are some resources there, including one what is Content Operations that you can point people to that's contentseriously.co.uk
Wonderful, all right. Well, I'm really looking forward to our conversations about this in the in the months and years to come, and I'm glad we could share some of that with our amazing audience here at Towards a Smarter World. Thank you so much for your time today.
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5 business drivers of Content Ops
- Operational efficiency
- Time for market
- Expanding your reach
- Risk management
- Brand loyalty