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[A] Podcast: Talking Content Strategy

Interview With Noz Urbina

A look at content strategy, content engineering, and organizational content challenges.

Transcript

Cruce: Hi. This is Cruce Saunders and I’m at the LavaCon Conference with Noz Urbina of Urbina Consulting. I am very, very glad to be sitting with him, because he is one of the leaders in this space and a terrifically accomplished consultant who’s worked with variety of clients in and around content engineering, content strategy and large content projects. Noz, can you just give us a quick background on how you got into the space and what you’ve been busy with the last couple of years?
 
Noz: Okay. So my background has been about 14 years in large-scale and enterprise projects. So I got into this really because I got birthed directly into the world of what we call structured content. And that was a bit of an accident actually. I just joined the right company at the right time who, when I was just out of the university, put me straight in front of Nokia and Panasonic and major manufacturers around the world. So that was an golden opportunity which kind of dropped me in the deep end to learn about what the cutting-edge projects we’re doing. And since then I have made it through various commercial and technical roles, to settle down in a consultant role where I’m helping organizations find their strategy unifying what users need, what the organization is trying to do and the technical underpinnings. So that’s why I moved pretty easily between the roles of content strategy and content engineering and so on.
 
Cruce: It’s a lot of perspective that you get when you’re coming in from the outside into these organizations and seeing some of the dysfunction, especially in large organizations with disparate content teams and lots of different versions of unstructured content, and lots of different versions of structured content. Sometimes they’re not all meeting and matching. I’d love to hear some of your perspectives of messy environments you’ve walked into in the past. Can you just kind of give us a sense of the shape of the dysfunction that you’ve seen in the organizations that have invited you in?
 
Noz: I get a tidal wave of bad memories when you ask that question. So the first word that comes to my mind is fragmentation, in the sense that the organization has messages they want to bring out into the world, and they have content that they want to deliver. However, because of the silos within the organization, what ends up happening is these messages are duplicated and varied. So there is an evolution which is allowed to happen with the content, because there is no overall governance, there is no common structures, and there is no validation of the content. So what happens is that you’ve got training and sales and communications and marketing all with their kind of variant of the corporate messages. I worked a lot in product companies, so semiconductors, medical devices, pharmaceuticals. You will have the source information coming from deep within the organization then that’s cleaned up for public consumption and then put out into commercial and post-sales information.
 
What happens is that when you go public, that’s when most of the review and cleanup happens, because you don’t want to misrepresent during the sales process, and if you’re in the post-sales process you might get sued if you have inaccurate facts or some sort of problems with the content going on in the post-sales, official documentation. What often happens also is we catch the errors there, and those errors are never fed back up upstream. So next time there is an iteration of a product, or next time there is a variant of the product, or next time someone wants to create a new document, they often go back to the source which was never reviewed with the same rigor as the stuff that went public. So that same error will get repeated back out in this undeliverable, and you just repeat as many times as you iterate on your product.
 
So that’s one of the more common ones that I’ve seen and that’s really deeply ingrained in organizations. I would say that as many times I’ve seen it, there’s been very, very few of my clients were actually able to breakdown the silos enough to really address it.
 
Cruce: And how are these organizations structured to create dysfunction if that makes sense? So what structures? Are these techcomm teams that are isolated in one group just not communicating with the organization, or are there good structures badly staffed? Or what kind of shape of the dysfunction is allowing bad habits to perpetuate in the business?
 
Noz: Well there is a general conflict with the way that most organizations are built and good content fundamentally. So this doesn’t have to do with the Tech Comms at all, I’ve done a lot of Tech Comms working on my life, this is not a Tech Comms problem, it’s an organizational problem that comes from the idea that we organize people into departments and hierarchical trees. So you have the CEO, they have their immediate executive vice-presidents and managers, then they have their managers under them and so on and so on like a Christmas tree. But the thing is that the client’s experience traverses the entire bottom of the Christmas tree.
 
The client doesn’t care where in the organization content was sourced, they care about getting the answers or getting the perspective or getting the knowledge they wanted. They want to know if they should buy, they want to know what the benefits are, they want to know how to use something they’ve just bought and they don’t want to get an answer about a problem they’re having and so on and so on. So our different kingdoms, which we create in the organization, are irrelevant to their needs. So this conflict is I think fundamental to the problem, because content should be a cross-silo thing, because it affects user experience which is a cross-silo thing. But KPIs and budgets are done in silos. It’s often difficult to get the funding and the attention and the support for an initiative which cuts across various divisions of the organization.
 
Cruce: I love that cross-silo talk. It’s near and dear to my heart. How do you make it happen? How do you make cross-silo conversations happen structurally?
 
Noz: Yeah. So I’m vividly aware that I’m just doom and gloom so far. Where I’ve seen positive things happening is when we’ve actually worked our way up to the org chart to at least the executive level, executive vice-president or the CEO level. And they have become impassioned about the customer experience and connected that back properly, usually with a lot of our help, to content. So we’ve come and said this is not a content problem, this is not a this team problem or that team problem, this is a customer problem and this is therefore a revenue problem. So you need to support us in championing a horizontal group which is going to be cross-functional and governance.
 
So I always come back to the word governance. It is one of the most accurate and appropriate terms in our industry. It is exactly that. It is a government. So when you have a government you have various regions and states who all have a say, however there is a hierarchy and there is an eventual endpoint where someone gets to make decisions, and there is a parliament or a senate and that committee is cross-functional or multifunctional and comes together to decide these things which impact the various areas of the business. The organizations that actually put that in place with high level manager or executive or even CEO level support, they’ve actually made progress on breaking down the boundaries and sharing.
 
Cruce: Wow! I just couldn’t agree more, and it’s interesting I see this thought permeating our space with Jack Molisani here at LavaCon was talking about the United Nations of Content, the sort of big committee group. In a talk this morning I was talking about the digital management office, essentially a permanent fixed entity that will help to contain content strategy and engineering of practices for an organization, that can help to steward intelligent content. And it’s interesting you talk about the CEO needing or at least the key executive, somebody with fiat or power, needing to be involved because so much of the content asset is cross-functional value, all right. It’s not something that marketing does by themselves or IT does by themselves.
 
What would you say will be a distinguishing factor or factors that make forward-leaning organizations successful? What is it that makes digital customer experience management actually something that can take hold in an organization and become a real effect in the world? What kind of traits of organizations that succeed do you see?
 
Noz: I think first and foremost an organization that is going to be digitally progressive and therefore be able to actualize change is customer centricity. So, an organization who is focused around the customer will see that their customer experience is affected by digital contact points across various silos, and they will therefore investigate that and hopefully invest in that. An organization which is internally focused and is focused on their own efficiency, their own KPIs and worst of all simply maintaining their own status quo, because they feel that it’s working for them, will not see the point. They simply will not understand the problem and therefore not address it. I think that you need to go high enough that you can get someone with the authority and credibility to tell two departments you have to work together. You need to both take a couple of people and require that a percentage of their time is spent on building this bridge and maintaining this bridge.
 
I think it works best when you start a few departments at a time. I actually advocate against going for enterprise-wide digital integration and transformation projects, because it gets too big. The United Nations of Content is a great term, but it’s a very hard thing to put in place. United Nations took us hundreds and hundreds of years to establish in the real world, and it will take a similar amount of time to an organization. I suggest partnership with a few related departments that happen to have the right champions, who understand each other and work well together, to build upon that base and spread it wider over time.
 
Cruce: That makes a lot of sense. Where should somebody who sees this vision (they’re not the CEO, they can’t mandate a giant digital transformation project, but they need to get started), where do they start?
 
Noz: It depends on they. Who are they? You’re talking about a middle manager, you’re talking about a senior executive, you’re talking about someone who is a content developer.
 
Cruce: Well let’s for this scenario pick somebody that’s in tech comms and they are at least a manager level, and they’ve got a lot of writers that they work with. So they are essentially a LavaCon attendee, and they’ve got a real interest in structured content and in governance of standards, and in maintaining the ease of transferability of their content to different formats and publication vehicle's channels. But they can’t do it alone, and they don’t have the fiat to make it happen by themselves. How does that manager – they’ve got writers, but how do they start the conversation with these other partners that you talked about in the enterprise?
 
Noz: I advocate the idea there is no one solution for these things. I would say that given your description, the first thing to do will be to try to get out and make this a user problem, as I said earlier. Go, do surveys, but do user site visits, and assume if you’re a manager with a number of staff below you, you can probably get your hands on a couple of users. It’s very difficult for an individual author to do that, but if you’re a team leader with twenty, thirty people under you, you should be able to get your hands on a client. If you can’t even do that, then you have another challenge, that’s an internal structural positioning of content and the value of content. You have to then sell internally the idea that your content is customer facing, so the rest of the organization needs to give you customer access so you can do your job.
 
So one way or another, either directly because you can or indirectly after you’ve jumped that hurdle, you get your hands on customers and you find out what are their needs. You find out how they would like to consume content. You discuss other platforms that they use, other solutions that they touch in the business that are delivering content in a different way, which may be more advanced than yours, and you ask them to comment on those relative experiences. How do you feel about the fact that this solution provides you information in this way, whereas we’re still providing it like this? And you take that and you turn those qualitative comments into quantitative numbers, and you say that these – based on all the questions that we asked in our site visits – these are what people said. Do those percentages and you take some choice quotes because you’ll probably get them.
 
Take some choice quotes and slap them on top of your graphs, take that back internally and say ‘this deserves further investigation, because we’ve got a problem here. But this is all we know now, and I can’t in my spare time as a manager keep my business as usual going and give this the attention it deserves. So we need to do something new, we need to start an initiative of investigation analysis to properly address this issue which is lurking on the surface.’
 
Cruce: I love it. The customer centricity message that you’re advocating is the key to understanding a content strategy, but it is also key to understanding an organizational narrative on funding these projects. And so how – when you talk about storming the castle, which you did earlier today, what’s the short version of that presentation for storming the castle? How do we get there? I think you just gave us part of that answer.
 
Noz: Yeah, definitely. The first thing you do is try to find out what the actual market requirement is. So if you want the fundamental summary of my presentation, it’s not about you. That’s my point, my whole talk a sentence. The manager, at even the middle level with a couple of managers under them, has to remember it’s about customers; it’s about what the business is trying to accomplish. If you’re selfless and empathetic, then you will get the right mix of business and user goals to get traction with the rest of the organization. You cannot break down silos with a self-interested agenda. It should be self-evident, but it’s amazing. How many people show up and say ‘I’ve got a business case, I’ve proven that my users need this and therefore you should fund us.’ That’s not going to breakdown any silos. Yeah, of course a lot of people felt that way. It’s incredibly easy to say ‘become more customer centric and selfless;’ it’s very difficult in practice, because I spend a lot of time helping organizations get out of their own heads.
 
Cruce: That’s wonderful and I think that’s a perfect quote to leave it at. The customer-centric approach to taking the next step with digital transformation, it starts with some very, very, very simple actions that anybody in the organization can take, even if they don’t have a huge staff or huge budget. And I think you’ve given our listeners a path forward and that’s beautiful. Where can people learn more about your work? Can you tell us a little bit about your book? Where to find it, and where we can find you online?
 
Noz: So the book site is thecontentstrategybook.com. The book title is Content Strategy, Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand and Benefits, and you can find out about me on my website, urbinaconsulting.com. I especially recommend my events page, which has links to everywhere I’m going to be, and where I have been in the past, which will also get you connected to presentations and videos, recordings and podcasts and so on. My blog is also there. That’s a good way to learn about me. And I think I’ve done a good job about showing up on Google. For example, if you Google the words “adaptive content”, I’ve managed to be the top three hits in different forms.
 
And get in touch actually. This LavaCon talk about storming the castle, I’m starting a bit of Agony Aunt thing where you can write in and talk to me about your management challenges and how you’ve struggled to get an initiative up through the org chart.  I’m happy to give back a response as long as you’re happy for me to post it on my blog. And help you and hopefully help other people in the community move content initiatives forward.
 
Cruce: I love it. Well thank you for all you do in this space and your great work Noz.
 
Noz: My pleasure. Thank you very much Cruce for having me.


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