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June 5, 2018

Full transcript of Content strategy pitfalls podcast: change management

Gretyl Kinsey: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In Episode 29, we continue our occasional series on content strategy pitfalls. Our focus today is change management. What are some common change management pitfalls and how might the intrepid content strategist avoid or handle them?

Gretyl Kinsey: Hello and welcome everyone to the Content Strategy Experts podcast. I’m Gretyl Kinsey.

Bill Swallow: And I’m Bill Swallow.

Gretyl Kinsey: And we’re here today, as I mentioned earlier, to talk about change management. I want to just start out by asking what is change management?

Bill Swallow: Change management is the management of change within an organization, and I know that’s a pretty circular definition, but it really boils down to just that. There are … it’s implemented many different ways, depending on the type of organization you have and how invested that company is in managing change.

Bill Swallow: You could see it in the form of purely a systems point of view or programmatic point of view, where change management is conducted very systematically or you can see it more in a soft-skills implementation where change management usually comes with coaching and HR involvement and lots of communication between different groups. It’s not to say that one approach is necessarily bad, it all comes down to making sure that what you’re doing actually is going to work for your company.

Gretyl Kinsey: Exactly. And I’ve seen plenty of examples just as a content strategist of implementations where change management has been a big factor and ones where it really hasn’t, and that’s interesting to see how it affects the way that things work as new changes are put forth. That’s what I want to kind of address next, is when you are rolling out a new content strategy in an organization, why is change management so important?

Bill Swallow: Anything you’re doing with regard to content strategy generally is going to affect somebody else in the organization, and usually in a big way. Either it’s going to change how they work, what they produce or generally, how they interact with other groups.

Bill Swallow: It could come down to workflow and processes; it could come down to new tools and systems changes, file transfers between different groups. File transfers between different systems. There are a lot of moving pieces in any kind of a content strategy implementation.

Bill Swallow: It’s important to be able to first identify what all of the changes are and not just from a content point of view, not just from a tools point of view but also taking into account how people work and how people interact in an organization before you start implementing a content strategy. These are the types of things generally you want to get your arms around in some kind of a change management process.

Gretyl Kinsey: And it’s something that you really can’t ignore when you’re putting that strategy together because if you do then what you’ll see happen is you’ll implement some kind of new tools or technologies, you’ll start some kind of new processes, but without that change management and without really thinking about how these new processes are going to affect the people who are in charge of putting them in place, then everything can really easily fall apart, and that’s something I think both of us have seen happen at least a few times.

Bill Swallow: Just a few.

Gretyl Kinsey: And that’s what I kind of want to get into next, is some examples of different change management problems that can come about. One of them is the idea of when you’ve got kind of upper level management pushing for a new strategy but they don’t communicate very well with the employees who are going to be the ones responsible for actually rolling it out and making sure that it happens.

Gretyl Kinsey: And in that situation, what you often get is a lot of resentment, a lack of understanding, and even sometimes the risk of completely having a project be stopped in its tracks because the employees who are most affected by that learning curve don’t know what they’re doing, don’t get told what they’re doing and why it matters, and then the question for them becomes, “Well, what is in this for me?”

Gretyl Kinsey: And if the answer has not been communicated well to them, then it seems like nothing, so that they don’t really have any kind of motivation to help make sure that the project is successful.

Bill Swallow: And the devil really is in the details, so if you have a top-down strategy implementation where people are just expected to make something happen, those who are actually performing the work probably have a better idea of what pieces need to come together and how things need to work.

Bill Swallow: And that strategy may need to shift, based on either their findings or their knowledge. And it’s really difficult to communicate that back up once you have the mandate coming down that change needs to happen.

Gretyl Kinsey: And that kind of gets back into the difference between a content strategy that originates from maybe kind of a top-down position rather than from the employees themselves. We’ve had some clients where the strategy began with the employees so the tech writers or maybe designers or whoever else is creating content, they know exactly what the problems are and they’ve had to struggle to communicate it up.

Gretyl Kinsey: But when we’ve had projects that kind of come the other way where they maybe are starting from the C-level position or just anyone in upper management then when you get to the stage of putting new tools in place and training, sometimes that communication gets left out and then you end up with really, really confused and frustrated employees.

Bill Swallow: Very true and there are also some pitfalls, starting from the other direction: from the employee level up. If employees are either taking it upon themselves or are charted to come up with a new strategy, whether it be for content or anything else, really, what we’re talking about here, yes, we’re talking in the terms of content strategy, but this really applies to any change that’s happening within a company.

Bill Swallow: If it’s happening from the employee-level up, there are lots of other issues, such as … the employees that are running with it might understand what problems need to be fixed, but they may only understand the problems within their immediate domain, so there may be other groups that could be affected by what they’re doing, that need to be involved.

Bill Swallow: These employees who are running with it may not know that. There are lots of other issues. It’s not to say that one approach is better than the other. Whether you’re planning your strategy and your implementation from a higher level down or an employee level up, they all have their own pitfalls. Neither one is better than the other.

Gretyl Kinsey: Right. And your point about not thinking about people in other groups or in other pieces of the organization actually brings up another example, which is whenever a change is coming from one department and they kind of roll out these changes without thinking about how it’s going to affect the work being done in other departments. This actually also relates to a recent pitfalls podcast we did about the idea of silos and this is something that I’ve seen happen before where you’ve got departments that are in these very separate silos but maybe a content strategy comes about that uncovers some sort of need for them to interact more.

Gretyl Kinsey: Or maybe they already are interacting and they don’t have a problem so much with silos but one of them suddenly just decides, we need this new system or this new tool. They don’t communicate about it with the other groups first, they just roll it out and then everyone else has to kind of scramble and re-work and fit into this new thing the one department has done.

Gretyl Kinsey: Instead of having a strategy upfront that kind of took into account how this is going to affect everything across all departments, then what they’re doing is sort of making things fit, which may not always work.

Bill Swallow: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it might be the most brilliant strategy ever for that one department, but it could be the absolute worst idea to embrace ever from another department’s point of view or from their very real workflow knowledge.

Bill Swallow: It might be that they need to share content between the two and this one group developed an amazing, fantastic way of managing and developing and deploying their content that the other group simply cannot leverage based on what they’re doing and the technology and the workflows they have in place.

Bill Swallow: In which case, that strategy is essentially broken.

Gretyl Kinsey: Right, and I’ve seen this happen. It happens a lot of times when people are too early to pick tools and that’s a common problem we’ve seen overall with content strategy, but some of the examples I’ve seen are … for example, maybe the tech-comm department goes ahead, picks out a new CCMS and they don’t talk to marketing first and say, “Could you maybe share in this,” or “is there some need for you to kind of have content in a shared repository with us?”

Gretyl Kinsey: And then once that new CCMS is in place, that becomes a lot more difficult or maybe impossible. Another example might be a training department putting in place a new learning management system without consulting with the other groups first that may need to either extract or contribute content from their department to training and vice versa.

Bill Swallow: The issues with change management from silo to silo really doesn’t limit itself to a single company, either. You may have these problems during some kind of a merger/acquisition with another company. It may be that you have all your ducks in a rock and that company may have their ducks in a row but these ducks are in two completely different rows moving into completely different directions.

Bill Swallow: And it may be that in these companies, in both companies, you have a case where you have a bunch of silos in both that are each moving in their own direction and that just complicates the issue even further. But there are some very specific issues with dealing with mergers and acquisitions.

Bill Swallow: Even when you set aside content strategy, even when you set aside tools, implementations and other things, there’s the simple yet not simple problem of who’s going to own what from which side of the company? And in some cases, and I hate to say it, but there’s a very strong perception of one company’s going to win, one company’s going to lose, and who are going to be the winners, who are going to be the losers, and how is that going to impact the relationship that they’re going to have to have moving forward?

Gretyl Kinsey: Right, when it comes to something like a merger or an acquisition, there’s a whole other level of change management that has to happen because if you’ve got a content strategy that originates in one of the companies, and then needs to be branched out to kind of encompass the other ones, you’ve got the change management problem of rolling out that strategy, one.

Gretyl Kinsey: And then two, you’ve also got this change management of figuring out how these organizations are going to come together and work together. And often what happens is that these issues sort of coalesce at the same time, which is really, really stressful and challenging for all employees and managers and everyone involved, but a lot of times, what you’ll see happening is you’ll have some kind of merger or acquisition and then that will spark a need for some kind of content strategy where they figure out, how are we going to unify our brand? How are we going to unify our messaging and our content production under this new, single company name and company brand?

Gretyl Kinsey: It requires a very careful approach to change management when you’re dealing with something like mergers and acquisitions.

Bill Swallow: Very true, and it could even come down to technological stacks as well, where you have two different IT groups who need to consolidate, and not only do they need to worry about, “Oh gee do we,” one company’s running on a cloud-based system for all their email and file sharing and the other company is running on Exchange and SharePoint and other installed networks and then there’s the problem of being able to combine tools, this company’s using Frame Maker.

Bill Swallow: This company over here is using some flavor of XML. The Frame Maker’s all unstructured. They need to start sharing content. What do they do at that point? There are a lot of factors there and it’s not just easy to say, “Oh, well, we’ll just have people go to XML because that’s the stronger source.” Because then you start bending noses on the other side, where these people who are using Frame Maker might be very happy doing that and they might be very productive doing that and their documentation might be excellent.

Bill Swallow: You can rub people the wrong way, just by sending a mandate down, saying “Hey, your stuff is great, but unfortunately, you have to change everything.”

Gretyl Kinsey: Right, and that’s really … that’s something that I’ve personally seen happen with some of the clients I worked with where you’ve got a merger that happens and when one group or one of the kind of original organizations wins over the other one, there definitely can be some resistance and resentment that happens, and that entirely slows down content production. That’s the kind of thing that when you are facing a merger or an acquisition, it’s really great to think upfront about what all are the consequences of rolling out some kind of content strategy and especially deciding that one company is going to be the one to rule them all, so to speak.

Bill Swallow: Right, and we’ve used the terms winning and losing and control and all these other things, but it’s not about who wins the game. Yeah. It goes back to Little League and to t-ball, where it’s how you play the game.

Bill Swallow: It’s about sportsmanship. Really. It’s about being able to come together, make sure that you have some kind of successful outcome and that all parties are happy walking away.

Gretyl Kinsey: Exactly. And there’s a particular challenge as well with mergers and acquisitions I’ve seen, which is if that happens and the different companies are geographically distributed, there can also be a whole other level of change management that has to be taken into consideration because you can’t just maybe go over to … have all these companies now in one location or in one building and go face-to-face easily and kind of address these issues.

Gretyl Kinsey: It’s something that you have to be able to maybe deal with across miles, across countries, and across language barriers.

Bill Swallow: Very true. A single on-site visits or a single all-hands visit to a single location is not going to solve that. There needs to be open communication channels throughout, whether it be phone calls, email, text messages, Skype meetings, Slack channels, you name it. That conversation needs to be happening non-stop.

Gretyl Kinsey: Something that’s similar but kind of has its own set of different challenges to mergers and acquisitions is the idea of company growth or expansion or departmental reorganization. Maybe you’re not acquiring other companies but you are growing and changing, perhaps very rapidly and you need to maybe have some kind of mergers of different departments within your organization. Maybe you need to re-think your management structure and find some way to help make sure that you can scale up your processes to deal with growth.

Gretyl Kinsey: That’s another area where change management becomes really, really important because when you are rolling out some kind of content strategy and when you are putting these changes in place, if you’re already dealing with re-organization, just within the company itself and then also you’ve got these new tools and technologies that you’re learning, that can get really overwhelming for employees.

Bill Swallow: It can. And it’s really important at that point to map out all of these changes and make sure, again, everyone’s aware of what’s happening, what the new responsibilities are, how things are shifting, what new tools are coming into play, what old tools are being phased out, why that’s happening.

Bill Swallow: You know, it’s very important to get people on the same page. I wrote a blog post about this a couple weeks ago but there’s human nature to deal with and any kind of reorg, any kind of acquisition, any kind of major departmental change that is outside of the scope of just the tools and the methodology of putting things together, it could really impact people.

Bill Swallow: Some positively, they can see it as an opportunity. And others can take it very negatively. They may not like change. They may have a very specific way of doing things that works really well for them. And you’re asking them to step out of a comfort zone that’s been proven to work. That’s a very difficult change to make and you gotta make sure that the conversations are going and that you understand where they’re coming from and they understand where you’re coming from in order to make this work.

Gretyl Kinsey: Right, I’ve actually had a manager that I’ve worked with on a project say I’ve had to play counselor to my employees as well as be their management whenever we’ve gone through departmental reorganization, because people wonder what’s going to happen to their jobs, there’s not always stability and certainty there.

Gretyl Kinsey: And people wonder what’s going to happen to the nature of their jobs if they do get to keep them and whether their kind of day-to-day work life is going to involve what they’re used to or is just going to be completely upheaved. That’s something to really think about if you are implementing a content strategy but also having some kind of reorganization at your company going on at the same time.

Gretyl Kinsey: That kind of brings me to another example I’ve seen of a change management issue, which is not accounting enough for training and not thinking enough about the learning curve, especially when you’ve got a situation with non-technical people being expected to learn and deal with a lot of new tools and technologies as part of a content strategy, so one example that kind of touches on something you mentioned earlier, Bill, is when you’ve got people who are accustomed to an unstructured workflow and then they suddenly are being told that they need to move to structure.

Gretyl Kinsey: And there’s not … maybe their managers don’t put in any budget for training or certainly just not enough, and then they’re left to kind of fend for themselves and feel very behind and wonder how they’re ever going to keep up with this.

Bill Swallow: Right, but “how hard could it possibly be?”

Bill Swallow: Yeah, I’ve heard that many times, where “it’s just a tool. You’ll get used to it.” Or “it’s just writing.” You’ll just find another way to get it done. And I can probably see a bunch of heads nodding because I’m sure other people have heard this as well, but it’s not easy to shift. And yeah, you might be completely proficient.

Bill Swallow: You might be the world’s best technical writer working one specific way, but when you’re asked to completely remove yourself from that comfortable zone you’re in and start using new tools, start using new workflows, producing different types of content that are going to be delivered to different types of audiences, suddenly that can be a very uncomfortable environment. You really need to account for this with training and make sure that people have the tools knowledge they need to be able to migrate from working with one set of tools to working with another. To have workflow based training. To understand what different groups are involved or what different stages in the content development cycle now exist and how that needs to happen, so that they have that full understanding.

Gretyl Kinsey: And it’s also not just about the tools when it comes to training. A lot of times, it’s about a shift in mindset, especially if you are going from something like an unstructured to a structured workflow or you’re going to a workflow where you’re sharing content with other departments that you haven’t before. You have to think in a whole different way about how you’re creating content, how you are distributing it. How you’re sharing it then you have before.

Gretyl Kinsey: That is not something trivial and it’s not something simple and it’s not just a matter of saying, “Oh, well, it’s a tool and tools can be learned.” There’s a whole shift in thinking that oftentimes has to happen. And training can really kind of help move that along and keep people from feeling too overwhelmed or thinking that the learning curve is insurmountable.

Gretyl Kinsey: So when it comes to a content strategy, how should change management be addressed or be built into it?

Bill Swallow: Well, content strategy really needs to involve many things and it includes an overall plan and … to put it loosely, architecture diagram that is beyond technical-based architecture. You have different types of workflows in play. You have different types of departments in play. You have different end goals, potentially.

Bill Swallow: You have variants of audiences. All of these things can change. The first step is really to get all of this down on paper or in electronic documents and get them out to affected people and make sure everyone’s on the same page. This is the problem. These are the things that are going to change to address this problem. Does this make sense? And make sure that all of the affected groups have a chance to look at this before you start implementing anything and say, “I think this could work.” Because that’s about as close as you’re going to get at the very beginning before you start diving into details, but if you have agreement from everyone that yes, change is necessary and yes, this approach looks feasible, then you’re good to start going.

Bill Swallow: But once you do get going, it comes down … and we’ve talked about this already, it comes down to clear and open communication and it comes down to proper training. Regardless of all the troubles with implementing new systems, migrating content from one format to another, creating new outputs, all that fun stuff that eventually will need to happen, it all comes down to communication and training, making sure that people have the knowledge to move forward and make sure that they all understand why you’re moving forward and what moving forward really means.

Gretyl Kinsey: And that makes all the difference between a content strategy that seems like a good idea versus a content strategy that’s actually going to work. Taking that little bit of time upfront to make sure everyone’s on the same page, and then, all throughout the process to communicate thoroughly about what’s happening so that there are no surprises and to build in the proper time and budget for training can really make a different in the success of your content strategy.

Bill Swallow: Yes. And being able to monitor that throughout the entire process and make changes where needed.

Gretyl Kinsey: And one thing that may also help, and you know, of course, we’re going to mention this as consultants, is getting some outside perspective.

Bill Swallow: Yeah, and if you’ve listened to any of our prior podcasts, Sarah’s brought this up. I think Alan has brought this up. It’s very common for companies to want that third-party perspective basically as a sanity check, or as a way of getting the right ears to hear the message. So a lot of times, especially if you’re a single department that’s looking to make a broader change, it’s very difficult to get the right ears to hear the right message coming from an internal source. And for some reason, it works for companies to hire a third-party to come in and do their analysis and basically say the same exact thing that you were going to say, only that voice will actually be heard, because that person is being paid to deliver that message.

Gretyl Kinsey: Having that third-party perspective can also make sure that you are not leaving out any aspects of change management that you might have overlooked when you’re coming up with your strategy. I know I’ve seen some companies just really not think about it when they have this idea for a new content process, they don’t really think any further ahead than that. And then when we come in and we kind of help them refine their strategy and figure out how they’re going to approach it, we can also help make sure they realize here are some areas where you might face some tension, some learning curve, some other issues and where you’re really going to have to think about change management proactively.

Gretyl Kinsey: I think that about wraps up everything that we have time to discuss with regard to change management today, so thank you so much, Bill, for joining me.

Bill Swallow: Oh, thanks.

Gretyl Kinsey: And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.