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 32 we discuss risk management as part of our occasional series on content strategy pitfalls. What are the risks involved when putting a new content strategy in place, and what can you do to minimize them?
Gretyl Kinsey: Hello, and welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast. I’m Gretyl Kinsey.
Jake Campbell: And I’m Jake Campbell.
GK: Today we’re going to be talking about risk management and all of the things that can go very right or very wrong in your content strategy depending on how you choose to address risk and handle it. Let’s get started by just talking about some of the common risks that you might run into when it comes to changing up your content processes. Right off the bat, the first one I can think of is financial risk.
JC: Right. Whenever you’re changing processes or moving to a new system, there’s always that up-front cost of moving into that system, transitioning everything over, and getting everybody trained up on the new process or system.
GK: One, of course, obvious way to offset this risk, or help make sure it doesn’t become a problem, is to start with an analysis of your content problems that includes a business case. That way you may find yourself avoiding a lot of nasty surprises about costs that you incur along the way as you upgrade your systems, upgrade your tools, and get things going into a new process. We’ve actually done that with pretty much all of our clients when they come to us for the kind of upfront content strategy analysis.
GK: We always include a business case and we use our expertise to help say, “This is realistically what kinds of costs that you’re going to be looking at if you move to this new process, and not only what kinds of costs you’re going to be looking at, but what kinds of return on investment you’re going to get.” Seeing those numbers kind of helps reduce the risk of making a financial decision that might not go in the direction your organization wanted it to go.
JC: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s also a good idea to go ahead and take a look at the financial impact, because it might cost a fair amount of money to get into a new system, but also you need to take a look at the cost to stay in the system you’re currently in. You might be trading an upfront cost for a sustained cost in the long run.
GK: Exactly. Another risk that we see, that this one’s not the hard and fast numbers, but is something that can be a really big roadblock to a new system or new project, is change resistance. That is a really common risk, and we actually have another pitfalls podcast that focuses just on this problem and on change management, so we can link to that in the show notes.
GK: When it comes to resistance to change, that is such a huge risk, because people do get used to what they’re doing. They grow really accustomed to their jobs working a certain way, and there’s a fair amount of security there. So, when you make changes, it kind of disrupts that, and you run the risk of having people being very resistant to that sometimes.
JC: Yeah. The thing that makes this really kind of insidious when you compare it to, like, a hard numbers kind of thing is that this isn’t something that you can just analyze and find a solution for. This is an organizational thing. You need to figure out who the people resisting it are and why they’re resisting it and try to address that. That’s a lot more difficult to try and get a handle on than just running up a spreadsheet, taking a look at the numbers, and doing cost-benefit analysis.
GK: Yeah. This is something where you’re going to have to go through your organization, look at the people who are going to be impacted and affected by this and exactly how, and really figure out what their concerns are before you start implementing anything new, because we actually have seen several cases where you’ve got maybe one department or one level of management pushing a change, but the actual people who have to work in the new system weren’t really informed about it up front and didn’t get the proper training or proper time to prepare. Then their resistance to that change, in some cases refusal to learn a new tool or to change some of their inefficient processes from before, would kind of railroad and stall out a project that could have gone really well otherwise.
JC: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely, whenever I’ve seen change resistance be a problem on a project, the biggest roadblock has almost always been the kind of people who say, “We’ve always done it this way.”
GK: Yes. If you know that you have people who are going to take that approach, and if they’re already expressing that opinion when you tell them about your plans going forward, then it’s really, really essential to account for that in your content strategy, and budget time and funds for training, and really make a concerted effort to bring those people along and show them how the new system is going to benefit not only the organization, but them specifically, and make them as reassured as possible that it’s not going to be the end of the world for how their working lives go. If you don’t do that, then their approach to things may end up being the end of the world for your project and for your new system.
JC: Right. That’s kind of what the real impact can be, is that if you have this kind of problem going on, there’s a lot of sneaky ways that it can subtly result in either cost increases or just straight-up cost overrun on that project.
GK: Yes. Another thing that we’ve seen is unexpected factors that pop up in a project. This is something like you have maybe assessed some tools that you think are going to work for you, and you’ve chosen one, and then once you start working in that tool, maybe there are some aspects of it that you either didn’t ask about clearly up front when you were assessing it or that they were maybe not completely honest or clear on. There’s also the issue of: You can really get as familiar as possible with a tool in a demo stage; but, when it comes to actually using it with your content (and not just in a preview mode, but in real mode), that learning curve may be steeper than you expected.
GK: There could also be issues like getting funding for a project that you thought was going to be in place, and then maybe a new manager comes in, takes over, and says, “Oh, no, actually we’re not going to earmark this money for this. We’re going to do it for this other thing or for this use at this other time.” There can be all kinds of things that pop up.
GK: There can even be something like … I’ve seen an example of a project where we’ve got different departments working toward the same goal, but not really collaborating with each other. Then, when one department decides to make a change without consulting the others, projects that the other departments are working on get affected. So, any of these kinds of things can pop up and be an unexpected factor that you didn’t plan for when you put your content strategy in place, and there always is the risk of that.
JC: Yeah, nothing ever goes 100% to plan.
GK: Yeah. It’s really one of those things where the best way that you can make sure that doesn’t become an issue is just to know up front that it’s not going to go 100% according to plan and to maybe do things like build in extra time for an implementation so that, if something goes wrong, you’re not under a really strict deadline.
JC: Working with consultants, instead of a flat fee or complete up-front, you might be able to set up milestone billing so that you can plan when your milestones are and know when that financial is coming out so that it looks better on paper.
GK: Right. That’s another point to bring in. Of course, we have a little bit of a biased opinion on this.
JC: A little.
GK: Bringing in an outside consultant can help you identify risks that you might not see clearly on your own. So, when it comes to things like unexpected factors in a project, or another one which is unexpected, changes to an organization, so things like the management thing I mentioned earlier, where you’ve got someone new coming in, or if you do a merger or an acquisition, any unexpected things that might come along, an outside consultant can look at the patterns that your business has gone through before. They can look at what your goals are and where you’re trying to get to, and they can pinpoint, maybe, some risks that you didn’t think about. That can be a good way also to keep those risks in mind up front and then come up with a plan for how you’re going to try to minimize and reduce those as much as possible before you go forward with something.
JC: Yeah, it always pays. I mean, we’ve all written before, and it’s really hard to self-edit after a while, because you’re just too close to it. So, it always is a pretty good option to maybe bring in somebody with a fresh set of eyes to take a look at the situation objectively and to ask what might appear to be easy questions just so that you can take a look at that critically and know what you’re actually doing and why.
GK: Exactly. Here’s a fun question: What happens when you don’t accurately assess your risk going into a project?
JC: Well, just to be glib about it, a whole lot of fun.
GK: Yeah, a whole lot of fun in not a good way. We have definitely seen examples of this, too, where a company will come up with a really good strategy, sometimes even before we even get involved; but, what we end up doing is helping them realize: Here are all the risks that can come along that you didn’t even think about when you put forth all of these goals. It’s definitely one thing to think about: What are your goals, and what are the things that you would like to achieve in the future with your content?
GK: But if you don’t really address all the risks that can come into play, whether that’s that you very much underestimate the possible risk, or you just don’t even think about it at all, which we’ve seen happen, then what you’re going to run into is going into a new system, and really, a lot of things not going the way you expected them to.
JC: Right. Just to bring it to a relatable level, if you don’t keep these kinds of things in mind, it is possible that, if you have a content model that you’ve really thought out and you’ve got implemented, but it maybe isn’t the best, it’s probably going to work okay for you. It may not be able to scale well. It may not be extensible. The worst case scenario is that you wind up doing a lot of special-casing.
JC: Like, say, you have a FrameMaker template set up, structured frame, and your content model is very specific, but it requires a lot of one-off use cases, very special formatting, and things like that. If you let that go on for long enough without going and just wiping everything and starting everything from the ground up with a stronger foundation based on what you want your content model to look like and how you want that to inform your structure, you could wind up with a literal tower of cards, where, if you do not author something in an extremely specific way, everything falls apart.
GK: Yes, and that’s one major risk that you definitely want to avoid.
JC: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sustainability should definitely be one of the cornerstones of the strategy when you’re looking at implementing something new or shifting over to a new system. It’s all well and good if you take a look at a system or a process, and it looks good on the financials; everybody agrees to do it. If you can’t maintain that system in the long run in a way that’s actually efficient, then you really shouldn’t be going in that direction.
GK: Yes, and that applies to things like scalability for localization and expansion of your business as well. You have to make sure that whatever you’re doing, if you eventually start translating it into a whole bunch of different languages for a lot of different locations, that your processes can scale up to support that. You’ve got to think about, also, if your organization rapidly grows, and maybe you’re creating a whole lot more content. Or, if you’ve maybe merged departments so that you’ve got training and tech com sharing content now where they hadn’t before, can the processes that you’ve put in place scale and be sustainable to bring in this new growth? Those are the kinds of things to think about before you get yourself stuck going in one method and in one direction.
GK: What can you do when you’re coming up with a strategy to help mitigate some of these risks? There are actually two different things that I want to talk about. One is the idea of going into a phased implementation of strategy, and the other one is the use of pilot projects and proof of concepts. Let’s just start with phased implementations, and what those are, and why they can be beneficial to you.
JC: A phased approach is when you take an implementation and you break it into discrete chunks, each of which either stands on its own or builds upon what you’ve done previously. What that does is it helps you make sure that you stay on the right track as you go through the implementation and design process and also gives you a little bit of foresight as you go through to be sure that you can see these kind of unexpected roadblocks popping up during the implementation process and that you can account for them. So, it helps you stay on your feet a little bit.
GK: Exactly. We’ve actually seen several clients have a lot of success with this approach, because what it does from the financial risk point of view is it breaks your project up into small chunks, which means it breaks your billing milestones up into small chunks. So, if you’re doing something like going from an unstructured content workflow to a structured content workflow, you may break it up where phase one is content modeling, phase two is conversion, phase three is selection and implementation of the component content management system, and so forth. Of course, these phases are different depending on your organization’s needs.
GK: By taking it into smaller pieces and tackling it that way, instead of just trying to take on everything at once, then what it lets you do is not spend a whole bunch of money at one time on a project that may or may not be as successful as you thought. Remember, nothing ever goes 100% according to plan. So, taking this phased approach is often a really smart way to make sure you can get buy-in from upper management to even get a project off the ground in the first place.
GK: Especially if you are in a smaller organization, or you do have kind of limited funds, or very strict limitations on the use of your funds, and you have maybe time constraints, where you actually do have to dedicate a lot of time to creating content, and you can only carve out a small amount of time for changing your processes, breaking things up into these smaller phases and taking your time with your implementation can really, really help.
JC: Yeah. Something else that a phased approach gets you, is it helps you coordinate different groups. Say that you have different groups within your own organization who are working on a project. Phase one only concerns this first group, so the other groups don’t need to worry about anything, or they need to be kept apprised of what’s going on because of what might affect them in the future and how that can affect their planning.