In episode 58 of the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Elizabeth Patterson and Sarah O’Keefe discuss how to unify content after a merger.
In terms of pushback or in terms of change management, what we have to do is ask, “What does this other team do really well that potentially is going to be asked to change tools? How do you do this well?” And position the change as an opportunity.
— Sarah O’Keefe
Elizabeth Patterson: 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 58, we look at how to unify content after a merger.
EP: Hi, I’m Elizabeth Patterson.
Sarah O’Keefe: And I’m Sarah O’Keefe. Hello.
EP: And we’re going to talk some today about unifying content after a merger. So I think the first question to really get into is, what are some of the biggest content challenges that you commonly see after a company merger?
SO: Well, the biggest challenge in general is always change management. We should probably just start by putting that on the table and saying that overall people hate change, and mergers mean change for everybody, whether you’re the acquiring company or part of the acquiree, but the biggest content challenges that you face after a merger, so you take company A and company B and now we have a new shiny company C, or possibly just company A with company B included. So from a customer point of view, you now have a single company, but if you go and look at a post-merger website, or actually more likely post-merger websites, plural, what you’re going to see is that the content itself is not consistent. It doesn’t present the same unified, merged perspective that the company wants you to see them as, right?
SO: They put out a press release and say, “We’ve now joined together. A and B are now C sharp, and it is awesome.” But then you go to their website and it’s very easy to tell which of the pre-acquisition companies actually created a particular kind of content, so you have a lack of consistency. That means that you’re going to have search problems, you’re going to have delivery problems, you’re going to have terminology problems where the two previous companies are using words to mean different things. The branding’s not unified. The documents look different.
SO: So you have all of those issues, which are all kind of customer facing, outward facing issues, and then on the inside, the big challenges you’re going to have on the inside are two or three or more teams that do things in different ways, so they have different content creation processes, different content approval processes, different production workflow. They might be putting out different formats, and I mean literally. Like, “This group over here does only PDF and this group over here does only HTML,” or they’re both putting out PDF but one team was out of Europe, so their paper’s all A4, and one team is out of the US or North America, so everything they’re doing is US letter.
SO: Setting aside the sort of obvious delivery problems, that now you have all this stuff that just doesn’t quite match up and it makes the merged company look bad, it’s expensive. It’s really expensive to maintain all these different publishing pipelines for what is now a single or what is supposed to be a single team.
EP: Right. And likely if you’re not presenting a unified brand you’re eventually going to start losing customers.
SO: It will not help you with your customers. Yeah. And in many cases, these mergers happen because at a strategic level, the company wants to unify the products or be able to cross-sell the products or be able to expand their geographic reach, and you can’t do those things if you can’t present a unified, cohesive user experience.
EP: When companies merge, they’re bringing different content to the table. So some may be structured, some may be unstructured, there might be large manuals, there might be small tech docs, there might be things broken into topics and things that aren’t. How do you go about actually unifying that content and creating that unified brand across the companies?
SO: Well, it’s an opportunity, right? Because it’s an opportunity to look at where you are, and as an organization or as a now merged organization, and figure out what your best way forward is. In many cases, the bigger company, the acquiring company will simply say to the company they acquired, “You need to fit into our workflow.” And clearly if you have 50 content creators and you bring on another five from a smaller organization, then it makes a lot of sense to just sort of move them into your existing workflow, whatever that may be.
SO: But when you have what’s more of a merger of equals, you know, a team of 15 over here, and a team of 20 over there, and there’s not a clear, “We’re doing things better and you people are doing things badly,” then I think this is a big opportunity, because it’s an opportunity to revisit the entire content workflow and make some decisions about, “What are the best practices going forward? What is each team doing really well? Where can we improve?” And perhaps, “Should we just throw away the whole thing and come up with a new workflow entirely?” It’s also worth noting that after a merger, you may have a team that’s big enough to justify an investment that you could not justify separately. So if I have a team of 10 and you have a team of 10, and we merge, and so now we’re a team of 20, that opens up some possibilities that individually the investment for a team of 10 might have been too big, but for a team of 20 it might be a reasonable approach that we can now choose because we’ve gotten bigger.
SO: So I think what you want to do is take a look at what everybody has. Do the traditional things, do a content audit, do the stakeholder interviews, identify what teams do really well. What are you really proud of? What have you done best? What do you think are the best things that you’ve done with your content? And once you gain some trust, ask the opposite question. What do you do worst? Where do you see the problems? What’s the number one thing you would like to fix? That question usually leads to some really, really interesting answers. Probably don’t want to start there. If I walk into a meeting and introduce myself and start asking, “What is the biggest problem that you see?” You know, let’s have some coffee, and do some icebreakers and some introductions, and talk about the good stuff before we dig into the bad stuff.
SO: But the bad stuff question is far, far more valuable, right? Because if I ask a group of writers, “What do you hate doing?” And they’ll say, we spend hundreds of hours a year redrawing engineering content. You know, “We get engineering drawings, but they’re not in a usable format for what we’re trying to do with our content, and it is just soul sucking, and we want it to go away.” That’s an entry point, not just into, “We can save you a bunch of time and money,” but into, “Let’s look at how we can fix your process to make the soul sucking braindead stuff go away and allow you to focus on the value added writing really good content. Creating really good content, and I say writing, but whether it’s audio or video or text, how do you deliver this information best? So go talk to the people, go look at the existing content, go look at the legacy content, figure out what’s good and what’s bad, and based on all of that, working … And of course this is from our perspective as consultants, but working with the team or the teams, we can then put together recommendations for going forward and some sort of a roadmap that says, “It’s going to take this long. It’s going to cost this money, this much money. These are the kinds of resources that you need.”
EP: Okay. So naturally, digging into all of the content that they have and looking at, “What are you not doing correctly? What are you doing correctly?” All of that’s going to mean that companies are going to have to make some big changes in what they’re doing, and there might be one team that has to make more changes than the other. So how do you avoid pushback in that type of scenario?
SO: Well, there’s going to be pushback. I mean, I’m not sure it can be avoided, because as I said at the top, people hate change. Change is painful. And stepping back for a second, think about this from a merger point of view, right? You were in a nice little group of like 10 people and you were doing your thing and everything was great. And then along comes this monster company that has like 40 writers, and they say, “Hey, guess what Elizabeth? You are now part of our 40, now 50 person organization, and all that expertise that you’ve built up in tool A, B, and C is totally irrelevant. We don’t use those. Those are kindergarten tools. We’re going to be using these cool new tools. We’ve been using them forever. You have to learn them all. Oh, and by the way, our content is organized differently and approved differently, and basically everything you know is worthless.” So when you put it that way, people tend to push back. I mean, yeah. Structurally what you’re really saying is, “Your expertise coming from the mergee is no longer of value.” Right? “The things you know about this tool are not valued in the new organization because we’re not using that tool.”
SO: In terms of pushback or in terms of change management, what we have to do is we have to look at, “What does this other team do really well that potentially is going to be asked to change tools? How do you do this well?” And position the change as an opportunity. So instead of saying, “Your expertise is now worthless,” it’s, “Hey, you’re going to have the opportunity to learn some new tools, and these are cutting edge, industry leading, et cetera, et cetera, and they’re going to make you more valuable. Your career, your resume is helped by learning this new stuff.” I mean, just as a general rule, learning a new tool is a good thing. It increases your skill set and all the rest of it. So instead of, “Change is bad and scary,” it’s, “You have an opportunity to learn some new stuff.”
SO: And I have told people, especially on, again, the mergee side, “Look, just give it a chance. Try this tool, learn this tool, shift into the new workflow, kind of give it a shot, see how it goes. If you hate it,” and with mergers and acquisitions, very often there’s a lot of, “We hate this. We don’t want to do it,” and a lot of stress. Well, if you hate it, that’s fine. You can eventually go and change jobs. I mean, you’re not going to win, right? I mean, the acquisition has happened. You can’t stop it, so take this opportunity to learn the new tool, and if you find that you don’t want to work in this new environment, at least you have a new tool when you then decide, “I’m out of here. I’m going elsewhere.”
SO: But I think that’s really the key, is to identify the things that we need to take from each organization as we merge them together. Try to avoid simply saying, “Hey, you people, you will now be subsumed into Big Mega Corp,” and identify some things. Sometimes those smaller teams are doing a much better job than the bigger teams. I’ve certainly seen cases where the smaller team was pretty cutting edge, and their approach, their technology stack, their way of doing things actually won out over the bigger company or the bigger team. Now, we are not yet today in a world where these kinds of mergers are driven by how the content teams are producing their content, but there is an opportunity there to look at the smaller team and see what they’re doing and see what we can take out of that.
EP: How does training factor into all of this? Because we’re bringing on teams that have different levels of experience or introducing new tools. Some of them might be familiar with the tool, some of them might not. So how does training play into all of this?
SO: One of the things to keep in mind is that when there is a merger, we focus on training in the content stack, but when there is a merger, it’s actually quite common to have a lot of training. For example, something like a new HR system, or, “Oh, everybody has to attend this mandatory training that we’ve always done in the big company, but the small company or the smaller company never did it.” So we can’t just look at training in a vacuum, because it’s really quite likely that the people that we need to train on content related things have actually been through piles and piles and piles of mandatory training due to their acquisition. So I think it’s important to start there and recognize that that’s happening.
SO: One of the worst training experiences I had in my life as a trainer was when I showed up and I just had this really cranky group of people and I couldn’t figure out why they were so mad. They were just bitter and annoyed, and they weren’t quite pelting me with tomatoes, but they were just really, really sketchy. And I hadn’t been there long enough for them to get mad at me, so eventually I figured out it wasn’t me, and eventually, eventually eventually, I got out of them that they had been required to travel to go to training, for … It was like three of the past four weeks. So I was week three of mandatory training, and they had just had it. They were away from home. These were people that didn’t typically travel a lot, and they had been put on this three weeks of, “Just go to the mothership and get trained and assimilated.” They weren’t mad at me, but they were really mad.
EP: That’s a pretty big commitment there.
SO: Yeah. And it was unreasonable. They should’ve spread it out. The company should’ve spread it out better and not landed in the situation where they were so mad they weren’t going to hear a word I said. So we got past that eventually, but that’s one thing to keep in mind, is there are going to be a lot of training demands. So really pay attention to, “Are we making people travel more than they’re comfortable with? Are we stacking up training? Can we minimize it? Can we do video online instead of making people travel?” All those kinds of things.
SO: Okay. Outside of that, when we start thinking about training, we have to look at, well, as a content creator, what level of expertise … What’s your skills gap? If we change systems, then what do you not know yet? What do you need to know? If you look at moving somebody out of a book based, PDF based content world, then you’re going to have to teach them not just things like tagging, how to do reuse, how to work in a content management system. But probably you’re going to have to start at the beginning, which is, “What is topic based authoring, and why should you care?” So we have to kind of look at who’s in the organization, in the group that’s going to change systems potentially, and how much do they need to know about those systems? Like, what level do we need to get them to, and what level are they currently at? And then figure out how to bring them up to the level they need potentially over time.
SO: We don’t have to do it all in three days of training. We can do a lot. We have a lot of flexibility. You can do self study, you can do online, you can do classroom-based. At the end of the day, classroom-based training with a really good trainer is more effective than any other approach that is out there. And it’s expensive, right? I mean, A, you have to bring in the trainer. B, you probably have to bring in some of the trainees. So you have travel costs, which are hugely expensive. You have to have a training room. Many companies have one. Some don’t. But there is, especially after a merger, there’s great value in putting all the people, the newly potentially unified team, right? They’re supposed to be unified, but they might not be. Putting all of those people in a room together and having them do training together and kind of get to know each other, and maybe they go out to dinner that night or they socialize a little bit at lunch. There is enormous value to doing that, and it needs to be factored in when you think about training. So when we look at classroom training and say, “Oh, that is going to be so, so expensive,” absolutely true. Consider the value that classroom training brings you.
SO: Now, I say that. At the same time, given the globally distributed teams that we have now, there are things you can do with online training that you may not be able to do with classroom training. Some people cannot travel for a variety of reasons. It could be medical issues of their own. It could be that they have caregiving responsibilities and they can’t pick up and fly halfway around the world. It could be that they are working in another country, and bringing them into the country where you want to have the training could be problematic. You might not be able to get a visa on time, that type of thing. Oh, and it’s easier to record online training. Certainly you can record classroom training, but it tends to be kind of suboptimal.
SO: So live instructor led training online mitigates some of the travel issues. It’s still live, so you have questions and answers and that kind of thing. And then as you kind of move down the pipe to, let’s say, e-learning and asynchronous e-learning, those kinds of things, that’s where you have an opportunity to just simply record the training and have people do self study on their own time, which then addresses some of the time zone issues and things like that. So that was a long winded way of saying there are lots of different ways of doing training, and not any single one of them is going to solve every problem.
EP: Right. So you could pick and choose, I guess, the situations in which, “Okay, this might be more effective for classroom based training, and then we can have additional training offered online to offer that flexibility.”
SO: Yup, exactly. So I think there’s a place for all of them. We very often encourage people to do some self study for the introductory levels. If we’re talking about DITA training, then of course we have learningdita.com, and they can kind of work through that, and then the classroom training or the live instructor led training, we focus on the specific implementation that that customer has. So your specific content model, your specific tools, your specific content workflows. And I think there’s a lot of value in doing training that’s not just, “Hey, this is topic based authoring,” but in fact, “Here’s how you are going to work in your environment, in your organization.”
EP: Well, we’ve talked about content challenges after a company merger, and what unifying that content will look like, and then the training that follows that. What makes all of this worth it?
SO: Well, there are certainly companies that have not done this. There are companies that infamously merge a bunch of subsidiaries and then just let them do their thing, and they actually don’t unify them. But more often they do want to unify, and what makes it worth it is that the organization, the organization that’s doing the roll up or that’s doing the merger has a strategic vision for the merger. “We want to combine these companies because we will move forward and we will be stronger together as this unified company.” Therefore, if that’s your goal, then you need a unified customer experience, right? You need people to come to your acquired company website and feel as though they are looking at a single entity. So there’s a unified customer experience that you need. People expect you to speak with a single voice and not have this obvious, “Well, that clearly came from the old company, because it doesn’t look like anything like what the new company produces.” So that’s one thing, so that’s the customer experience angle.
SO: There’s a cost angle. There’s cost associated with managing, maintaining, licensing a content production process. The technology that goes into it, the processes, just the general sort of maintenance of that workflow. As a general rule, it would be cheaper to have one workflow for everybody than it is to have two workflows or three or 17.
EP: Of course.
SO: You’d be surprised. And then if you want your content creators to collaborate, work together, cross over their skill sets, work on each other’s documents, those kinds of things, then you need some cohesion. You need the team to kind of come together as a unified team. And this process will achieve that, right? Because if you get to a unified content process, you can typically get to a unified content team.
SO: Now, I will say that the people are always, always, always the most difficult part of this process. Always. Technology is easy, people are hard, and mergers in particular, or actually acquisitions, they can be hard. When you put together two groups of 25 and then management from on high says, “Well, we know that you’re going to be more efficient as a bigger group, so get rid of 5% or 10% of your people,” and that inarguably happens. I mean, it just does. So people are very wary of mergers or acquisitions, and you can’t really blame them, but we need to work on that team cohesion and getting everybody sort of on the same page working together, and not, “Oh, I’m from the old group and you’re from the new group, and we don’t like each other much.”
SO: I have seen cases where that has failed, in that there was no team cohesion, so you have two groups operating under the same umbrella. Structurally, they look as though they should be one team, but in fact they are two teams and they don’t talk to each other, and it is really bad. So as a manager or as a leader, I need to do whatever it takes to bring those teams together eventually. Not in week one, but bring them together, get them all kind of working together, and get them working as a team and not as the sort of company A and company B teams.
EP: Right. Well with that, I think we’re going to go ahead and wrap up. So thank you, Sarah.
SO: Thank you.
EP: And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.