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October 5, 2020

Document ownership in your content development workflows (podcast)

In episode 81 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Alan Pringle discuss document ownership and the role it plays in content development workflows and governance.

“You’ve got to quit the focus on the tools. The tools are not going to solve mindset problems. Those are two distinct different things. You’re talking about technology, and you’re talking about culture. Culture is a lot harder to change.”

—Alan Pringle

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GK:                   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 this episode, we talk about document ownership and the role it plays in content development workflows and governance.

GK:                   Hello, and Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast. I’m Gretyl Kinsey.

AP:                   And I am Alan Pringle.

GK:                   I want to start off this discussion about document ownership with just asking a very basic question. What is it? What is document ownership?

AP:                   Document ownership means answering the question, who is responsible for the creation of this content, for the review of this content, approval of it, any other things that you do around content? So who is responsible for basically the parts of that life cycle?

GK:                   Absolutely. I think it’s important to point out too, that those responsibilities for all those different aspects of the content and that development workflow are different from one organization to the next, and it depends on things like the size of your content team, the resources that you have available, the kinds of content you’re creating. We’ve seen some organizations where there’s just a really small team in charge of creating content, and so you might have one person who kind of owns the entire document life cycle from its creation all the way to its approval and release, and then in other cases, things are a little more segmented. You might have some folks who are in charge of writing, some who are in charge of editing, some who give the final approval. So, it really kind of depends on the organization, but there is a tendency, I think, for there to be some kind of an ownership model in place so that all those responsibilities are laid out and everyone knows what has to happen to get that content out the door.

AP:                   There’s another kind of side angle to this, another kind of ownership, and what happens if your company is acquired? What happens if there is a merger? Then you’ve got these two corporate cultures and what they perceive as the correct document ownership process. Then you’ve got to figure out how to integrate those two together, so it’s like ownership on top of ownership and that can be quite the challenge.

GK:                   Oh yes, absolutely. I want to talk a little bit about that challenge and how it kind of feeds into some other challenges that we see a lot around document ownership. One, of course, is just how document ownership differs when you look at an unstructured versus a structured content workflow. When you’ve got an unstructured workflow, then I think we more frequently see cases where documents tend to truly be owned by a specific person, a specific group, someone who’s responsible for the document from end to end, whereas in a structured workflow, since the content is more modular and you tend to have things like components or topics, the content is broken up into smaller chunks. Then, the ownership is not necessarily of an entire published document, but over the kind of pieces and parts that go into that document. So, when you’ve got a workflow where you can mix and match and reuse topics and your final published documents have more flexibility, then that changes the way you have to think about ownership.

AP:                   Right. It really has to. What you’re talking about is basically more of a printed book model, where you’ve got one monolithic thing at the end and it made sense. Okay, I’m going to own this or this author is going to own this, but when you were starting to take a more modular route and a bunch of pieces and parts are coming together to create a document, a deliverable, a book, a help set, whatever it is, it does require a really kind of big flip in your mentality about ownership.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely, and so you kind of think about how are we going to approach ownership in a structured workflow? Instead of it being based on documents themselves, it might be something like a particular subject matter or a product line. A person or a group might own one product family or product suite instead of an individual document, and you may also have people in charge of whatever subject matter that they are experts in. So you may have some folks over here who are in charge of, let’s say engineering, and you may have a set of folks over here who are in charge of something else. So, you’ve got these different, more subject-based types of ownership roles than looking at really just who owns a document from its inception to its publication.

AP:                   This in some ways parallels the agile software development, that whole change in mindset from the more waterfall development to agile development. I’m not going to get into that because I know it can be contentious and people use those words a little more differently, but the same idea is still there, breaking things down into smaller parts. I think that very much applies to what you’re talking about here.

GK:                   Absolutely, and then you have to think about a few other things that are more on the management and workflow and governance side as well. So, instead of just saying who’s responsible for a document or who’s responsible for a subject within a document, you have to think about things like reuse and linking strategy, taxonomy and metadata personalization requirements, all of those sorts of things. It’s really important to have some sort of an ownership model for those aspects as well, because if you are just thinking about it from more of a document point of view, then those aspects that reach across documents won’t have any sort of person in charge of them or group in charge of them, so that’s something that you have to consider for your ownership model if you were in a structured workflow.

AP:                   Another aspect of this too, sometimes you can take ownership possibly a little too far and try to recreate a wheel if you’re inside a company, and, for example, you have a strong web presence marketing group. I’m going to assume there is some kind of taxonomy in place in regard to products, possibly how they’re organized on the website, things like that. So, there is some kind of hierarchy there to describe your products, your services. If you were writing for another department, for example, let’s just say the product documentation team, the product content people, you need to get that existing taxonomy and then add your two cents to it. Don’t redo the whole thing. So yes, you need to get your part in there, but don’t assume that ownership of that means it is yours. This could be more of a company enterprise level thing, and you need to bolt your part onto that.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely. I think this really gets into the idea of how working with structured content actually opens doors to scaling up and addressing content across your entire organization, really getting it in at that enterprise level and making things consistent across the entire organization. So it is really important not to have this kind of siloed or segmented ownership, regardless of whether it’s at the document level or at some other kind of organizational level. It’s really important to think about, “Okay, we’re in structure, so obviously this model of a document-based ownership isn’t going to work. So how do we take our ownership across the organization, collaborate with other departments, use what they’ve already done and they can use what you’ve already done?” That way, it eliminates a lot of wasting time, as you said, reinventing the wheel.

AP:                   Yeah, and something you just said, talking about silos there, it just occurred to me. When you own an entire book, and yes, I know that’s kind of 20th century, but I’m going to use that word anyways, when you own a book, if you think about it, that is a silo right there on its own in a lot of cases.

GK:                   Absolutely.

AP:                   So it’s basically breaking that book up into pieces and parts, and there’s a parallel there to what you were just talking about, more of an enterprise approach to thing. Yes, there is organization, there is a method to the madness, but when you get down to it, it is a bunch of pieces and parts that are shared, and that’s the bottom line from my point of view.

GK:                   Yes, absolutely. It’s about that modularity, that granularity, and having those flexible and shareable pieces. That kind of brings me to the next question I want to ask, which is about the shift in mindset. So we talked about how it really is a very different mentality between the way that you would own documents versus own these modules or parts. So, when a company shifts from an unstructured to a structured content development workflow, how can they make that transition easier with that document ownership mindset?

AP:                   Well, first thing, you’ve got to quit the focus on the tools. The tools are not going to solve mindset problems. Those are two distinct different things. You’re talking about technology, and you’re talking about culture, and guess what? Culture is a lot harder to change.

GK:                   Yes.

AP:                   You can train someone how to use a tool proficiently. That is not the problem. It is getting them to buy in to using that tool that is the huge problem. So you have to realize, merely buying the tool, that is not going to solve your problem. You have to address culture and change management through good communication training. I sound like a broken record. I think I’ve spoken about this a zillion times on this podcast, so I’m not going to dig into that again, but basically culture, culture, culture. That is very important. The tools are not going to take care of that for you.

GK:                   Right, and I want to reiterate, training is important, but it is only one piece of it. As Alan said, it’s about thinking about that culture and not just providing the baseline training, but the true support that people need to make that shift and to understand it is going to be a major change in the way they work. It’s going to be a major change in the way they think, and so it’s really important, I think, to really show them the value of what moving to structure is going to buy them. So, as a content creator, it might do things like eliminate a lot of manual processes and inefficiencies and it might help things be more accurate, so it’s really important to show them that and help them understand, even though, yes, I know this is a big change, here’s what you’re going to get out of that change, and make sure that they don’t feel like they’re left behind and just left in the dust. They need to be supported and to be brought along so that that really big mindset shift does not cause problems.

AP:                   There are a few ways you can approach this from a mindset point of view. Number one, people are going to be learning new skills that make them more marketable. Now, if you don’t want to lose your best people, that can be kind of a hard sell, but you are giving people new skills that make them more marketable in the world, in the professional world, and that’s something that is not a bad thing to let people know. When we are making this change, you are getting new skills. So, that’s a great thing too. Once again, we come back to the whole idea of silos. You’ve got silos among departments, you’ve got silos among publications.

AP:                   Well, I think what I’m kind of headed to, you can have a silo of your own brain and experience, thinking, “This is the way things have to be. This is why they are. This is what works for me.” Well, unfortunately, you are a part of a bigger corporation, just like a content module is something that is part of a bigger group of documents, customer experiences, whatever. You were one part in this, and you’ve got to figure out basically how what you’re creating fits into the bigger picture, this giant puzzle.

GK:                   Yeah, absolutely.

AP:                   So, it’s a huge, huge shift in how you think, and it can be very daunting. I am not going to say it is an easy thing, because it absolutely is not easy for the authors, the content creators, the reviewers, and it is not easy for the people who are trying to manage and wrangle all of the expectations, the cultural shifts, and so on.

GK:                   Yeah, and I think that brings up an important point about content governance and why it’s really important to have that as part of your strategy and to have resources available for that, because that is going to help provide some of that continuity and that support for all the people who are actually creating the content and managing and publishing it. If you’ve got a strategy in place and someone who is dedicated to all of the governance around content, making sure that this shift from unstructured to structured actually goes through and actually works correctly, then that’s really going to, I think, help to smooth things over because as you said, it really is difficult. It’s a big adjustment and it’s important to think about that as part of your strategy and not leave it out and make sure that you do have those resources available for it.

AP:                   Yeah. To me, the most important thing I think I can end with is it is not just about switching tools. It is not. It is about culture and making that shift in mindset, and that is critically important. If you don’t take care of that, you have just flushed away thousands or millions of dollars. It is that simple.

GK:                   Absolutely. So one other question I want to ask based on this too, is that I think we’ve seen several instances of this happen, where you’ve got this mind shift happening, people are struggling to adjust, and one of the excuses that sometimes gets brought forward is we don’t actually own the documents, the customers do. That’s something I think that people put out there as an excuse not to change, and so I want to ask how you should approach that kind of situation when things are being deflected off onto the customers as the document owners.

AP:                   The customer’s experience is very important. You know, that is true. However, they are one stakeholder in this content experience. They are not the only ones who have a say in this. At the end of the day, while your customers are buying from your company, they are not the one directly paying your salary and I think it would behoove people to think about that. Yes, you advocate for your customers and do right by them, but you realize they’re not the only people who are involved in a change like this.

GK:                   Absolutely, and I think it’s also important to consider when you say that the customers are the ones who own your content, is the content actually serving them? Because in a lot of cases, too, one of the reasons companies move to a structured workflow is because customers are having trouble finding the content they need at the time they need it. So, if you really are truly concerned about your customers using that content and owning, it in a sense, then your first priority should be to think about, “How do I need to make the content findable, usable, and really serve the customer’s needs?” At the end of the day, the customer, even if they own the content, in a way, they don’t own the processes. That’s on you and your organization. So it’s really important to think about the bigger picture, again and in that sense, and ask yourself, “Am I really trying to serve the customer or am I just using this as a front to avoid change?”

AP:                   Absolutely. Is it real or is it deflection? That’s a great question to ask yourself.

GK:                   So I think really the main point we want to make about all of this when it comes to document ownership is again, as we’ve said, it is about that mindset, and when you change your processes, it’s really important to be adaptable and to understand that the way you may have owned a document in the past may not always work and it’s just really important to be flexible and to understand, document ownership can mean a lot of different things. Content ownership can mean a lot of different things, and what’s really most important at the end of the day is what kind of ownership model is going to be the most efficient and most effective for the company.

AP:                   To me, that’s the most important thing that you’ve said toward the end, for the company, not for you, yourself, not for just your department, but for the company.

GK:                   Yes, and I think that’s a good place to wrap things up. So, thank you so much, Alan.

AP:                   Thank you.

GK:                   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.