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Optimize learning and training content through content operations (podcast)

In episode 145 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Bill Swallow and Christine Cuellar discuss the impact content operations has on your learning and training content, and how to make the most out of this valuable asset. 

“If the company is looking to implement something within a specific time frame for a very specific business need, and that gets delayed at the beginning when training is being developed, it’s going to snowball down. So, your six-week delay on getting content out the door might turn into a six-month delay on getting the program rolled out.”

— Bill Swallow

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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’re talking about why content operations is really important to think about for your learning and training content.

Hi, I’m Christine Cuellar, and with me today I have Bill Swallow. Hi, Bill!

Bill Swallow: Hey there.

CC: Thanks for joining us.

BS: No problem.

CC: So we’ve been talking a lot more about learning and training content. I know it’s been coming up in a lot of new projects, client conversations, and I’d love to dig more into it and understand just from a really basic perspective, what is learning and training content? What do we mean by that?

BS: I think probably most people are fairly familiar with training content in general, so it’s content that guides you through learning something. But the scope of that is broadening quite a bit, and it’s actually been broad for quite some time. You have everything from instructor-led classes to textbooks to online learning, learning assessments. There’s a myriad of different types of training out there, and increasingly they’re looking for better ways of managing all of that information that they’re constantly churning out for a variety of different audiences.

CC: Okay. When we talk about learning and training, are we talking about the educational space or are we talking about any space that has training?

BS: It really could be anywhere. Educational space is a good one, so certainly institutions of learning, whether it’s be schools, universities, or what have you, but a lot of corporations have a good deal of training content as well, particularly in areas of manufacturing where people really need to be instructed on the correct ways of performing certain operations. Otherwise, it could risk injury or death. And then of course, you have all the regulated industries as well, whether it be in any kind of manufacturing, any kind of development, or even in finance or healthcare or what have you. There are very specific things that people need to do in a very specific way so it’s important for them to have all of this training content so that their people know what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it.

CC: Gotcha. Okay. And then to define what we talk about with content operations, what do we mean by that? Because I know that’s a term really similar to content strategy, you see it in a lot of different industries and a lot of different places. So, what do we mean by content operations?

BS: Down to its essence, content operations is the way that you approach writing, editing, distributing, publishing your content. So it’s the how of what you’re doing. So it really encompasses the entire spectrum of working with content.

CC: Okay. So I know we’ve talked about in previous podcasts that this applies beyond just product and technical content. This applies to learning and training, this applies to marketing. Any content that you’re creating falls under content operations. So what are some of the unique challenges that you have to think about when you’re specifically producing learning and training content versus other kinds of content that we’ve talked a lot about?

BS: The most unique challenge with learning content is getting your arms around the sheer scope of information that’s required.

CC: Really? Okay.

BS: A lot of people don’t understand exactly how much work goes into producing a series of training, whether it be online, instructor-led, self-paced, or what have you. And what we’ve heard from a lot of different companies is that there needs to be a more efficient way of managing that process so that people aren’t writing the same thing five, six, seven, eight times and just freeing up people to make sure that the content is correct and not making sure that everything is formatted absolutely perfectly for every single place where it needs to go.

Likewise, there’s the case where the training might be provided in multiple different ways. The same exact training could be written down so that someone can read it and understand what they need to do. It could be delivered in an instructor-led class, whether that be in person or online, and it could be as part of an e-learning sequence where people go into a self-paced portal and take the training there. And what we’re seeing is that there’s a lot of manual work to make sure that all of the information is updated in all of those different places. A lot of times it comes down to these tools that they’re using just don’t talk to each other very well so they have to cut and paste or copy paste from one place to another. And then when something gets updated, they have to remember all the different places where they’ve copied and pasted this information.

CC: Yeah. Which is probably not going to happen. I mean, there’s probably something that’s going to get missed, or it just would take a lot longer.

BS: Yeah. Or they need lots of different steps of approval for each piece of content that they’re developing, which also takes time.

CC: Yeah. And like you mentioned earlier, since a lot of the content in these trainings have life-saving information that you need to know how to operate things correctly or do things correctly — when the scales really can be life and death, you want to be sure you have the most accurate information in those trainings, because even if you missed just one spot, I could see how that’s really crucial. And it sounds like having content operations in place to create your learning and training content makes you more scalable because you’d be able to deliver more content faster. It also helps with your delivery time because maybe you wouldn’t have to go through all of those stages of approvals if you have some of the tools taking that burden off of the writers and the managers. Is that accurate to say, do you think?

BS: I’d say it’s fairly accurate.

CC: Okay.

BS: I think what’s more important here is that content operations really is, it’s a mix of different things. It’s a process for how you’re developing your content, it’s having the right tools in place for the right job, and it’s having a very specific workflow at every stage of the content development and delivery procedure. I don’t want to say it’s an assembly line, but it’s more of a complete agreement of what we’re doing and what we’re using to do it with, and making sure that each thing that is being done in the content development and delivery process is done to maximize the amount of benefit that’s being provided. So first and foremost, it’s getting the content correct and making sure that you’re not putting wrong information in there. The other is making sure that you’re not spending time rewriting the same thing that was already written, could be not having to spend hours upon hours fiddling with a particular layout for a particular piece of delivery. And finally, it’s being able to make sure that once the content is ready to go, that it gets to where it needs to go as efficiently as possible.

CC: Yeah. I noticed that you mentioned having the right tools doing the right function is something that we focus on in content operations, and that completely makes sense but I didn’t even think of that before. People have good tools in place but they’re not using them correctly, or they could actually have a better fit that they don’t even realize. Is that a big problem that we encounter a lot?

BS: It’s fairly common. It’s not a horrible problem but it does cause a bit of churn, especially when you’re trying to share content with other people, because one person may be doing one particular thing and another person might be doing something quite different.

An easy way to look at it is developing a Word document, let’s say. One person is handed a template and they follow that template to the letter. They use every single style in there. They tag everything exactly how it’s supposed to be. And the other person just goes in there and writes and formats it and maybe chooses styles here and there based on whether it looks good to them. So they don’t necessarily follow the template. Now, if you want to move content from one document to another or you need to update the template, one document’s going to reformat very well, and the other document is going to require an awful lot of cleanup.

CC: So that leads me into another question, can you walk me through what a typical content project looks like for learning and training content when someone’s looking to get better content ops for their learning and training content? It sounds like that project probably starts once they’re experiencing a lot of pain in the process, so there’s probably a good amount of learning and training content that’s already been created and I’m assuming has to be moved over. Can you walk me through that timeline and what people can expect initially and how the project proceeds?

BS: Sure. And you’re right, the projects usually begin with someone identifying a very big problem that isn’t being solved with immediate fixes. So they’ve tried a few things, they’ve made some slight improvements, but they’re still seeing that a lot more needs to be done, and they may or may not know what needs to happen to make those changes that they need to see. So a lot of times people will reach out because they are becoming increasingly overwhelmed with the amount of content that they are producing. Other times you’ll see people reach out when they go through some type of a merger and suddenly they have training content coming from two, three, five different organizations that all need to be aligned into one particular brand, one particular focus or what have you. Or they’re just changing up their complete tool set and they’re looking at, “Okay, we have groups A, B, and C using different tools and we want to use a completely different architecture for developing our content. We need help getting our arms around this.” So there are a lot of different reasons, but a lot of it comes down to understanding that they need an efficient way to improve their processes is basically what it comes down to.

CC: Okay. And you mentioned there’s a couple people that often reach out, but it sounds like the people that are experiencing the most pain and not getting that resolved are the ones to reach out. What roles are those people who generally reach out for better content operations or the solution that they aren’t really sure exists?

BS: It does vary. We hear from everyone, from those who are producing content, who understand there’s a problem and they’re poking around for ways to make things better, all the way up to some executive level person or director level person who’s in charge of making things better and needs some help figuring out how they’re going to make this happen.

CC: Yeah. What are some of the things that they may have noticed? I’m sure they’ve heard complaints from their team, but if they’re not actually experiencing the pain day-to-day, what are some of the ways that it gets, I guess, big enough that they start to notice?

BS: I think the big one there is making sure that they are delivering content on time. So if they are constantly behind in rolling out training to various different groups, that’s certainly a problem because, like we talked about earlier, you don’t want to be in a situation where someone doesn’t know how to perform a specific operation and someone gets hurt along the way, especially in those cases. It’s somewhat easy to forgive someone for some amount of data loss or lost time or something like that, but it’s quite a different thing when you’re sending ambulances to the office or to the facility. So we want to make sure that’s not happening.

And also, it can do with being able to roll out programs and roll out new initiatives. So if the company is looking to implement something within a specific time frame for a very specific business need, if that gets delayed at the beginning when training is being developed, it’s going to snowball down. So your six-week delay on getting content out the door might turn into a six-month delay on getting the program rolled out.

CC: That’s true. So in the big picture they’re just seeing content being delayed, things starting to slow down and in turn slowing other business processes down?

BS: Hopefully they’re just starting to see it.

CC: Yeah, yeah. Hopefully it’s very, very early on. So on the flip side of that, when a company is able to implement strong content operations in their learning and training content or really throughout their whole organization, what are some of the benefits they get to see aside from just it’s less painful? Which I know is probably the biggest benefit because that’s why they’re coming for content ops in the first place.

BS: I think it really depends on what the goal of the improvements are for a particular organization. But generally what they will start seeing is things being more efficiently done and all the players involved know what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, where to look for things, who to contact for things, and what the next step in the process is going to be. So ultimately there’ll be a better idea of how they’re producing this throughout the entire life cycle of the content chain.

CC: Okay. Yeah, that sounds great. That sounds like a lot less burden on the team as well. I’m sure that everyone involved appreciates that. It just sounds a lot better.

BS: One other aspect to making these improvements is being able to reduce the amount of time, obviously, that a lot of this work takes because it is a very tedious process to develop all of these different types of training. So if a team can reduce the amount of time being spent authoring content, for example, by reusing content rather than copying and pasting it, so being able to take what someone else has already written and use it wholesale rather than copying, pasting, rewriting, and so forth. If they have solid templates in place and writing practices that support that template use, then they can see a lot of publishing time reduced as well. And likewise, chances are they’re probably translating all of this content as well to many different audiences. So the more they have their arms around being able to develop the source content, the easier it’s going to be to get the translation worked done.

CC: Yeah, absolutely. One other question I was thinking of was that it sounds like a big part of this is tool selection, making sure you have the right tools in place that are helping out the whole process and automating what you can. What is involved in the people side of things, as far as people adjusting to a different form of content operations? What does that adjustment look like?

BS: It can be tricky. A lot of people just in general, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but people generally are resistant to change. They’ve been working some way for five, six, seven years longer and suddenly they’re being asked to work a different way, it can be a little daunting. And at times it’s easy to sit back and say, “I don’t understand why I have to work differently. I’ve been producing good stuff for years. Why do I have to do it differently?” And sometimes what we do is we take a look at the whole picture and we try to paint a very clear picture of why the change benefits everyone.

And there has to be also a communication and understanding that it’s going to be a give and take. You may lose your favorite authoring tool or you may not get to write or rewrite the content 100% in your own way, there may be a very specific way of writing now, but the goal of the training is really what is going to drive the change. What is needed to deliver this training? Who needs it? Why do they need it? Why does it need to be, for example, completely consistent across the board no matter where it’s delivered? Looking at that bigger picture and the bigger wins is a good way of framing it.

CC: Yeah. Absolutely. If you as a listener are interested in learning more about how we do all of this at Scriptorium, we are going to be at some more learning content conferences in the future, such as TechLearn in September of 2023. So there’s going to be more opportunities for you to meet our team, talk more about this and ask more specific questions.

Bill, is there anything else you can think of when it comes to learning and training content that you want to be sure we communicate that people understand when it comes to why content ops help this content and these processes so much?

BS: I think the biggest takeaway is not so much looking for small wins but it’s looking at how you can make your training development process as efficient as possible and as effective as possible. Both go hand in hand. You can’t sacrifice one for the other. If you sacrifice effectiveness for efficiency, then you’re just really good at pumping out bad training content.

CC: That’s true.

BS: And likewise, if you sacrifice it the other way, you’ve got really good training content that’s going to be available to people at some point in the future.

CC: TBD. Yeah. Yeah, that’s a really good point. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this and just help us understand more about learning and training content and content ops.

BS: Thank you.

CC: 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.