JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

In the past 10 years, information developers have experienced changes in the methods they use to produce content. The innovations of single sourcing reusable content, the structured writing provided by the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), topic-based authoring, and the ability to automate publishing to PDF, HTML, and Help have changed the workplace and improved productivity. Unfortunately, many of these innovations have had little impact on the content itself.

The 2014 Industry Trends survey indicates that new requirements for types of content delivery and content strategy itself are coming at us at an accelerating rate. New generations of customers reject massive tomes that are often out of date. They are demanding more agile content, delivered in multiple ways to multiple devices. They are looking for quick answers to questions, even considering tweets to be appropriate forms of content. They want information that is designed for mobile devices, search systems that work fast and effectively, and content animated and in video.

Content is also gaining recognition from the C-Suite. Authors like Chris Malone, in The Human Brand, show us conclusively that customers want to purchase from companies that care about their success. It’s no longer enough to provide glib marketing overviews. Customers come to the corporate web site looking for the technical content, testing it to find out if the products will really work for them. Corporate executives are beginning to understand that technical content, well done, is a corporate asset that supports customers and builds brands. They understand that they must use content to “drive smarter decision-making, deliver superior customer experiences, and ensure better business results,” as IBM puts it.

Clearly, the content world is changing but many information developers and managers struggle to adjust to the new requirements. We need to develop initiatives to not only change our methods of developing content, but to change the content we produce to better adapt to user requirements. Innovations to better accommodate users include several important actions:

  • Interact with users to understand what they need rather than what they say they need
  • Ensure that information developers have the skills to adapt to new user needs
  • Acquire sufficient funding to enable changes to content and delivery methods

In his latest addition to his long list of books on change management, Harvard Business School’s Professor John Kotter provides us with a new program for staying ahead of the “dizzying pace of change.” Kotter’s newest publication, Accelerate, provides us with a “new framework for winning in a world of constant turbulence and disruption.”

Kotter finds that the traditional way that strongly hierarchical companies respond to change fails to respond to the new demands. Big strategic projects, led by carefully vetted project managers, with layers of bureaucracy that demand reports and statistics, fail to respond to the demands inherent in rapid change.

Companies develop strong hierarchies to effectively manage the demands of their regular business cycles. They may have once been agile startups, but their growth and success demands a strong management process. And, these management processes are typically handled quite well by a huge bureaucracy of experts.

You know how it happens: projects are defined; people are assigned (typically the same people who are trusted by senior management to lead big, important, strategic projects). Unfortunately, these projects move slowly, sometimes for many years, until the original goals have been forgotten.

For example, I know of one company that has been trying to implement DITA and a content management system for the past five years. The project is headed by an IT professional who maintains absolute control and will not release the CMS to the writing organizations because it has not yet passed hundreds of tests to ensure that it works according to the specifications. Huge amounts of money and time have been invested with absolutely nothing to show for the project. The information developers and the mangers are incredibly frustrated but are unable to move beyond the bureaucracy.

In Accelerate, Kotter details project failures like this one, direct results of a hierarchical system that works well operating the ordinary, day-to-day business but cannot easily adjust to support fast-moving trends. If your organization has tried to get a big project going in the normal hierarchical world, you know how long it takes to get approvals and generate real gains. We know of so many good projects that have been stalled for years by management-driven hierarchies.

The solution—an accelerated process that begins with a positive, compelling statement, a statement Kotter calls the BIG OPPORTUNITY.

So what exactly is a Big Opportunity? A Big Opportunity translates the need for an urgent, accelerated action into a call to arms. It puts into place a parallel system that works with but not through the traditional management structure. It gives focus to a team of volunteers and a Guiding Coalition that work quickly to make things happen. It generates quick wins that keep the project momentum moving forward.

So what does this Accelerated process look like? You begin, of course, with the urgent need to make changes quickly. You might need to change the kind of content you develop. You might need to add mobile devices with properly redesigned content. You might want to add videos and animations to your portfolio of information products. But most importantly, you need to do all or some of these new moves in order to survive and thrive. You need to change to keep your customers engaged and loyal.

By defining the Big Opportunity, you put words to your sense of urgency, but you must frame it in a positive and compelling way. As soon as a change initiative begins to look threatening, people withdraw and create barriers. With a Big Opportunity, you work to break down barriers and encourage volunteers.

Your Big Opportunity might sound like this:

“We have a great team with the capacity and skills to create compelling content that will delight our customers and build their loyalty to our company’s brands. We need to respond quickly and effectively to their call for new content and new delivery methods that help them answer questions and solve problems in all the ways that they tell us they need. If we work quickly and are united in our goals, we can build new forms of content and deliver it in new ways and gain the customer loyalty that increases retention and sales.”

With an energized vision in place, Kotter tell us to quickly put together a Guiding Coalition of people who are enthusiastic and fast moving, who are dedicated to making the Big Opportunity happen. Only the most enthusiastic and well-connected individuals need apply. Most important – don’t do the selecting, especially not from the usual suspects, those that seem to always get the big jobs. Ask for volunteers and choose a diverse team of go-getters and influencers from among them.

The job of the Guiding Coalition is to outline the initiatives that will create quick wins and move forward on the Big Opportunity. Once the initiatives are defined, the Guiding Coalition invites volunteers from throughout your organization and possibly beyond. The idea is to keep the momentum going. The volunteers are asked to take on an initiative at the same time that they continue doing their regular work. And, they commit to the new initiatives because they are excited about being involved in something new and fulfilling.

The Guiding Coalition watches over the initiatives, providing guidance and support as need. In fact, one of the most important jobs is removing the traditional barriers to getting anything done in the hierarchical system. They need to encourage the teams and celebrate each success. Small wins, as you know, can generate even more initiatives to reach the goals.

Kotter’s approach may seem radical if you are managing a traditional organization. But he demonstrates with several key projects that Accelerate really works. He discusses transformations in organizations where the game seemed to be lost. His dual system, working alongside and supported by the traditional hierarchy, becomes a recipe for success.

Remember that we have great challenges ahead with information development and delivery. And, we know that the customers are changing faster than we have ever known them to change. They want more solutions, faster, better, and in more ways. To meet that challenge, we need a faster and more agile way of working. I recommend Accelerate as a way forward.