Features November/December 2020

ContentOps As Information Enablement For Exponential Growth

By Rahel Anne Bailie



To survive, organizations need to grow, and that growth often needs to be exponential to establish their dominance in the marketplace. Organizations often grow through digital transformation projects, but they won’t succeed if their transformation happens in a silo called “digital.” During a project on which I worked for a municipality, the director used to say, “This is not a facelift; it’s an organ transplant.” Her underlying message was that digital transformation is not a trivial effort or cosmetic change. It’s a metamorphosis in the same way that a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly.

Organizations that transform themselves for today’s marketplace find a strong need for information enablement. As organizations grow, their ability to create and deliver content quickly, accurately, and to a range of audiences becomes a critical aspect of their competitive advantage.

Accounting: An Example of Transformation

Today’s accounting sector is an excellent example of transformation. Manual processes that were once cumbersome and time-consuming are now part of a highly efficient, automated operational system.

Today’s accounting discipline is information-enabled and capable of accomplishing a tremendous amount of work in very little time, without adding additional effort or staff. No longer encumbered by inefficient, slow, error-prone, and duplicative manual tasks and other obstacles that prevent it from being efficient, the industry now relies on a systematic approach to automating accounting tasks and orchestrating related processes.

The result? They’re much more capable of aligning with organizational priorities than in the past.

Compare the past with today’s world of accounting. Comptrollers, bookkeepers, and accountants access insights and actionable data (at-a-glance and in real-time) through custom-built dashboards that provide near-real-time access to purpose-built views of financial data. The platforms they use to perform their roles allow them to quickly share data and other financial information with the systems that require it and the individuals who need it.

After configuring the appropriate software to present the data in useful ways for financial executives, a relatively small group of people with specialist skills work in the accounting system. Dramatically reduced production times allow them to quickly get insights into the company’s financial picture.

All of these changes happened slowly, and I doubt that anyone in the industry at that time would have used the term “digital transformation” to describe the changes they made. They likely wouldn’t have claimed a goal of “organizational transformation” either, but perhaps they would have looked at operational improvement. The cumulative saving of resources, time, and effort makes it possible for an organization to scale up financial operations. This example of operational efficiency is just one of many similar organizational transformations.

Information Enabling Exponential Growth

One of the realities of today’s business environment is that the fuel for business is information. Content is a critical aspect of the information value chain. The primary way that growing organizations communicate with their customers is through content, whether through the web, software applications, social media, or traditional print deliverables. More often than not, the delivery of content occurs through multiple channels. The content supply chain is complex, and the pipeline craves constant feeding.

To keep pace with the exponential growth required of many businesses today, production and delivery of content require a high degree of automation. Whether it is a newer company like Airbnb or an established company like IBM, the amount of content produced is substantial. Exponential growth is impossible without building advanced content capabilities and adopting appropriate ways of enabling information.

Taking On Content Operations

Perhaps you have heard of DevOps, DesignOps, ResearchOps, AIOps, or other terms appended to Ops (short for operations). Content operations (ContentOps) as information enablement for exponential growth is second nature to technical communicators. The commonality of all of the Ops models is the focus on improvements and efficiencies:

  • Reduce production inefficiencies. Working smarter instead of harder has been a necessity for technical communicators for decades.
  • Develop repeatable processes. Technical communication has been years ahead of its marketing and business communication counterparts, mainly because the rules around producing product specifications has reinforced that rigor in our practices.
  • Automate whenever possible. Single sourcing is a mainstay of technical writing techniques to keep up with our agile counterparts producing code.
  • Scale up outputs. Technical communicators have been scaling content production for years, using more and more sophisticated tools and techniques.
  • Monitor results. Before the web, and before the prevalence of the field of usability, technical communicators were “field testing” content and monitoring the results. Reducing (or deflecting) support telephone calls is a long-standing metric in our field.

Test the efficiency quotient of moving to help-authoring tools in the early 2000s or to a component content management system in the following decade. In each case, technical communicators were, in effect, doing ContentOps long before the term became common knowledge.

Having an Operational View of Content

When leaders desire organizational growth, they think of the products they sell but seldom consider the content required to produce, market, sell, and service the product and its customers. It’s essential to recognize that as profoundly as some organizations understand the agile production of code, their knowledge of agile content production is limited.

A dearth of understanding surrounds the complexities of producing content—especially at scale. Appreciation of the content-related processes required to transform an organization is also lacking.

This lack of knowledge leaves a critical gap between business needs and implementation. Management reverts to what they know to try to fill the void. They try to solve all of the complexities at the delivery end by throwing more developers and more code at the problem. This approach often ends badly. The coronavirus crisis illustrates this problem as organizations struggled to disseminate information related to COVID-19 quickly. Most did so using brute force, asking their development teams to work day and night for weeks on end.

What technical communicators can bring to the table is an understanding, using business vocabulary, of the benefits of ContentOps. Describing the tactical improvements is good, but being able to collaborate with management to accomplish the following is essential:

  • Improve collaboration across value streams. Be ready to position content as a parallel value stream worthy of attention.
  • Automate continuous delivery pipelines. The idea that content has to be on timed releases can be replaced by an automated delivery mechanism that pushes content out on an as-needed basis. The hotfix is now business as usual.
  • Encourage and improve innovation. Connecting content to innovation is an inventive idea to many organizations that reduce content to “writing and editing.” Show how innovations in content creation, management, and delivery can support your organization leadership’s growth goals.
  • Reduce risk. Organizations in regulated industries pay significant attention to risk management. Demonstrate how tight governance and control of content reduces risk.
  • Create insights. Insights arise from putting numbers beside any of these operational benefits. It can also mean measuring content performance further. Either way, feeding insights back into the content is a critical aspect of continuous improvement.

Technical communicators are in an ideal position to help management understand how to set up an operational model for content—in other words, ContentOps. Product, sales, and marketing content can all benefit from content production efficiencies implemented by technical publication teams. After all, technical documentation is content; the value is in the operational model for its production and delivery. The significant changes associated with transformation enable an entire organization to benefit from its capabilities.

Business Drivers That Need Information Enablement

Exponential growth comes about through the pursuit of a handful of fundamental business drivers. Each of these drivers has a vital information component. Make it your business to understand what your organization needs to realize an efficient production system for content. A reality check for your organization to grow is knowing how to keep operational costs in check, because exponential growth cannot come with exponential expenses:

  • Extend reach. The most common driver for transformation is growth. Producing information at scale is critical to this business driver. Organizations today need to use content to increase their market share in existing verticals, enter new markets, develop new audiences, and gain more focus by personalizing content. These changes might involve adding support for additional foreign languages, delivering customer-journey-specific content, and automating delivery.
  • Build brand loyalty. The flip side to growth is retention. It doesn’t make economic sense to gain customers on the acquisition side only to lose them on the retention side. Providing a good customer experience, with focused and accurate quality information that inspires trust, is a must.
  • Reduce time to market. Getting a product or service to market is often time sensitive. Think of the organizations that needed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic—timing is everything. Whether it means a fitting response in times of crisis or a race against the competition to launch a product into a new market, having a robust operational model that helps reduce waste and manage production efficiencies is the key to a quick pivot.
  • Manage risk. Organizations in regulated industries keep the legal department’s concerns and the requirements of regulators front of mind. They are incredibly aware of how they manage both code and editorial content and whether the information they produce complies with industry regulations. Every organization needs to consider whether the information they make available to others meets accessibility rules. Being able to manage that risk systematically removes a tremendous blocker from operational efficiency.

To enable these business drivers, organizations must pay attention to their content to learn how to manage it well, fix the pain points, and create a high-functioning operational model to support growth at scale. A natural synergy exists between the methods used in the production of technical documentation and the needs of organizations that aspire to grow exponentially. Exploit that synergy by bringing operational efficiencies to organizations positioning themselves for exponential growth. It’s a way to break out of the technical content silo and apply methodologies from the profession to the broader operational model for content.

RAHEL BAILIE (rahel.bailie@contentseriously.co.uk) is the founder of Content, Seriously, a London, UK-based consultancy, and a seasoned consultant developing content strategies for efficient and effective content operations. Instructor in FH-Joanneum’s Content Strategy Master’s Programme in Austria; coauthor of Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits and The Language of Content Strategy; and contributor to several other books, she has more than 30 years of experience in content, including corporate communication, technical communication, localization management, and content strategy. She is also a lover of gin, Scrabble, and dancing.

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