Transformation Always Requires Cultural Change


Understandably, no one wants to be forced to change the tools they use to do their job. Employees will often go to great lengths to avoid a change to their tools. Content automation can enable a company deliver more content, better and faster, but it requires changes that can be difficult to gain initial acceptance.

Similar to other applications of automation, one significant change required in deploying a content automation solution is demanded by the maxim “garbage in, garbage out.” In a few more words: if the inputs to an automation system are not controlled, structured, and validated, the downstream processing will fail. For content automation, that means changing the way subject matter experts create content, and often means changing their authoring tool. The conflict between the requirements for a successful content automation system and the rejection of change by content workers is one of the hardest challenges to overcome in the deployment of content automation.

“Doctor, When I Do This, It Hurts”
Another common maxim is, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.” Many prospects ask Quark if the subject matter experts can continue to use free-form Microsoft Word as their content authoring tool. The full answer is fairly complex and a potential topic for a future blog post. The short answer is, “this is really not a good idea.” While not quite insane, it is certainly on that end of the sanity spectrum. Trying to drive content automation with free-form created content will require adding additional, manual and time-consuming steps to catch and correct errors which takes away significant value from a content automation implementation.

There are many service vendors in the marketplace which will do that free-form to structured content conversion for you. Some have even built clever tools that improve the speed of the conversion process. However, if asked, all will say that they frequently require one or more manual steps to ensure validity and correct errors. There is no magic in these systems and no escaping “garbage in, garbage out.” So the ongoing use of a service provider or a transformation toolkit only moves the manual labor – with its unavoidable impact on cost and time – to another team.

The right answer is capturing the content at its source – the subject matter expert – using a rules-based, structured content authoring tool. And that requires change that impacts the content contributors in ways – at least initially – they are not going to like. The good news is that once the change is adopted and users get used to the new tools, our customers report positive feedback, acceptance, and higher productivity. So the primary challenge is getting through the transition period.

It’s Always Been Good Enough For Me
There have been many books written about the psychology of change. For our purpose, I’ll highlight four common reasons why the change of authoring tools is hard:

Muscle Memory: “I’ve been using my authoring tool for 20 years and can work quickly because I’m very familiar with how it works.”

The implication is that the user will be less productive if forced to change tools. Measures of productivity in place the time authors spend on formatting at 30-50% of their total time working in Word. If the content will be reformatted by a publishing group for print and another team for web, the time the author spent styling in Word is wasted time and energy.

We know from our successful customers that switching to structured authoring will improve the personal productivity of authors, sometimes dramatically, by taking away the need (and even the ability) to custom style content.

The Devil I Know: “My authoring tool doesn’t always work as I wish or expect, but I have learned how to avoid those circumstances or developed work-arounds.”

This is often a subconscious objection and is directly tied to “the fear of the unknown.” Very few people would say they fear unknown goodness. What we really fear is unknown pain. “How bad will it be and how long will it take me to recover?” These are certainly valid concerns which can be overcome by starting with easy-to-use tools, providing training, and with the personal experience that comes with time spent using a tool.

Loss of Control and Personal Preferences: “But I think putting the requirements section before overview section is better, and I like my titles blue and centered.”

There is no argument that enforcing content structure takes away some personal creativity of an author especially as it relates to the order and style of content. However, consistency is one very important measure of information quality and is highly impacted by content order and style.

Imagine your phone billing statement changing the order and style of presentation every month. That would make interpreting the bill much more difficult: you have to “relearn” how to comprehend each new bill. Therefore, information consistency of corporate communications is critical to customer satisfaction (say that three times fast).

Consistency improves the content consumer’s speed of comprehension. It is easy to debate the best order and style for a content type, but what is truly best is consistency. Consistency allows the content consumer to rapidly choose which reading order they find best. In the billing statement example: Tom looks for the bill total first, Adrian looks at the total number of minutes used, both get there fastest when the bill is presented the same way every month.

What’s In It for Me?: “I’ve been successfully contributing content for years using my current authoring tool, what value is this change to me?”

This one can be the most difficult to resolve but also the most important. Content automation provides clear and measurable value to a business, but the psychology of change requires us to address an individual’s motivations – sometimes by carrot and, sometimes as a last resort, by stick.

Best Practices for Managing Cultural Change
There is no single path to successfully navigating cultural change. Every company, department, and individual is different and requires careful consideration. However, there are some guidelines we have learned through experience that can help you build a change management strategy.

Identify a Champion in the Authoring Community
This might be the most senior author, a maverick newcomer, or a well respected team member. Ideally, the person will be open-minded and willing to take the time to learn why a content automation solution is best for the business and therefore best for authors. Critical to the champion role is the willingness and self-motivation to support, communicate, and promote change to others.

When should you involve an author-champion? It is costly to impact a subject matter expert’s productivity, so the temptation is to delay their involvement as late as possible. But experience tells us this is a mistake and creates bigger challenges and increases overall costs and time-to-results, so get this person involved early and often!

In the early stages of planning, a champion can help identify and prioritize features required or desired for personal productivity and satisfaction. A champion can also be the voice of reason to the author community when a particular feature may not be made available in the new tool. It is always better when compromises are communicated by “one of us” rather than from management or IT.

Provide Choices Not Mandates
The number one cause of stress in the workplace is the feeling of a lack of control. Gathering input on features and priorities can alleviate the an author’s feeling of not being in control when change is required. A champion can help identify potential red-flags: items that may cause the authoring community to push-back. Identifying those challenging items early in the process will enable the team to survey the authors on relative priority, therefore building a consensus of compromise.

Important to the survey process is requiring the authors to force rank features. While ranking “must-have, should-have, nice-to-have” is useful, the behavior is for survey-takers is to “round up,” so a feature that might be on the border of nice-to-have and should-have will always be marked as should-have. The best way to filter out this bias is to require a force ranking where every item is ordered in priority against every other item. No two items can have identical importance. While this can be quite a difficult exercise (“is water, food, or safety more important?”) it forces a more careful consideration of cost and benefit.

Further, doing these types of surveys early provides time for the implementation team to include the highest priorities, and allows the authors satisfaction that their needs have been considered and addressed.

These surveys can also be used to capture ideas from the authoring community on features they wish they had.  Providing a few of these capabilities will help address the “what’s in it for me” mindset.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Rational employees will accept change better if they have the full picture of what the company is trying to achieve. While many of the benefits of content automation may not be directly felt by the authoring community, it is powerfully useful for that community to understand the value of a major change to the business. Reduced time to market and increased productivity are often easily measured. Improved information quality is a little harder to measure, but no one will argue that quality is not valuable.

Much the way this document outlines the challenges and goals for managing cultural change, the content automation team should draft a document stating the business challenges, goals, and expected returns including benefits to each group that may be involved: authors, designers, IT, and content consumers. Reviewing, revising and continually communicating the goals will help team members to internalize the need for change, which in turn will minimize their resistance to change.