How the pandemic triggered a total content operations transformation at The University of Tennessee

How the pandemic triggered a total content operations transformation at The University of Tennessee

5 minute read

How the pandemic triggered a total content operations transformation at The University of Tennessee

5 minute read

How the pandemic triggered a total content operations transformation at The University of Tennessee

Fi Shailes

Senior social media marketer and content writer

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"GatherContent utterly transformed how our stakeholders engage with content."
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

When the global pandemic hit, The University of Tennessee’s Office of Communication and Marketing team found themselves in urgent need of a central place for collaboration; a place where all stakeholders could see work as it progressed, add feedback, and then approve it.  Once approved, content would then be easily and readily published to the desired channels or platforms.

We spoke to Chris Echols, Director of Digital Communications at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) to find out more about the impact that content operations platform, GatherContent has had on their work.

Chris leads a team of creative and technical professionals who are responsible for building, maintaining, and supporting the university's flagship website, utk.edu. The group supports digital communications initiatives and strategies for the entire university, across almost 300 websites.

"Content had never been more important and one of the real steps forward we made during the pandemic was in utilizing GatherContent to help us centralize our content,"
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

“As the pandemic began, we didn't yet understand everything about it, but we knew that people's lives were on the line. We had to make sure that every communication was correct, that it was vetted and approved, that it was disseminated in a timely way, and that it reached the right audiences,” Chris says.

"With additional complexity, the old workflow quickly fell apart"

“There's ultimately loads of different departments that are involved in producing content,” says Angus Edwardson, GatherContent's Co-Founder and VP of Product.

“What the coronavirus crisis proved is that it just doesn't scale and you can't do a very good velocity if you're relying on email, word documents, and old infrastructure to solve that problem.”

Need to Know: GatherContent helps you overcome the common (and completely avoidable) challenges that surround content creation, review, approval, and governance.

The University of Tennessee's content teams were initially using Google, Microsoft Word, and email approvals. Documents were being passed around, and there was no assurance that the correct version got to the right person at the right time.

"The spreadsheet model was too rigid. We needed a way to make the information from the key spreadsheet more consumable,” Chris says.

When the pandemic pushed them into a world of high-velocity content ops, relying on this way of working quickly proved unstable. Due to extreme time pressure and sensitivity to the need for accuracy, his teams needed a new model.

GatherContent granted them the confidence they'd been seeking; that the version being worked on was the most recent and up to date. What's more, everyone who needed to be involved in a piece of content could be granted access to work on it in one place — rather than multiple versions of documents being emailed and shared.

A central content management platform became a necessity

It became essential to speed up the content approval process and take content to market faster.

“So many folks needed to be involved, and we had to get it right at that moment,” Chris says.

“It had to be accurate from a health standpoint, accurate from a legal standpoint, and so on.”

“We were able to onboard and begin using the platform effectively without any formal training. Even in a high-pressure situation, we were able to jump in and start collaborating right away. I’ve never seen a piece of software become adopted by colleagues so quickly.”

Chris noted this speed to adoption and collaboration was highly unusual. In the past, the person who sits at the end of their communications line was often not involved in the content creation process. This resulted in issues when the content got to the final person (the publisher), and they sent out the test email.

If someone requested changes, it became the publisher's responsibility to traffic those changes through the workflow, get it sent back and changed — when they were only supposed to be publishing.

“This (the old process) was a huge waste of time, and not efficient,” says Chris.

From the 'Spreadsheet of Doom' to an easy-to-use knowledge base


One of the big challenges was making sure that information remains consistent across many campus and university communications channels; whether that's social, email, or the web.

Content workflows in GatherContent, and having a central place where all stakeholders involved in the project can see the content at every stage solved these efficiency problems.

Need to Know: GatherContent is a centralized content tool that allows you to manage how content flows through people, processes, and systems. Simply, your ContentOps.

The primary objective of bringing in GatherContent was to allow UTK to quickly hit the ground running in creating a joint information communication center.

The first area to collaborate on was a website that helped communicate all the decisions and changes that were being made as the pandemic unfolded. There was a massive spreadsheet of questions and answers that the team developed during that process.

"We called it the 'Spreadsheet of Doom,"
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

One challenge was moving content from where it lived at the time to where it needed to be on the flagship website.

This included information on student recruitment, financial aid, housing, and more, and it needed to be migrated into the central flagship site whilst all the content ownership and expertise remained maintained.

The Digital Communications Team found themselves struggling with the spreadsheet until they finally decided to input its content into GatherContent. They found that there were actually sections for the questions, answers, and categories to go in the platform.

GatherContent soon became the university’s knowledge base; featuring complete articles, rather than just small pieces of information.

The team was also able to group the information in a way that was much more useful, searchable and usable to them — but particularly for their students.

Open communication is key to organizational change

A mistake a lot of organizations make is that they frame organizational change in the sense of 'why it's good for the organization'. However, it's always important to communicate to the individuals and teams concerned about what it will mean for them in their daily operations.

For example, for a development team, this might be, "this means we're going to be able to deploy faster and have better security." For a content team, this may be, "we've got a single source of truth now, we can approve content faster, and it's more reusable.’

“It's really important to always be transparent and clear in order to build trust, and to make sure that that organizational change isn't just a 'top-down' or institutional mandate,” Chris says.

“The participation of campus web developers, as well as campus communicators, has helped us better understand what resources they need from a content organization, content management, and presentation standpoint.”

“We are keeping the lines of communication open to provide an opportunity for those who have a differing opinion to be clearly heard and acknowledged. Where possible, we try to provide a really good reason for why we're going in a different direction.”

“And, we really wanted to make sure that we took a community approach. Communications and content management operations really benefit from a sense of community in a way that the old tyrannical-like 'you must conform to this look and feel, and fit in this box model' just didn't.”

Moving to a shared ownership content model

Implementing this new content operations system meant gaining a new understanding of content ownership and responsibility.

In the decentralized model that the university had for so many years, there was a strong sense of personal ownership over content. Every division had their own website, social channels, and communications people.

"What we've had to work on defining is that, while you might be the subject matter expert and the owner of the content, that doesn't necessarily mean that your website is the place where that content is best serving the audience,"
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

This means helping content owners understand the role their content plays in reaching a larger audience than before.

Centralizing Content Operations is immediately transformational


Centralizing content operations takes patience, persistence, and consistency.

“We've really come to embrace that idea of iterative development in all respects and understanding,” says Chris.

"It's always going to be a process of thinking forward as far as you can, building towards that, and then just moving the goal-posts continually — in a responsible and practical way.”

When the University of Tennessee started utilizing GatherContent, their intent was simply to centralize their content. But they discovered that the platform helped them connect decentralized communicators with a centralized set of priorities and messages in a more efficient way.

“It was immediately transformational. We immediately understood the power of a centralized and organized communication structure,” says Chris.

"The university found that it could be successful in maintaining a unified institution from a communication standpoint. We now have confidence that people are consistently building content while leaving room for individual units to have their own content priorities."

It also helped the university's communications team to think about workflows and processes in general. When they brought GatherContent into their task structure, it gave them a systematic way to document workflows in ways they didn’t before.

"GatherContent has helped us beyond even what the features initially promised; it helped us identify where we weren’t collaborating or didn’t have the right processes in place,” Chris says.

💡See also: Our Fireside Chat with U of Tennessee, GatherContent, & Netlify on Digital Transformation

"GatherContent utterly transformed how our stakeholders engage with content."
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

When the global pandemic hit, The University of Tennessee’s Office of Communication and Marketing team found themselves in urgent need of a central place for collaboration; a place where all stakeholders could see work as it progressed, add feedback, and then approve it.  Once approved, content would then be easily and readily published to the desired channels or platforms.

We spoke to Chris Echols, Director of Digital Communications at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) to find out more about the impact that content operations platform, GatherContent has had on their work.

Chris leads a team of creative and technical professionals who are responsible for building, maintaining, and supporting the university's flagship website, utk.edu. The group supports digital communications initiatives and strategies for the entire university, across almost 300 websites.

"Content had never been more important and one of the real steps forward we made during the pandemic was in utilizing GatherContent to help us centralize our content,"
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

“As the pandemic began, we didn't yet understand everything about it, but we knew that people's lives were on the line. We had to make sure that every communication was correct, that it was vetted and approved, that it was disseminated in a timely way, and that it reached the right audiences,” Chris says.

"With additional complexity, the old workflow quickly fell apart"

“There's ultimately loads of different departments that are involved in producing content,” says Angus Edwardson, GatherContent's Co-Founder and VP of Product.

“What the coronavirus crisis proved is that it just doesn't scale and you can't do a very good velocity if you're relying on email, word documents, and old infrastructure to solve that problem.”

Need to Know: GatherContent helps you overcome the common (and completely avoidable) challenges that surround content creation, review, approval, and governance.

The University of Tennessee's content teams were initially using Google, Microsoft Word, and email approvals. Documents were being passed around, and there was no assurance that the correct version got to the right person at the right time.

"The spreadsheet model was too rigid. We needed a way to make the information from the key spreadsheet more consumable,” Chris says.

When the pandemic pushed them into a world of high-velocity content ops, relying on this way of working quickly proved unstable. Due to extreme time pressure and sensitivity to the need for accuracy, his teams needed a new model.

GatherContent granted them the confidence they'd been seeking; that the version being worked on was the most recent and up to date. What's more, everyone who needed to be involved in a piece of content could be granted access to work on it in one place — rather than multiple versions of documents being emailed and shared.

A central content management platform became a necessity

It became essential to speed up the content approval process and take content to market faster.

“So many folks needed to be involved, and we had to get it right at that moment,” Chris says.

“It had to be accurate from a health standpoint, accurate from a legal standpoint, and so on.”

“We were able to onboard and begin using the platform effectively without any formal training. Even in a high-pressure situation, we were able to jump in and start collaborating right away. I’ve never seen a piece of software become adopted by colleagues so quickly.”

Chris noted this speed to adoption and collaboration was highly unusual. In the past, the person who sits at the end of their communications line was often not involved in the content creation process. This resulted in issues when the content got to the final person (the publisher), and they sent out the test email.

If someone requested changes, it became the publisher's responsibility to traffic those changes through the workflow, get it sent back and changed — when they were only supposed to be publishing.

“This (the old process) was a huge waste of time, and not efficient,” says Chris.

From the 'Spreadsheet of Doom' to an easy-to-use knowledge base


One of the big challenges was making sure that information remains consistent across many campus and university communications channels; whether that's social, email, or the web.

Content workflows in GatherContent, and having a central place where all stakeholders involved in the project can see the content at every stage solved these efficiency problems.

Need to Know: GatherContent is a centralized content tool that allows you to manage how content flows through people, processes, and systems. Simply, your ContentOps.

The primary objective of bringing in GatherContent was to allow UTK to quickly hit the ground running in creating a joint information communication center.

The first area to collaborate on was a website that helped communicate all the decisions and changes that were being made as the pandemic unfolded. There was a massive spreadsheet of questions and answers that the team developed during that process.

"We called it the 'Spreadsheet of Doom,"
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

One challenge was moving content from where it lived at the time to where it needed to be on the flagship website.

This included information on student recruitment, financial aid, housing, and more, and it needed to be migrated into the central flagship site whilst all the content ownership and expertise remained maintained.

The Digital Communications Team found themselves struggling with the spreadsheet until they finally decided to input its content into GatherContent. They found that there were actually sections for the questions, answers, and categories to go in the platform.

GatherContent soon became the university’s knowledge base; featuring complete articles, rather than just small pieces of information.

The team was also able to group the information in a way that was much more useful, searchable and usable to them — but particularly for their students.

Open communication is key to organizational change

A mistake a lot of organizations make is that they frame organizational change in the sense of 'why it's good for the organization'. However, it's always important to communicate to the individuals and teams concerned about what it will mean for them in their daily operations.

For example, for a development team, this might be, "this means we're going to be able to deploy faster and have better security." For a content team, this may be, "we've got a single source of truth now, we can approve content faster, and it's more reusable.’

“It's really important to always be transparent and clear in order to build trust, and to make sure that that organizational change isn't just a 'top-down' or institutional mandate,” Chris says.

“The participation of campus web developers, as well as campus communicators, has helped us better understand what resources they need from a content organization, content management, and presentation standpoint.”

“We are keeping the lines of communication open to provide an opportunity for those who have a differing opinion to be clearly heard and acknowledged. Where possible, we try to provide a really good reason for why we're going in a different direction.”

“And, we really wanted to make sure that we took a community approach. Communications and content management operations really benefit from a sense of community in a way that the old tyrannical-like 'you must conform to this look and feel, and fit in this box model' just didn't.”

Moving to a shared ownership content model

Implementing this new content operations system meant gaining a new understanding of content ownership and responsibility.

In the decentralized model that the university had for so many years, there was a strong sense of personal ownership over content. Every division had their own website, social channels, and communications people.

"What we've had to work on defining is that, while you might be the subject matter expert and the owner of the content, that doesn't necessarily mean that your website is the place where that content is best serving the audience,"
Chris Echols
Director of Digital Communications, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

This means helping content owners understand the role their content plays in reaching a larger audience than before.

Centralizing Content Operations is immediately transformational


Centralizing content operations takes patience, persistence, and consistency.

“We've really come to embrace that idea of iterative development in all respects and understanding,” says Chris.

"It's always going to be a process of thinking forward as far as you can, building towards that, and then just moving the goal-posts continually — in a responsible and practical way.”

When the University of Tennessee started utilizing GatherContent, their intent was simply to centralize their content. But they discovered that the platform helped them connect decentralized communicators with a centralized set of priorities and messages in a more efficient way.

“It was immediately transformational. We immediately understood the power of a centralized and organized communication structure,” says Chris.

"The university found that it could be successful in maintaining a unified institution from a communication standpoint. We now have confidence that people are consistently building content while leaving room for individual units to have their own content priorities."

It also helped the university's communications team to think about workflows and processes in general. When they brought GatherContent into their task structure, it gave them a systematic way to document workflows in ways they didn’t before.

"GatherContent has helped us beyond even what the features initially promised; it helped us identify where we weren’t collaborating or didn’t have the right processes in place,” Chris says.

💡See also: Our Fireside Chat with U of Tennessee, GatherContent, & Netlify on Digital Transformation

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About the author

Fi Shailes

Fi works at digital agency twogether as a Social Strategist. She specialises in all things social and content, and freelances part-time at Digital Drum.

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