For those who don't know me well I'm a big fan of the TV programme Hoarders. What struck me when I watched the show was the similarity between individuals who hoarded and organisational behaviours. Is your organisation guilty of content hoarding?At some point, I think we can all say that we have experienced the institutional equivalent of hoarding. We all know people amass 'useful' things and keep them just in case. The same thing is true for organisations, there is often a lack of awareness, as well as harmful, repetitive behaviours and a fear of letting things go.
The problem for content strategists, when faced with disorganisation on this scale, is it's all too easy to feel overwhelmed. After all, where do you start when confronted by hundreds of thousands of content items?
The thing is before you can develop systems and processes that will help you to scale content creation, delivery, and governance across your organisation you need to begin to address underlying behaviours. This is necessary to ensure your content operations are efficient.Very few content teams have the opportunity to bring in a skip (for my American cousins that's a haul-away) and metaphorically throw out an organisation's content items and start again. The risk attached to this approach is that the hoard would return.A better approach is to act like a professional organiser working with the hoarder to sort and understand the value of each content item.
Content hoarding is a symptom of a larger problem. This often relates to the organisation itself and how departments are organised and processes work.Nevertheless, it's one that can have real and tangible consequences for an organisation. It can create a poor user experience that ultimately affects the organisation's bottom line. As a result, it is important the issue is addressed.
Over the last four years at the University of Bath, I have been lucky enough to work as part of an amazing team of talented people. They have tirelessly worked with colleagues who understand they have a content problem.
Today we have 10,000 pages of content compared to 100,000 when we started. While many of the institutional behaviours that created the hoard are gone, there is still work to do. Organisational silos still exist and processes still need to be reworked.A lot of people ask me, how we got there. We did it by spending time listening, learning and holding user-focused, evidence-led conversations. This surprises a lot of people, after all, I'm the structured content guy, right? I'll be honest, buying a new CMS won't fix your content problem.
Content strategy is about people. Buying a new CMS without understanding or influencing the skills, knowledge and behaviours of the people who will use it is the equivalent of handing the keys of an empty house to a hoarder. Trust me, given time, they will FILL that house with 'stuff'. Structured content is no protection against hoarding, all you'll end up with is an organised mess.
So, when confronted by a website and an organisation that appears unwilling to change, where do you start?
The answer is slowly. Although change is a fundamental part of life, nobody really likes it especially the type of change that feels like it's imposed from the outside. The time we've taken to understand people has produced better results.
The thing is if you want to achieve real change that is self-sustaining you need to understand the problems people face so you can address them. You don't have to do this all at once.
At Bath our content hoarding issues were caused by a lack of organisation, poor housekeeping and no sense of ownership - all compounded by an overly complex CMS and gaps in digital skills and knowledge. It led to poor quality content, duplication and bad user experiences.
The core of our work has been to:
Tackling these issues means we can now concentrate on how to create a great user-focused experience and prepare for the future, without the legacy of clutter, avoiding content hoarding, while benefitting from structured content.
Richard Prowse is Head of Digital at the University of Bath and a leading content strategist in higher education. He is best known for his work on adopting an agile approach to delivery and his work on structured content.
Rich leads a multi-disciplinary team of content creators, user experience designers and developers at the University of Bath who are responsible for bath.ac.uk. The team has been working on an ambitious programme to transform the University’s digital marketing and communications platforms.
Co-chair of ContentEd 2018, Rich regularly shares his experiences and knowledge at higher education content conferences in the UK and the US.