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Keeping Your Content Owners... Content

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (19-Jul-2004)

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A lot of people I know have been, or still are, in the restaurant business. And as restaurateurs, they're more than happy to share some insider information with me. Among the most important commandments for us to know as customers: Never, ever, tick off the chef.

If you do, it will no longer matter that the five star restaurant you're sitting in—with it's übercool designed interior and two-month waiting list is furnished with an exquisite presentation of tableware befitting the reception of some foreign dignitary. Because, as horrible as it may be for us to imagine, an angry chef has the power to "contaminate" your food. After one bite, your face will likely contort into something reminiscent of an Edvard Munch painting. And then your plans for an evening of haute cuisine will end up being an evening of gourmet gruel—something that can only be adequately described as being a mixture of swill and discarded bath water.

Let's face it, as nice as the presentation may be, you're really there for the food, aren't you? So if you want good food, keep the chefs happy.


The Importance of Fresh Content

Newbie intranet developers often try to mask stale and deficient content with a blaze of technological glory. We wow at the clever interface, dancing graphics, and a site that seems to address us by our first name. But eventually we'll all come to the realization that we haven't actually gained anything by visiting the site.

An intranet is one of those systems that don't end at rollout. There's no clear-cut separation between development and daily operation. Unlike launching a new corporate operating system or office suite—where only the occasional patch is applied after the system is placed into a production environment—an intranet is a constantly growing entity. In this respect, while many IT systems can be compared to a book with a definite beginning and end, an intranet is more like a newspaper that needs to be updated everyday.

While an intranet can certainly serve as a repository of archived information, the only way to maintain a daily following is by regularly providing users with a reason to come back. As such, it's important for intranet developers and content owners to view the maintenance of an intranet like a newspaper publication. If you want to stay on top, you need to provide readers with new information in a timely manner. Publishing the same newspaper articles day-in and day-out would be unthinkable, but if you don't update your intranet content regularly, that's precisely what you're doing.


The Influence of Content Owners

In past articles, I discussed many of the technological methods that can be employed to keep content fresh. But the most important component in all of this is the content owners—those tasked with the responsibility of filtering and updating the vast stores of information available on public domain as well as those developed in-house. Their influence on the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of this content should never be underestimated.

It doesn't take a degree in psychology to know that the happier a person, the better they will work. When we're under stress of a tight deadline, tired and over-caffeinated, forced to work in an inhospitable environment, or suffering from an odd ailment brought on by alien abduction, the strain will show in our work. Words will begin to lack sense as we read and re-read the same paragraph over-and-over... as we read and re-read the same paragraph over-and-over (I was just checking to see if you were paying attention).

So it's safe to say that the attitudes—positive or negative—of your content owners will reflect upon the quality of the information they place onto the intranet and the consistency with which this information is maintained. If your content owners believe in their system and take pride in it, they will be much more likely to put in that extra effort to ensure that it reflects well on the company and has value to those who make use of it. However, if content owners don't care, or were somehow dragged into the project, they will view their role in a negative light and adopt a "let's just do this and get it over with" attitude. They will see the daily activity of content management on par with other necessary nuisances like flossing or washing the dishes.

Here are five ways to help you maintain a healthy group of content owners:

1. Make It Easy To Manage Content
The easier it is to manage their content, the more likely they'll be to do so. If you provide content owners with all the necessary tools in which to input, change, and delete information, they will feel more comfortable managing their system. And this is especially important among those who may not be as technologically inclined as others.

It's a good rule not to make management tools overly complicated. Leave out the bells-and-whistles that developers sometimes have a habit of putting in—often for the sake of proving that it can be done—unless absolutely required or explicitly stated in project specs. These extras can end up being a hindrance to the content owners, complicating a process that should remain relatively simple. And above all else, content owners should never be exposed to raw HTML or script code unless they are experienced with it's proper usage.

2. Avoid Conscription
As children, we hated being dragged from store to store to try on back-to-school clothes when we'd rather be outside playing street hockey with our friends. And we lashed out somewhat passive aggressively by sulking in the backseat of the car or dragging our feat. But every now-and-again we would throw such a tantrum that would cause the store manager to seek out the source of what sounds like an escaped barnyard animal wreaking havoc among the aisles.

Being dragged out of something we were doing and pulled into something else without even being asked. We hated it then, and we hate it now.

Everyone likes to take pride in their work and hopes that what they're doing is of some value. So, it's always a bad idea to pull someone off of their current task or project and telling them, unilaterally, that they will be working on something else instead (or worse, to have it added on top of their already overloaded task list). This belittles them and devalues the importance of what they were working on, causing resentment for both the project and those responsible for it.

Those more vocal will lash out and voice their opinions in less than diplomatic language. Others will take the passive aggressive route—not updating content, posting irrelevant information, causing conflicts among other members of the team—and do a lackluster job in silent protest.

The key to a healthy intranet team is one comprised of willing participants who believe in the system. Drafting unwilling members into the team creates an anchoring effect where everyone is pulled down in a stream of negative momentum, impacting the content as well as the overall integrity of the intranet.

3. Allow a Certain Amount of Autonomy
An intranet, being a system of many colors, requires the input and participation of many departments and disciplines. The reason you have multiple groups of content owners is because they know their job and content best—they know what their users will find useful and what they won't. You also assign multiple content owners because it's impossible for one person, or one group of people, to manage the content of an entire site with the familiarity of specialized content owners in any given discipline.

Keeping that in mind, if you had faith enough in your content owners to have assigned them that role, don't rubberneck or be overly controlling. Allow your content owners to have a certain amount of autonomy over their section and their content within the scope of the standards agreed upon during development (see my previous article, "Intranet Standardization: All For One, and One For All" for more on standardization).

You want them to feel that it's their system too; that they're involved in the decision making process and in control of their own information. You don't want to promote a "my way or the highway" atmosphere—they're not programmable drones working on an assembly line, so don't treat them that way.

4. Provide Adequate Training
When people are unfamiliar with something, they have a tendency to stay an arm's length away, occasionally peeking at the oddity out of the corner of their eyes to make sure it's not getting any closer as to avoid being devoured whole. But the more they understand something, the less threatening it becomes.

Some content owners may not be as technologically adept as others, and this breeds an inherent fear in newly introduced systems. They will always be afraid to touch it because touching it will mean there's a possibility that something will go wrong. And if something goes wrong, they're afraid that they will be the unlucky recipients of the blame. But all of this fear is superficial and unnecessary.

Content owners, regardless of the their technological proficiency, should be provided with adequate training on site and content management so that they don't have to feel as though they're walking on eggshells. The knowledge they gain through training will help them to better understand the inner workings of the system and eliminate the frustration of having to try to figure it out on their own. And with proper training, content owners will learn to treat intranet management with the same ease and simplicity of using an e-mail client or word processor.

5. Assign An Overseer
Any time you put large multi-disciplinary groups together to collaborate on a project there's bound to be a certain amount of disagreement—it's unavoidable. Each department or workgroup will be after the best interest of their own sections and users, and sometimes their views or actions may be in contradiction to the views of other groups. And while it would be nice to think that those involved will work it out on their own, more often than not, neither side will want to yield.

People have a natural tendency to be very territorial—behavior sometimes more befitting Wild Kingdom—and the "victor" of any dispute would have gained that advantage at the expense of the "loser." Unfortunately, it will be the intranet and the users who really end up with the short end of the stick.

Rather than relying on the self-governance of all the intranet factions, it's far better to appoint a non-partisan intranet manager to act as a mediator and liaison between the various groups involved in the system. Their responsibility will be to the intranet as a whole rather than any one group. This will minimize conflict since the intranet manager acts independently of all the content owners and won't be viewed upon as trying to promote their own agenda.

While each intranet group maintains a certain amount of autonomy in managing their sections and content, the intranet manager will be there to ensure that one group doesn't hijack the system and steamroll over everyone else's ideas and objectives.


Conclusion

With all the technology available to us, we can come up with so many ways to automate repetitive tasks and daily intranet housekeeping duties. But at the end of the day, it's still the content owners who decide what information goes into your intranet. This process of content filtering will always require human intervention so it stands to reason that the happier your content owners, the better the quality of their work.

So if you've ever entertained the idea of berating a chef for over-seasoning your bouillabaisse simply for kicks, don't be surprised to find a little extra something floating on its surface on your next visit.


Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.