In the post Integrated Content Management, we dug deeply into the integrated, and integrative, nature of content. One of the things we took away from this exposition is the recognition that the real power of content lies in the fact that it can be used to build bridges between an enterprise and its customers, and between the business silos that exist within the enterprise. Content can perform this special function because it strives to be truthful and as such exists below the level of politics and spin that characterizes so many of the information exchanges that typically obstruct our efforts at collaboration.
In a nutshell, content can be used to achieve things within and between organizations that cannot be efficiently, or effectively, achieved by any other means. Essentially we can use content to build genuine and durable connections between silos and between an enterprise and its customers.
This sounds like an overweening statement, my very own Icarus moment, but it is not as outlandish as it might appear. Think of it this way. If we get down to the nuts and bolts of what an enterprise is trying to do, down to the "truthful representation of what you are up to", then you are suddenly working with details that everyone in an enterprise will recognize and even respect. This will be true for people from marketing, engineering, management, and even finance. This does sound a little far-fetched because people from these different business units (not to mention from external suppliers) will literally speak differently, work differently, and judge things differently.
However, over the years I have been repeatedly surprised when I see people from absolutely opposite ends of the disciplinary universe actually drop their prejudices and say things like "you mean to say that if we did this we could..." or "if we did this, then you would be able to..." and in each case identifying how things would be easier for someone else and accordingly better for the end user and customer. When this does happen, we are usually looking at the details around a product or a service or an initiative and we are doing so by looking at content assets that are clearly not quite ready to be released to a user or to the public. And when this happens, part of the discussion inevitably turns towards how the content can be pulled into, displayed, and used differently by the stakeholders around these different business units. The fact that content can be channelled into all of the necessary representations, which each party can specify for their own needs, seems to provide everyone with some breathing room. People lower their guards and collaboration actually happens.
It has also been a source of incredible affirmation to see people in massive organizations, racked as it were in the worst forms of bureaucratic barnaclization, suddenly come to life when they can see a path towards actually making things better for the customer and for the users of their products or services. I will never forget one project where a collection of school teachers surrendered part of their treasured summer vacation in order to assist in the conversion and validation of curricular material that was being salvaged from an ancient and pernicious format. It flabbergasted me then and it still flabbergasts me now. XML conversion and quality control is used as a punishment in some cultures. But their rationale was crystal clear - the vision of an interactive version of the educational curriculum that could be used by teachers, parents and students, was simply so compelling, and so close to why they had become teachers in the first place, that this was a sacrifice worth making.
As I have observed elsewhere, good content runs deep. It runs below the waves, below the turbulence that the politics stirs up. It runs close to why people decided to do what they do.
So what do we do with this realization. If content practitioners have in their hands the materials, tools and communication skills to build these connections then where so we go from here?
This brings us to the topic of Content Leadership. It is admittedly a somewhat unusual mash-up of words. However, given the picture we have been painting of integrated content you can see what "content leadership" will be about. It is about taking the initiative as professional communicators to reach out to people in different business silos and to start the often hard work of collaborating on shared content assets. There is no disguising the fact that this is hard work or that there will be some rough times. This is why when we talk about leadership, we are invariably talking about taking risks, accepting responsibility, and even making sacrifices to help other people and to make things better. Leadership is a topic all of its own, and for good reason.
I have made plenty of acerbic statements about barnaclization as a debilitating process and I am on record as declaring that business silos are not something that can ever be eliminated even if that was something advantageous to do (which it is not). So what I think I am saying is that our efforts to awaken and enliven the potential of good content to build vital links between silos and stakeholders we can turn these natural forces in a constructive direction. Rather than crippling our vessel through the uncoordinated growth of isolated business units, we can steer towards a coordinated growth that creates something new, something durable (although obviously not invincible), and something that fosters innovation instead of impeding it. The picture that emerges is one of a coral reef. An ecosystem that grows and sustains new life. This is a much more endearing picture than a boat that has been rendered immobile by the encrustation by barnacles.
Using an entirely different palate of analogies, I approach this topic in this short video. It is a recording of my keynote address to the Lavacon 2015 conference in New Orleans. The title of my talk was "The Dark Arts of Content Leadership".