A Content Strategy Conversation — Joe Gollner

This is part two of the content conversations series. Our guest today is Joe Gollner.

Joe Gollner is the Managing Director of Gnostyx Research Inc., a company he founded to leverage his 25 years of implementation experience to guide organizations in the strategic use of content technologies. He blogs as the Content Philosopher and is still working on his book on “Engineering Content”.


Frontend Questions

[VG]: What delights you the most about the work that you have done so far?

[JG]: Without a doubt, the greatest delight that I have had over the last 25 years in the content business has been seeing systems of my design succeed and be actively used for years (sometimes for decades). I am doubly fortunate in that this has actually happened many times. It makes you feel proud, yes, but it also reacquaints you with an overwhelming sense of responsibility — you are reminded that the recommendations that you make, the designs you sketch out, and the development efforts you oversee, have longstanding and far-reaching consequences.

[VG]: What is your dream content strategy project that you want to get involved in? It can be for any group or organization, for any goals, anywhere in the world.

[JG]: What I would most like to do is to have a chance to reprise some of my mega-projects from the past but this time armed with the tools of today and with the lessons that have been learned from those earlier experiences. These projects would throw their arms around the full content lifecycle of a complete product family and would cover everything from the earliest product conception and design stages through to the promotional and operational support processes.

With what we have learned, and with what we have at our disposal today, there is almost no limit to the impact we can have in these scenarios. And with many of the past barriers now removed, we should in fact be able to go even further and to demonstrate just how strategic a role content can play in the modern, digital enterprise.

[VG]: What is the most important need or pain point that content strategists have not been able to address as effectively as they would have loved to? It can be for standards, or defining expectations from CS as a discipline, a tool, or for anything else.

[JG]: The most serious challenge that I see confronting content strategists today is the fact that content reaches across all aspects of the modern enterprise while practicing content strategists typically specialize in one, maybe two, areas of content application. This means that multiple content strategists must come together and collaborate in order to address the full breadth of the content problems being confronted today and to achieve an optimal outcome when viewed from the perspective of the enterprise.

While obviously necessary and beneficial, this type of collaboration is in fact much less common than you would think or hope. As I touched on in a blog post that asked “Would the Real Content Management Please Stand Up?”, there are significant disciplinary barriers separating many content strategists.

As an example, those specializing in marketing communications are very different from those focusing on technical communication and the practitioners in one camp often will not see, use, or even acknowledge the tools typically deployed in the other camp. This matters because the problems faced within major enterprises do not fit neatly into one or the other camp and modernization initiatives will be impeded by these disciplinary separations. All this is more than a little ironic when content strategists of all stripes frequently bemoan the ill effects of the ubiquitous operational silo.

[VG]: On one hand, we have AI and automation for predictive intelligence and recommendation engines. At the same time, we talk about human centered design, and a personalized experience. How do you see a balance where you can use your awareness and experience to take certain decisions, while allowing technology to automate certain things?

[JG]: Personally, I don’t see any divergence (or even difference) between the need for human-centered design and the rise of cognitive computing and content automation. On the contrary, the only way to genuinely attend to all of the differences between different users and user scenarios is through rigorous design methodologies that are then put into practice by automation that is smart, scalable, and sustainable.

In a recent conference talk, I showcased project failures instead of heart-warming success stories. In this talk, one of the projects I highlighted was the Canadian Federal Government whose online presence had started out poorly in the early 1990s and has declined steadily ever since. What made this case study so instructive was the fact that this failure was not for lack of trying. In fact, the Canadian Government had, over a period of 20 years, invested heavily in design methodologies and practices all focused resolutely and earnestly on optimizing the user experience. This case stands as a graphic illustration of the principle of “barnaclization” whereby a multitude of individually beneficial investments combine to degrade and eventually destroy the overall system. In this tale of mismanagement (and given the billions of dollars spent on achieving a failing grade on usability, mismanagement is not too strong a word), what was missing was a coordinated and systematic approach to the design effort. Added to this was an almost complete failure to leverage automation to achieve the type of consistency and quality that would have salvaged their investments and good intentions.

So it’s not an either/or proposition. In fact, you cannot genuinely realize a human-centered design without deploying smart, scalable, and sustainable automation.

As a parting observation on the previous answer, where we focused on the ill-effects of disciplinary separations between content strategists working in different areas, the failure to apply systematic design and automation to content problems is one of the most common outcomes of this isolation. Many types of content strategy are advocated and practiced with a near complete unawareness of the methodologies and technologies that are available to scale and sustain envisioned content strategies. And the reverse statement, just to be fair, can also be declared: practitioners who are more system-focused would benefit from, or indeed are in desperate need of, human-centered design techniques that actually connect large-scale system investments back to users, their tasks, and their needs. Both perspectives are needed and one cannot really succeed without the other.

[VG]: We talk about future friendly content that should make sense for all known devices and channels. Also, this content should be so planned that the architecture can support even unknown devices and unexpected contexts for the way audience may need it in future (as far as possible). How do you prepare yourself to address this massive challenge?

[JG]: This could be a very long answer but I will try to keep it brief. The core answer basically boils down to ‘manage content as content’ and what this means is that you make sure that you separate the design, creation, and management of content from how it will be delivered.

Now this is not quite the same as saying “separate content from format” which is a more common, but somewhat problematic in being overly simplistic, formulation that you typically hear. We won’t go too far into this right now but we can say that this does mean that in your content design activities you try to attend as closely as possible to what is intrinsic about the content, what it is really about, what it is really trying to say, and why this is important. The “why this is important” part takes us downstream to how the information products that will be produced will be used and to what the users of these information products will be trying to do.

So we do find ourselves thinking about the delivery channels and user tasks, and this is why a simple separation of content from format is not entirely desirable even if it were possible.

When talking about future-proofing content, I usually rephrase it as future-positioning as this turns the discussion from being negative and defensive towards being positive and constructive. In practice, there are three things you can do to make sure that your content is positioned for the future, including for unforeseeable eventualities.

  • Leverage an available open content standard. Basically this comes down to the “think like a gazelle” tactic where, to the extent that is possible, align yourself with a community of practitioners who are seeking similar goals. As a community, you will do a much better job of sensing upcoming innovations in the marketplace and of responding to those changes through shared investment. Also as a community, it is almost guaranteed that there will be someone in that group who has faced the latest challenge to hit you and therefore having a connection to that community can be one of the best resources you have when the unexpected happens.
  • Design your content for maximum processibility so that you can continuously improve it and do so rapidly and economically. If your content is “automation-friendly”, meaning that it has been rigorously designed to be logical, consistent, and even “elegant”, one of things that this means is that it can be processed into the broadest array of possible output formats. This includes being able to produce outputs that no one ever considered likely or possible. Being automation-friendly also means that if your content itself needs to evolve, you are in the best position to design and automate that migration when the time comes.
  • Design a content system that features solution patterns for validation, analysis, and controlled adaptation and that adheres to the greatest extent possible to the principles of lean system design. It is one of the more challenging attributes of content, although also one of its more fascinating qualities, that it naturally tends towards complexity. If you take steps towards designing a robust content system you will be able to quickly and efficiently capitalize on the above two measures for positioning your content for an unknown, and unknowable, future.

[VG]: Can you name any companies or brands that you admire for their content strategy? And why do you admire them?

[JG]: These references will not be as helpful as I would wish and mostly because they are not very accessible. My choices would be some of the aerospace and defense customers I have worked with over the last 25 years. To name names, I would point to Boeing, the US Department of Defense (DoD), and to some of the joint NATO system projects.

In these cases, content of bewildering volume and complexity was managed across networks of collaborating enterprises and maintained with a precision and sophistication that made it possible to continuously advance the state-of-the-art in content automation.

I would further point out that in these cases, content plays a profoundly strategic role and contributes, directly, to the effectiveness and safe operation of systems that we all really want to work well.

Backend Questions

[VG]: If you get a chance to have lunch with a content strategist in your favorite restaurant in the city of your choice, whom will you pick, and why?

[JG]: There is so much to choose from here. I fear I am going to short-change myself by only choosing one. So I might break the rules and identify a few options. Even then I will be leaving out so many possibilities.

One that immediately springs to mind is meeting up with Cleve Gibbon perhaps at the Turf Tavern in Oxford. I see Cleve as a practitioner working in a slightly different segment of the content business than I do but I also see that he applies the type of rigour and comprehensive design thinking that I have been here advocating for in my answers. This meet-up would also provide Cleve with the opportunity to beat me up for not completing my book on “Engineering Content”.

Another would be Marie Girard in any one of Paris restaurants that I have frequented over the years. Marie has tracked an interesting trajectory across content strategy landscape and, like Cleve, has been bringing to bear an encouraging degree of systematic rigour and innovative thinking.

Finally, and I am forcing myself to stop after this one so that I don’t go on too long, it would be Nolwenn Kerzreho at PoutineBros in Rennes. Partly this is because I can’t get the idea out of my head of a fully Canadian-themed restaurant in France and partly this is because in the past Nolwenn and I have managed to collaborate very productively on workshops and articles — again applying a different type of rigour to a different set of content problems such as emerge when you think resolutely about the experience of authors, translators and subject matter experts.

[Vinish: I will still go with my next question that would have been more appropriate if you had picked only one for your lunch.]

[VG]: Who are the 3 individuals in CS whom you follow for their talks, writings, or for their social presence? Why them?

[JG]: In addition to the three amigos that I identified above, I would point to Cruce Saunders whose thoughtful and impassioned championing of “content engineering” strikes a chord with me (not surprisingly).

Another would be my friend and colleague Tom Aldous who brings to bear a solid business perspective on the entire content space, something I believe we need a lot more of.

My final candidate, and again I could go on, would be George Bina of SyncoSoft and the Oxygen XML Editor. George and the Oxygen team bring a mix of enthusiasm, imagination, and technical innovation to the nuts and bolts of designing, creating, and processing content — something that is important, indispensable, and inspiring.

[VG]: If you could weave a magic wand to seek one wish, what will you wish as a content strategist?

[JG]: I would wish to see the entire content business, and all content strategists, come together under a single message as to the strategic value of content to the modern, digital enterprise. This single message would be one that is accompanied by a framework that illustrates how all of the disciplines and techniques associated with content strategy and content technology come together to work as a unified, coordinated, and powerful whole. Oh wait, this is what I am trying to do with my book. I guess I just wished that I would get on with it and get it done.


Thank you Joe Gollner.

Vinish Garg | Products. Experience. Stories.

I am a EEES (External Eye Experience Specialist) for startups and their goals, for content, UX, and customer experience. Connect with me via @vingar or at vinishgarg.com.