The first thing I have to say is this: “Anyone attempting to make a distinction between good learning experiences and good content doesn’t know the first thing about either.”
In a world where anyone and everyone seems to be authoring content (and more and more of it), is there any reason to care about how well content gets put together? Is there any reason to care about what happens to that content on its merry way to distribution, or after it is in the hands of the consumer? From all appearances, particularly in the case of stuff passed off online as “learning content,” you might just say “no,” or (in my New York City lingo) “fuhgeddaboudit.”
Well, let’s not throw in the towel just yet. I’m going to advocate for a content world with an “open door” policy on contribution to the content pool by anyone at any time. Here’s why. The individual who takes possession of information is the best one to determine its value. The value increases as the information gets blended or mashed up with other information. What is important is that, come hell or high water, we have sensible ways to ingest the various content elements and process them in some orderly fashion so that four things are true:
- anyone can get to the content;
- when they get to the content, they know what it is;
- the content serves its intended purpose; and,
- the content carries with it a reasonable means to verify its authenticity, or at least its source(s)
Here’s where I am going. Corral the “thought leaders,” and not just the folks in the learning world, but our sisters and brothers in media, and develop from them a slate of acceptable vehicles for content management and outlets for content distribution. The result will be a veritable laundry list of technologies, tools, and techniques, ranging from highly structured and sophisticated systems with hefty price tags down to downloadable products and online resources for little or no cost.
Among these distinguished thinkers in the corral are the mobile-learning mavens and social-learning enthusiasts. They have already opened the door to the wider content world by advocating liberalized content authoring and relaxed constraints on what we define as a “learning experience” and how it is useable. It’s easy to see that water-cooler coaching has given way to “tweets” and other social media chatter. The preferred method for accessing content now consists of the various social media and mobile devices. Those who fail to appreciate change and change management further validate Marshall McLuhan, who said: “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a new situation, we look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
We just have to get over ourselves and face the learning world as it takes us into this technology renaissance. It’s no longer the Pleasantville of our instructional ancestors. Wait, though! We can master the content tsunami if we raise attune ourselves to the changes in the order of this new world. Not “order” in the sense of neat rows of tables and chairs in a classroom, but as seen by those thought leaders.
We learning content developers should be beholden to this group. They are offering us a fresh look at the concept of content strategy. Even as we concern ourselves with helping our organizations persevere, compete, and grow in these dreadful economic global environments, the distinguished thinkers are giving us new rules and guiding principles that are highly adaptable to our particular brands of content. I am enthralled with the prospects of what we can do for ourselves and our organizations.
So, for the remainder of this article, and through the next two, I’m going to spin a story about why we need content strategy and who needs to care about it.
Content: what a concept
In the simplest terms, anything that comes through to you as information is content. And, when you receive that information in a form to which you attach meaning, the content then holds value. It has the prospect of becoming useful as new, additional input to your understanding or knowledge – or even as some part of the process for building a skill.
In our content production roles, therefore, we have a responsibility for seeing that any form of information that we provide has the capacity of being transformative for the user. A person can get it, and when he or she does, it possesses some crazy ability to improve its usefulness. Not always, or in every case, but when it does, it’s like physics: the content consumer converts it into his or her own form of energy. That’s when learning happens.
As any cognitive psychologist would advocate, the essence of good content is that it becomes “user-centered.” For the content consumer, experiencing information in useful forms evokes a positive emotion. Not only that, when the information relates contextually, the value of the content becomes available to him or her. Our mission is about content that is appropriate for the user. It’s about content that is “right” – what they need, where they need it, how they need it, and when they need it.
Now here’s the hard question. How do you go about creating content that is “right for the consumer,” and “right for the business?” In her book, The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane raises the point saying, “Content is appropriate for your business when it helps you accomplish your business goals in a sustainable way.” Sustainable content, and this is particularly true of “learning content,” is the result of a production process that we should carry out without going broke; or, as Kissane also notes, “without working us into a nervous breakdown.”
We are at a crossroads. Meeting the objectives of content for both business and consumer in this age of digital disruption comes down to some wizardry and craftsmanship. While my theme here, and in the following articles, holds true for our business of learning, we have to think in a broader context. Our importance to the organization as owners of content development must now incorporate a view that the outputs and outcomes of our work meet needs outside of the LMS and the boundaries of our business unit charter. We might need to satisfy conventional training requirements, but we have much more to do, including satisfying performance support requirements or plain fulfillment of basic knowledge needs.
Content strategy – a crazy amalgamation of fundamentals
Fundamental One: Users are people too.
In my scheme, content is going to be “user-centric.” The term du jour for the environment that the user connects with is “ecosystem.” I’ll also be referencing what I call the “mobilized content ecosystem,” which is a construct where the individual has the ability to search, find, access, and use content through multiple channels and across a myriad of platforms onto a host of devices. (Figure 1)
Figure 1. A Mobilized Content Ecosystem
Another salient point about the user’s environment is that the ecosystem is open to providing access to and through many touch points, which introduces the next element.
Fundamental Two: The channels are many and different.
In this digital landscape the individual attaches as, at least, a single “node.” In some cases the person is more than a single node, because he or she connects with multiple devices and through more than one “network” or “carrier” – sometimes simultaneously. Looking at this phenomenon in Figure 2, we can realize the level of complexity introduced before we even contemplate the particular needs of the user for content for learning or otherwise.
Figure 2. The Digital Landscape
Fundamental Three: Analysis and audits are the rock and the roll.
You don’t know a thing unless you got that swing. Don’t bother investing in strategy unless you intend to evaluate what current content is doing and how it is performing. The initial investment is to document content that is already available from any and every source. The next step is to conduct an audit, to understand what that content is contributing in value to the business. The final step is to determine where there are gaps.
Fundamental Four: Channels are the best way to make your product(s) available.
Through the analysis and audit, the gaps point out two things. They identify areas where content fails to meet some of the requirements, or where content does not even exist to address requirements. They underscore areas where there are shortcomings or failures in reaching the content consumer with relevant content. Extracting a line from an old Paul Newman movie (“Cool Hand Luke,” 1969), “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” There are two critical considerations. We have to know which appropriate channels are required for distribution, and we have to know the best way to employ those channels to meet the needs of the users. That’s channel distribution and channel strategy.
Fundamental Five: It’s a field of dreams – if you build it, they will come.
To fulfill the channel requirements there needs to be an information architecture and content management initiative. The information architecture (IA) is the design of structures for content, including housing, navigation, and structure. The content management is the creation of ways to ingest, catalog, index, search, access, format, and disburse the information in ways that meet requirements for the business and consumer.
Fundamental Six: It’s alive.
We are operating in a laboratory which has certain things in common across organizations. However, each of our organizations is unique. Respecting the diversity and uniqueness of our organization means producing a methodology that combines our own necessary assembly of technology, process, structure, and form. We have existing investments in learning technology, enterprise solutions, and communications approaches. Each of us has our own Frankenstein to harness.
This is the first part of a three-part series. In the next two parts, I’ll be systematically discussing the fundamentals. I hope it proves useful.
I’ll leave you with a challenge. I ask you to comment back on the article to me. Give me your list of the elements that you consider critical to producing an effective content strategy.
Kissane, Erin. (2011) The Elements of Content Strategy. New York: A Book Apart.
[Editor's Note: Find the links for Parts 2 and 3 at the top of this article.]