February 2018
Text by Mathias Maul

Image: DNY59/istockphoto.com

Half linguist, half computer scientist and half psychotherapist, Mathias Maul founded The Content Shrinks to help organizations implement author-first workflows as the most effective means to plan, create, manage and measure reader-first content. The Content Shrinks is a boutique agency for content therapy and corporate change. Its loosely-knit network of strong-minded professionals is available world-wide for on-premises and remote projects alike.


hi[at]shrnks.co


 

This article is a translation from the German professional magazine 'technische kommunikation'. To read the original article, please visit www.tekom.de.

Love your silos!

Rigid silo structures, struggles over power and budgets, and an unwavering "we’ve-always-done-it-this-way"-mentality are all too common symptoms of communication barriers within an organization. The causes can often be attributed to the human factor: Everyone wants to contribute to success – if it weren’t for "the others".

Organizations are responsible for creating and nurturing a culture and infrastructure that facilitates smooth communication. If their attempts are only half-hearted, the result will be half-hearted as well, leading to communication barriers and frustration: Employees huddle together in ad-hoc units – silos – where they are among themselves. This may feel good for the moment, but in the long run, silos lead to decreased productivity, loss of motivation and resignation.

This article addresses technical writers who regularly tear their hair out over "those guys in marketing and sales". It might also be helpful for marketers who think that technical writers are those pale green aliens typing away in the basement. As a manager, you will gain some insight into moving your group or department towards a more collaborative and communicative culture; for the leaves on the hierarchical tree I am providing suggestions to advance solutions using "bottom-up management".

Three of the most expensive obstacles

First and foremost, be aware that disruptions between teams, individuals or (most importantly) in our own minds are a natural part of communication. They turn into full-blown barriers only when they are interpreted as problems and not as (mostly) useful feedback.

An example: A marketer consistently ignoring queries from technical communication, is – from his perspective – not disrupting communication, He is protecting his valuable work schedule. Similarly, if the technical communications department does not inform marketing about new data sheets in time for the start of a campaign, this is a breach of obligation to deliver from the marketing perspective. The technical communications team, on the other hand, might argue: "They could’ve asked earlier, couldn’t they?"

Before you know it, communicative becomes fussy: facts are mixed up with emotions, policies with contracts, and the "marketing people" and the "techdoc people" regard each other as "flyer factory" or "form fillers", respectively. Communication molehills turn into mountains consuming time, money and nerves. As employees strive to protect themselves and their work, silos are reinforced and turn into the new normal

How can we solve these issues? Let’s start by examining three of the most expensive communicative obstacles:

Obstacle 1: No knowledge about "the others"

The e-mail program signals a new message has just come in: a briefing from marketing. Spontaneous reactions such as "what has marketing dreamt up now?" are typical symptoms of the most expensive obstacle, which is also the easiest one to solve: Vagueness regarding tasks and services of the respective departments and their employees leaves untapped potential.

I have often heard employees of department A ask what "those people in department B" are actually doing exactly. Hardly ever was this meant to be derogatory, yet it always revealed how little some know about the significance and purpose of their colleagues’ work. Importantly, this is not just an information deficit: It is not enough to know that colleague A is responsible for the technical documentation of product B. It is more important to know why this task is vital. What is the purpose of colleague A’s work? Lack of knowledge about the significance and purpose of "the others" creates emotional deficits, and these transform disruptions in communication into barriers.

In many cases the problem reaches even deeper: It is not just a matter of one hand not knowing what the other is doing but not even being aware that there are other hands at all. These other hands can be internal departments as well as external service providers: Agencies, specifically budgeted by departments, cannot deliver excellent work if not everyone within the organization is aware of who can do what, who has employed whom, when, for what and why, and which results were achieved.

Perhaps the blog post that marketing is currently writing can be improved with the help of technical communication? Or TC already has the necessary content that could be reused?  Maybe the translators in technical communication are working on persona definitions that marketing has never seen, because no one in marketing has the slightest idea that translators and localization experts work with persona definitions? And perhaps a technical communication agency already has a solution for a problem that marketing is struggling with on a daily basis?

Being unable to answer these questions because of a lack of information infrastructure between the departments is a problem; a greater problem exists if these questions cannot be posed at all. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to support each other and achieve results that benefit all.

Obstacle 2: No global content strategy

Due to the influence of the content marketing scene, the common definition of "content" has moved to "texts, images and videos that serve marketing". In fact, however, content includes all concrete media units such as texts or images that convey internal and external organizational information and can trigger target-oriented actions. Thus comments in the CRM database and meeting minutes are considered content as well as blog posts, source code along with comments, Helpdesk knowledge databases, tweets and Facebook posts. In a nutshell:

  • Along with information, external content primarily conveys trust which is the foundation of all business relationships. The brochures that your sales employee leaves with a customer are representative of the employee, the product and the company.
  • Internal content structures the organization. It is the tangible, reproducible and measurable result of communication processes and thus an ideal vehicle that can be used to optimize workflows.

However, many organizations perceive content as a cost center and not as a cross-divisional profit center. Therefore, they tend to separate content processes from other value adding business processes. It is symptomatic that the effect of content is often evaluated based on "vanity KPIs" such as pageviews or the number of "likes".  They look good but have little, if any, business relevance. Also, the effect of internal content is measured rarely, if at all.

A lack of awareness about manifest communication (= content) leads to a depreciation of the content strategy, and this in turn leads to communication barriers. Because without engaging with the value-adding aspects of content, disruptions can neither be measured comprehensively nor resolved.

 

 

  • Content is a mediator for trust.
  • The more confident an author is, the more the reader trusts the content.
  • Always communicate the why.
  • Learn to love silos.
  • Change grows from upwards: Focus on the leaves of the org chart tree.
  • Improve miscommunication with the help of content KPIs.

Info 1: Humane Content Workflows: Principles
Source: Mathias Maul

 

 

Obstacle 3: A fool with a tool is still a fool

All employees (and, by extension, external agencies) should be able to easily obtain all essential information regarding the work and results of their colleagues. But even today, and even in in hi-tech organizations, flipchart photos from meetings are still pasted into “Word” files and sent to email distribution lists. These archaic processes cause an enormous waste of time, money and, above all, potential.

Modernization initiatives often originate at team level, because the problems are especially painful at operative level. Therefore, a Wiki is installed “on the fly”, or (yet) another account is created with Trello. Try to count, if you can: How many Wikis are installed on your company’s servers? Dozens of orphaned installations of Wikis, forums, chat and microblogging services encapsulate valuable content because they are unable to bridge team boundaries or are replaced after a short time by the latest of the latest… just because it is new.

Even with larger scale cross-team initiatives I have never seen a case in which the mere installation of a tool has solved existing barriers. Why? Because the bigger the initiative, the lesser the time and emotions that are invested in communicating the true purpose of this new tool and to ensure that everyone enjoys using it.

Content is manifest communication. If its creation and control are still amiss, a heterogeneous content tool landscape is a part of the problem: Technical writers think in XML, but marketers get the jitters when they have to deliver brochure copy in XML and on top of that use software that restricts their creativity. The emotional deficit resulting from this reinforces the information deficit and contributes to communication barriers. An attempt is made to overcome these barriers by simply installing another tool. Now guess what happens then. "Oh, I forgot the password. Never mind, I’ll just e-mail it as Meeting_17.06.30_FINAL.docx."

Solve barriers – in 99,273 easy steps

Engineering skills are generally not helpful in solving communication disruptions between people. One reason being that knowledge of the causes does not automatically show the way to the solution. Quite the contrary: excessive analysis can even sabotage change. And as barriers are systemically linked, there can be no simple if-then solutions. This applies to "ebugging" barriers within the organization as well as to internal psychological productivity or creativity barriers.

From the list below, select a measure that appears the most meaningful for you to start with and apply it consistently until you can measure with certainty if and what kind of improvements emerge. First, consider these three general principles of change. They are helpful especially when you "actually have no time for these things". Memorize these principles and remember every day how useful they are, even it is only for a few minutes.

Three basic principles

  1. Systems are not just connected, they are entangled. Even in small companies we can only begin to imagine the full extent of the dynamics between people, teams and departments. Due to the many imperceptible (and, by definition, un-analyzable) dependencies, only actually wiggling one part of the system can show what the impact will be.
  2. It is better to proceed with consistent, small and concrete steps from the bottom than with large plans from the top. Don’t redefine the company vision or mission for the umpteenth time. Instead, focus consistently on leaves of the org chart trees. Have the confidence that changes in these positions will automatically expand to the team, department and divisional levels, especially when employees switch teams.
  3. Responsibility flows in all directions. Demand responsibility from everyone involved, regardless of his or her position in the pecking order. Document all measures so that they are transparent for all those involved (meetings are, by the way, the least suitable means to effect this). Work with push measures (e. g. digest emails automatically generated from resolved tickets) or create new channels: For example, how about a status monitor next to the coffee machine in the break room that shows the latest successes of the communication improvements via the API of your ticketing tool?

This is a simplified scheme that can help structuring change processes. Typically, change is the more stable the more consistently the processes are initiated and executed at the lowest levels. Mission statements start at the top level and must therefore be vague enough to include all other levels. In consequence, the generally achieve nothing at all. Working on specific contexts and behavioral patterns is clearly more complex than formulating grand sentences, but also brings measurable results quickly.

  • Purpose (Ms. Y knows that she is a part of the organization.)
  • Identity (Mr. X feels he is "an engineer through and through.")
  • Values (It is important for Ms. X to celebrate successes with her colleagues.)
  • Convictions (Mr. X knows that he can write creatively structured texts.)
  • Capabilities (Ms. X can use tool Y.)
  • Specific behaviors (Mr. X marks a task as completed when he has completed it.)
  • Context in which a behavior takes place (Ms. X receives emails with briefings from Sales.)

Info 2: Levels of change Sources: Gregory Bateson/Robert Dilts; additional examples in bracket

 

Measure 1: Use terminology  as a bridge

"Oh, the technical communication department’s terminology was not enough, so we created our own." This actual case of a marketing team creating its own special terminology is one of many examples: One team optimizes their work without other teams or departments being able to share the profit.

And yet, terminology is a simple tool – that exists in many organizations at least as an outline – to build a first bridge between marketing and technical communication. Naturally, all sides must participate in defining and maintaining the terminology: even the then unavoidable discussion about terms can be the start of a more fruitful communication.

Measure 2: Value and use content as the business asset that it is

The effect of content is predictable and measurable, and inherently transcends departmental and divisional boundaries. The step from viewing it as cost factor to recognizing it as a corporate asset is small for anyone who understands this. Anyone creating content must know who will consume it, in which contexts it will be us, what the intended responses are and which goals should be achieved. Planning and managing this across the organization is the task of the content strategy: Linking business processes with an alive, target-oriented system of content.

By handling content (remember: it’s manifest communication) truly strategically, companies create the foundation for enterprise-wide content re-use and re-purposing and almost incidentally improve communication between teams, departments and divisions. If your company does not have a staff position for content strategy yet, localization team members are often the first choice to take on this task. Focusing on users and contexts is part of their core business, and they typically receive inputs from all departments. Both make them especially suitable to carry out content strategy work.

Measure 3: Learn to love silos

You have just sat down to have dinner with your loved ones. The doorbell rings, you get up and open the door. A man in a dark gray three-piece suit says that, well, he has come to tear down the walls of your apartment. "Oh, just go on eating," he says, clearing his throat, then pulls a sledgehammer out of his briefcase and takes a swing.

"We have to tear down the silos!" is the mantra emanating time and again from the literature on corporate change. But imagine for a second… what would it feel like if you sat inside the silo, surrounded by dear colleagues… and then a three-piece suit consultant came around… with a hammer?

The cynical rhetoric of tearing down silos is roundly useless. After all, silos don’t develop out of malice but out of necessity, whether planned or unplanned. Within the silo, communication channels are short and trust prevails: A silo is a circle of friends. Apply this knowledge to your business, analyze the silos and their positive properties, and continuously work on strengthening the positive. Thus the walls will crumble, gradually, by themselves.

By the way, it is always helpful to start with the silos in our own minds. Finding out why other teams work the way they work is a first step towards more understanding. Attach the "why", i. e. the purpose, to each and every briefing is the second step, and communicating with your colleagues until you are certain that everyone knows what their contribution is— is the third to four hundred and ninety-eighth step.

Measure 4: Ruthlessly promote collaboration

Barriers resulting from a lack of a link between business and content processes cannot be solved selectively: Information must flow freely and concepts such as obligations to collect and deliver are not very helpful in today’s organizations. Content needs collaboration, and the first step to create better content, i. e. improve corporate communications, is to establish and promote a culture of collaboration.

Employees from Technical Communication like to use "serious" tools such as Jira or Pivotal Tracker for collaboration, while marketing professionals are attracted to Trello’s virtual index cards. Some people hate to make calls, others need words to get organized. As important as it is to honor the preferences of employees and create an ideal work environment for them, it is also important to define the interoperability between tools and to build bridges even before they are implemented and to commit to maintaining them in the long term.

The fear of employees of being "buried under even more information" with the opening of the silo gates is understandable. Therefore, the exchange of information must be kept informal with the minimal requirement that everyone knows what the other can do, what they are doing now and what they have done. If you also succeed in communicating the meaning and purpose time and again, e. g. as a summarized sentence in every briefing, you are on the best way towards creating a collaborative culture that benefits everyone.

You can also achieve much through attentive listening – this is, after all, one of the core tasks of middle management. For instance, employees often fear inwardly that they will be "perpetuated negatively" when using collaboration tools in the change history. Therefore, before introducing such tools it is particularly important to explain why and to ensure that everyone really understands how and why this makes everyone’s work easier.

Media neutrality is another aspect of a harmonized content infrastructure. Marketing employees love to produce content as the technical writers do: structured, reusable, from a single source. XML along with diverse schemata is a suitable technology to achieve this, but mentioned above, marketing people shudder at the mere thought of it. Harmonization doesn’t have to mean that everyone uses the same tool. It means that a new tool does not create new boundaries, but rather helps to make them superfluous. It can then be helpful if technical writers explain to marketing employees the reasons and value of XML – until they understand and appreciate it. The objective is to then find tools that bridge the worlds.

Transcreation: a link between technical communications and marketing

In many organizations, Technical Communication together with Localization are part of the Product Development division – and therefore, at first glance, miles away from Marketing. During the past Localization World 34 (locworld.com) congress in Barcelona I discussed this with many colleagues and participants, and my attention was drawn repeatedly to the relatively new discipline of Transcreation.

More than just translation and localization, transcreation includes creating new content partially or completely if the target markets require it. Localization experts must therefore have a deep understanding and feeling for the  recipients and their contexts of use. This makes their work structurally very similar to that provided by employees in marketing and sales.

Negatively speaking, one could say that technical communication and marketing take work away from each other or produce multiple expenditures. On the positive side, this shows an undreamt of potential for cooperation between both departments—if a corresponding collaboration culture exists.

Along with sharing information and tasks, collaboration also means sharing skills. Consider the facet of transcreation as an example, which is defined as "localization plus authenticity": the most authentic and emotional employees are usually found in the Marketing and Sales departments, and in addition to the information that is important for transcreation they can also contribute personal skills that are helpful in the Technical Writing department. In turn, when the technical authors contribute their structuring skills, they can bring some peace of mind to the often overly dynamic Marketing departments: the next bridge is built.

Summary

During the analysis phase of new consulting projects, we like to take a look at shared server directories. Files such as Brochure_v2_new_final_DRAFT(Meier)_release.ppt are a sure sign of some skeletons lurking in the closet.

This is just one of the many symptoms that point to communication barriers. These are as diverse as people themselves. Unfortunately, I could not yet fulfill a customer’s wish to make his employees better communicators through palm healing. The closest thing to this kind of magic is to attach more significance to actions and measurements than to analysis. If small, even tiny, action steps are too unusual for you, and you need a "broad" guideline, take this one: The We is more important than the I – Corny? No, foundations.

Further reading