We tend to think of progress as an entirely good thing. We celebrate great firsts, groundbreaking ideas, and new discoveries. We revere inventors as heroes for the common good. Even during the recent Olympics’ opening ceremonies—right after the Queen and Mr. Bean—there was a five-minute musical number dedicated to (and featuring) Tim Berners-Lee.

But progress is change, and change is often hard. With innovation comes the extinction of things that are known, comfortable, and cherished. Case in point: As I write this column surrounded by shelves of beloved books, my Kindle lurks ominously beside me on the table.

Economists have a phrase for progress’ double-edged sword: creative destruction. To summarize Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the phrase around 1942, creative destruction is a necessary component of capitalism. For a capitalist economy to function, new industries need to periodically destroy and replace established industries. In Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan writes:

Capitalism can be a brutal, cruel process. We look back and speak admiringly of technological breakthroughs like the steam engine, the spinning wheel, the telephone. But those advances made it a bad time to be, respectively, a blacksmith, a seamstress, or a telegraph operator. Creative destruction is not just something that might happen in a market economy. It is something that must happen.

And the content nerds shall inherit the earth?

As content professionals, we seem to be on the winning side of creative destruction’s current cycle. After all, as Peter Drucker famously argued in The Landmarks of Tomorrow, we are in a transition from an economy based on material goods to one based on knowledge. More recently, Manuel Castells offered nearly 2000 pages of reasons why we should believe the information age is upon us.

So, three cheers for the knowledge economy—where wealth is created through the economic exploitation of understanding. For us, the Information Society is not just a clever band name from the late 80s; it’s job security. Higher demand for knowledge and information means more need for content.
We have arrived.

But before you pour that celebratory glass of Macallan, remember progress comes with a cost. Just like everyone else, we content people must kill some of our darlings to move forward.

Explosions, cataclysms, crises!

Content-focused industries are taking the first hit. In the Grundrisse, Marx said the creative forces in capitalism lead “to explosions, cataclysms, crises!” and the newspaper industry’s implosion might be exactly the kind of cataclysm he had in mind.

With their historical revenue model obliterated, newspapers are scrambling to stay in business. A recent This American Life segment, (Switcheroo/Forgive Us Our Press Passes), details how some papers are outsourcing local news stories like school lunch schedules and obituaries to “writers” as far away as Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and Africa.

But changing the business is not enough, the content needs to change, too. In newsrooms everywhere, journalists are looking for new ways to meet the needs of the modern, web-enabled reader. There is discussion about alternatives to the article as a format, and there are even (gasp!) challenges to the inverted pyramid.

Newspapers aren’t alone. Other content product-providers (such as the recording, publishing, and film industries) are in similar states of chaos and reinvention.

Creative destruction, content, and the corporation

But what about everybody else? What about organizations where content is a means to an end, like companies that make shoes and sell retirement funds? What’s this got to do with them?

As the pace and business value of content increases, organizations of all kinds are going to have to keep up with customer demands for content. As a result, they’ll need to challenge some very entrenched behaviors and beliefs.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Chris Zook says:

We are clearly entering a period where the extinction of the slow, the inflexible, and bureaucratic is about to happen in record numbers.

Extinction sounds unpleasant. Let’s try to avoid it by anticipating a few key changes.

Org chart overhauls

First, we’ll need to rethink the way organizations are structured. In most large companies the content creation engine is spread across several teams such as marketing, IT, public relations, advertising, and more. To increase both efficiency and content quality, these teams will likely be consolidated or reconfigured to ensure the people who create, tag, publish, and maintain content are working together like a well-oiled machine.

This trend is already gaining steam. A handful of prominent organizations have recently combined corporate archrivals—marketing and technology—under one web-savvy roof. (See Best Buy’s new arrangement led by former Starbucks wunderkind, Stephen Gillett, for example). And we can expect more corporate walls to fall, with or without help from David Hasselhoff.

While some jobs will be lost in this consolidation, we can expect to see new, more specialized roles created to accommodate new team structures and new kinds of content. New job titles, such as corporate journalist, metadata strategist, and content liaison will continue to pop up.

Strategic routines, not detailed strategic plans

Next, we’ll have to develop more nimble processes. These days, it’s not practical to plan every piece of content in advance, or run every piece of content through six levels of approvals. Things simply move too quickly, and there is too much content to create.

Instead of generating detailed strategic (or even editorial) plans, organizations may choose to develop strategic routines—processes where employees (at all levels of the organization) are trained to make smart game-day decisions based on their own expertise and some basic guidelines. As they say in chaos theory: aim for enough structure to see patterns, but enough freedom to encourage creativity.

In his book, Selling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith advises, “Don’t plan your future, plan your people. Outstanding people who fit your broad vision will tend to make the right decisions along the way—not by following a plan but by using their skill.”

For many managers relinquishing control sounds like a pretty risky proposition. Many will turn to agencies to just “make the magic happen.” As Leisa Reichelt says on disambiguity.com, “When the client outsources the work, they feel as though they’re outsourcing the risk.” But successful client-agency relationships of the future will also likely move away from safe, expected deliverables to more trust-based routines.

New definitions for success

We’ll also need to set different expectations for content success. Today, content valuation is all about instant gratification. To judge success, we look at:

  • Short timeframes (e.g., fiscal quarters or immediate results)
  • Isolated pieces of work (e.g., project-related content sets or individual pages)
  • Easily accessible analytics (e.g., page hits or SEO results)

Unfortunately, users don’t play by those rules. They rarely view just one, isolated piece of content. They don’t limit their activities to specified corporate reporting periods. And, just because SEO gets them to a page, doesn’t mean the content meets their needs. Instead, users interact with large systems of content—across channels and devices, over days, weeks, and years. Content’s real value lies in influencing customer relationships and community over the long-term.

Furthermore, when you have people making fast-paced decisions at all levels of the organization, mistakes are bound to happen. Luckily, failed experiments often lead to positive breakthroughs. With a long-term view of content success, trial and error can become a key part of the innovation process. No, quarterly numbers won’t always wow the stakeholders/investors, but that’s ok. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously told his shareholders, “We are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”

Sure, we can learn from A/B testing the content on the home page or comparing the analytics of individual pages, but we need to invent additional evaluation criteria, tools, and metrics that give us the more holistic definition of content success.

Changes to content itself

And, of course, content itself will continue to change. Hundreds of blogs have been already written about the drastic changes in store for content. The way we format it. How we access it. The technology behind it.

In her talk, “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content” Karen McGrane gives us a compelling vision of content’s immediate future. Her message is clear: Forget harkening back to the simple days of print. In fact, don’t even pine for the days when we created webpages solely for desktop computers. We need to prepare for a whole new world.

Creative destruction is a lifestyle

Despite its fiery name, creative destruction is often a slow burn. It’s not an event, it’s a lifestyle. We will be creating these changes to our organizations and content for years to come. It’ll be painful. It’ll be exciting. And, someday hopefully, it’ll be called progress.