Every 48 seconds, somewhere in the business world, a content crisis hits. An executive bursts into a subordinate’s cubicle, teeth clenched, muttering something like: “Who posted THAT on the corporate blog?” Or, “Have you SEEN the competitor’s new mobile campaign?” Or (the perennial favorite), “I can’t find anything on the STUPID INTRANET!”
OK, I made that 48-second stat up. But it’s not too far from the truth. With a constant deluge of new content channels, technologies, and demands, content crises are a fact of life in many organizations. These day-to-day crises aren’t just isolated events—they’re symptoms of a far bigger change: content is now a business asset, and that is rocking the foundations of the business world. According to traditional business theory, only tangible goods—and maybe services—are supposed to be business assets. Throw content into the business-asset-mix and everything taught in business school—business strategy, economic theory, org structure, customer relations, etc.—is under assault.
Content professionals, activate! Our time has come.
Business leaders need our help. (And some of them are even willing to pay us for it!) However, to truly help our clients and colleagues, we can’t rely on content powers alone. We must understand the complex relationship between “the content” and “the business.”
First things first: how’d we get into this mess?
This content storm didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Content and business have been on a collision course since the 1950s when, in post-WWII America, two important things happened.
First, a few key businessmen—led by GM’s CEO Alfred Sloan and Harvard professor Alfred Chandler—started to model their organizations after the army. The result: a corporate general (the CEO) and his elite advisors created a “strategy” (a term borrowed from the military), and handed it down to the lower-ranking staff to execute. Communication flowed from the top down. And that’s the way they liked it, uh-huh, uh-huh.
Second, in 1956, the number of white-collar jobs in the U.S. surpassed blue-collar jobs. Historians consider this milestone to be the beginning of the Information Age—an era where each generation of individuals has an ever-increasing ability to access, consume, create, and publish content. Not to mention an ever-increasing desire to be heard. (Not quite what the businessmen had in mind.)
To make matters worse, the businessmen based their concept of business strategy on The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s 1776 bestseller on economic theory. Back in the 18th century, the businesses only had one goal—to make and sell goods profitably. Smith declared that anything of value was transparent (you could see it before you bought it) and transferable (only one person could use it at a time). Information doesn’t fit either of those criteria, and so it was deemed to have no value. As a result, even if an executive recognized content’s significance, he or she had no incentive to focus on it. Content was only information. No matter what employees and customers wanted, content did not officially affect the bottom line.
So what’s next?
Today, content (particularly online content) has become such a critical part of business success that it can’t be ignored. Businesses know they need content—badly—but have no idea what it’s worth or how to justify spending money on it. While technology keeps driving the need for more content and related services, economics and business theory are struggling to catch up.
So what does that mean for us, dear comrades? It means we have to pay attention to business-world stuff. It means we’re going to have to find new ways to prove the value of our work, so we can get funded and paid (oh, that!). It means there’s an opportunity to change our role in the organization—from being on the “nice-to-have” sidelines to sitting at the boardroom table with the people who set vision and strategy. Most of all, it means the time has come for us to rise up and actively participate in this conversation, even if economics and math make us squeamish.
Let’s do this
As a regular columnist at Contents, I’ll dig into the evolving business-content relationship—and how it affects people who work in content-related disciplines (content strategy, information science, et al.). I’ll provide research, trend analysis, observations, tactics, and more fake stats! (Just kidding. I promise to lay off the fake stats. For awhile.) I hope you’ll share your own observations, too.
This issue of Contents is about lineage. It’s useful to look backward, but honestly, I’m thrilled to be right where I am in the great pedigree of civilization. After all, we’re on the cusp of one of the biggest shifts in business history.
I’m claiming a front row seat, and I hope you’ll join me. See you next time.
Bonus: a strategy reading list
Introduction to strategy
- What Is Strategy and Does It Matter? by Richard Whittington. This is my favorite intro to business strategy. Accessible, informational, and only 170 pages. Had I found it 10 years ago, it would have saved me lots of time. These days, I reference it so often for my team that I don’t leave home without it.
- The Strategy Reader by Susan Segal-Horn. Forget the person who gave this book three stars on Amazon. This is a nice selection of the best essays and book excerpts on strategy from the last few decades. Is it dense? Yep. Most strategy stuff is. But, this gives you a good overview of what’s out there. You can pick what you like and research further.
- HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy by the Harvard Business Review. This is the Harvard Business Review’s greatest hits collection. They’re smart people over there, but they do have a specific point of view and bias. It overlaps a bit with the Segal-Horn book, but well worth the effort.
History of Strategy
- My Years with General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan. Here it is from the horse’s mouth—Sloan’s ideas and philosophies. Whether or not you agree with him, it’s considered a classic.
- Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise by Alfred Dupont Chandler. And here’s Alfred Chandler’s book—it includes information about Sloan’s GM and 70 other organizations at the time.
- The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World by Walter Kiechel. Here’s another take at the origins of business strategy—with particular insight on where some of the big agencies came from. Warning: Kiechel is a bit of a fanboy and this book makes me snicker sometimes.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. If you want 500 pages of 18th century rhetoric and economics, this is it. Adam Smith was brilliant, but he was wordy. So, there’s no shame in trying something like this instead: GradeSaver™ ClassicNotes: The Wealth of Nations Study Guide by Britta Redwood and Elizabeth Weinbloom.