The business’s minds

In this first part of my talk with Elizabeth McGuane, we strayed onto the subject of the way the organisation’s mind works – that it has the same automatic/subconscious behaviour as does the human mind. And it is as incapable of self-analysis as the rest of us.

Elizabeth McGuane

Elizabeth McGuane

Independent Content Strategist

Twitter: @emcguane


(When I first sat down to talk to Elizabeth, I forgot to check that the recorder was running. Consequently, we needed to repeat the conversation; trying to refer back to our original subjects made it somewhat stilted. This write-up includes some additional bridging – attributed to Elizabeth – to make it flow naturally.)

Elizabeth: One of the things in your book that resonated most with me was the idea that the clients really aren’t aware of what they’re doing. They have no problem with the doing, but they can’t deconstruct their processes in ways that we can then model to build the design the systems to support them.

Rick: That’s an interesting thought. I’m currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and as you said that the thought struck me: organisations are just like people. They have two minds. Most of the time, they are operating on the autonomous System 1. It doesn’t matter that the organisation is made up of individuals, they’re generally incapable of deconstructing the thinking that goes into their actions.

Elizabeth: There’s an analogy here between CMS development and the early days of UX as a practice. The inability to self-analyse is especially true when we try to get business thinking about their internal people as users. We’ve spent years struggling to get the business to think about the end user, to understand their role in the relationship. But as staff are closer to the business identity, this next step is much harder.

It’s like they don’t know what they don’t know, so it’s very hard to get them to think about it.

Rick: I thought it was they don’t know what they do know.

Elizabeth: Right, absolutely.

Rick: The process of getting them to understand what they’re doing is similar to the way you would get an individual to understand what they’re doing. You have to get them to slow down. Get them to consciously take each micro-action, and see each step.

It’s a laborious process. It means that something that might normally take half an hour is dragged out to half a day. But once we’ve gone through that with them, once they’ve helped us model their process, we can give them the tools that will streamline it; that will take the half hour down to 15 minutes, or five minutes…

Elizabeth: There are two sides we can look at this from. There are challenges with the structure of the communication, but also with the understanding of the flow of information within the business.

Rick: I was thinking mostly of the second of those, but the first is also an issue.

Elizabeth: I’ve done a lot of exercises with businesses to map out up-front content strategy work, asking: what is our vision? What do we want to accomplish? Do we even need a new website? Upper-end stuff. But if they don’t actually think about the granularity downstream – in the structure, the storage, how things can be handled, and what that structure is going to be – it really reduces the value of all the upstream stuff.

I’ve also done work mapping production pipelines, without looking at the CMS. Instead, we looked at all the people involved in content production. We’re looking at feedback cycles and workflows; the current information pipeline. It could be about getting a TV ad live, or publishing a brochure.

Even with organisations that have been doing things for 40-50 years, they can’t explain everything about how information flows through the business.

Rick: That’s not particularly surprising. There are so many variations, options, special considerations – especially after so many years – that many steps in the process are one-offs. Many of the choices made won’t be the result of following a predefined pattern; they will be made up on the spur of the moment based on past experience.

Elizabeth: Yeah. If you want to structure the information into a system, it’s pretty self-evident that you need to understand exactly what the information is, and how it moves. Not to mention all those special cases. Few people can get their heads around the complexity of a real information workflow; and in large organisations, with distributed processes, different people will know different parts of it.

When they start looking at the bigger picture, they struggle to understand their remit. What informational area are we trying to cover? What do we know? What do we need to know? Then, how do we break the information down into categories, and subcategories? What are the facets of information within the business?

They often struggle with that because the business is complex. It started as one thing and became something else. Or they do one thing now – or many things – but want to do something different in future. It’s a moving target.

Rick: You’re making me think it may be more difficult than I previously believed to get this right. We need to design systems that can cope with fluid content types, and fluid processes.

Elizabeth: I think it’s because they still think about content in terms of objects. It’s a piece of text. It’s a video. I think, the people involved in system design are guilty of this, too. I know I’m guilty of it. We all are.

Rick: Much as it hurts to say this, I’m not innocent.

Elizabeth: We think of content as objects instead of thinking of the subject matter contained within that content.

Rick: So what is the solution?

Elizabeth: We can take our lead from media organisations.

Most organisations’ purposes are to sell things. They understand the thing, not so much the communication. With media organisations, what they are selling and the communication channel through which it is sold are the same. Because of this, they understand their content really well – from both the informational and structural points of view. They understand their processes. And the technology has almost caught up with their needs, so they are able to implement fit-for-purpose platforms.

Rick: So we all need to become media organisations?

Elizabeth: No. It’s about a way of thinking about business logic and business culture. They can’t treat marketing and communications as “just media”. They’re not the same thing.

Before we can get the technology to work, we need to teach editorial practices. We need to impart an in-depth understanding of writing; how to structure an article, a piece of information. We need to teach them to break the subject material down so it is reusable on many levels.

Rick: That’s not always easy, even for people who write for a living.

As I mentioned in the book (p24) – as the advertising people have been telling us for ages – the medium is a dominant part of the message. (And Kahneman’s experiments demonstrate that the physiological reason for this; it’s a natural consequence of the fast/slow duality of the human mind.) We consume the combination of the message, the medium, and the environment we are in at the time; our understanding and acceptance of the message is influenced by all of these factors, and more.

Very few people can separate the message from the medium, especially at the creation stage.

Elizabeth: That’s true. Especially if there’s nothing there to begin with; if you’re starting with a blank sheet.

It’s going to be very hard to educate organisations, especially where introspective analysis isn’t already an intrinsic part of their culture. But I think we have to solve this problem before we give them CMSes that take advantage of full semantic and relational structures.

And it’s not a problem exclusive to large corporations. Start-ups face a similar problem. Many start-ups thinks of content governance as a luxury – they’ll sort it out later. One person can handle everything. That approach works for a while. Then they grow, and….

Rick: Shall I get out the fan?

Elizabeth: Ha!

Rick: I suppose, at the end of the day, it really comes down to helping the business understand how it thinks. So long as organisations insist on continuing to do the same old same old because it’s worked for them up until now, they’re not going to benefit from the real opportunities the technology offers.