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How do you reverse engineer your content architecture? It’s not easy, but not impossible.

I was recently asked something that laid out a common problem in the content world: 

“If you have an existing site but not a strong information architecture, how would you implement and reverse engineer this site?” 

Because of organizational diversity, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to content management. The complexity of this question is that the content already exists within an established framework that isn’t working as well as it should. Still, many organizations remain obstinate about change, so the solution demands subtlety.

The problem has been diagnosed, but this question of “how?” has a few parts threaded into it: 

    • There’s existing website content
    • The architecture and organization of that content isn’t effectively supporting business requirements 
    • We need to use existing content to build a better information structure

In the beginning, it’s important not to spook anyone. You need as many allies as possible during this process, so don’t kick things off by shaking the foundations of your information architecture and causing too many ripples. Of course, as with Olympic diving, breaking the surface without making a big splash requires practice, planning, and finesse.

Start with a Content Audit

What forms does my content take? Where is my content located? What is the total scope and purpose of my content? 

Big questions that boil down to an inventory. This inventory is an essential preliminary step to auditing your content. Knowing the form, location, and purpose of all your content makes you better able to understand its context within your information architecture. 

From that context, you’re then able to better assign value to your content. Every organization knows that all content is not created equal. But, how can we identify content, regardless of value, within an information architecture that’s not strong? Your inventory is a good start, but a list is hardly useful without a purpose. 

So, once you have your content inventory, you need to clearly define what your content audit will look like, what it will achieve, and how you’ll execute it (here’s a great article that goes into depth on content audits). In order to explain this in as-simple-as-possible, 5th-grade terms to colleagues and stakeholders, you have to have a clear idea yourself. A good place to start is by asking some questions that’ll drive the purpose of the content audit:

    • In my existing content, what’s broken?
    • What content is most valuable?
    • What outcomes are my content not supporting?
    • What am I trying to achieve by doing this audit in the first place?

Naturally, the answers to these questions will vary per organization. However, having strong, achievable answers is crucial regardless of the organization. You’re already heading down a road that’s sure to ruffle some feathers, so you’d best have answers ready for the people who are likely to be most ruffled. Which brings us to our next point.

Selling Your Idea Successfully

Your first job is sales and the first customer is your stakeholders.

This is where your efforts as a salesperson count at a high-level. You can have the greatest content improvement strategy a department has ever seen, but if you don’t have the right stakeholders on board, you’re fighting a losing battle.

You have to show how the content and information architecture in your organization aren’t cutting it. Are your content operations and information architecture efficient enough that it’s able to produce the quantity of knowledge your organization needs to thrive? Efficiency, consistency, quality, and capability determine whether your content architecture, tools, and processes are achieving organizational goals.

Take Google Docs, for example: It’s a wonderful tool for collaborative authoring but lacks the capability to publish content to a website, documentation portal, chatbot, etc. One of the innumerable possible examples, it’s important to look for similar gaps.

But, merely showing what isn’t cutting it isn’t enough on its own; you must also demonstrate why your idea is worth the trouble. This is where you answer the shared question: “What’s in it for me?” 

You need to present these changes to stakeholders and show them what your idea is tangibly capable of achieving. To borrow the example from another article about convincing management to adopt DITA, we highlight the business value of specific DITA capabilities: 

If you understand DITA, you know what makes it a great solution. All you need to do is recontextualize that value as practical applications that stakeholders will appreciate. Say your corporation has thousands of pages of documentation dispersed across the world. You know that the semantic metadata DITA provides makes short work of organizing, finding, and utilizing pieces of content across a vast library.

Showing stakeholders of the validity of your project demands that you clearly articulate the organizational value of the changes you’re proposing. You need to show how reconfiguring your organization’s content will be worth more than it costs. This is where you have to put on your sales hat and wear it confidently.

Now Execute

What is my content structure not supporting?

Identify gaps. I like starting with lists. So as not to scare anyone nor overwhelm yourself, look for little gaps first, smaller problems. There’s no use in planning something insurmountable right out the gate. 

Once you’ve listed some manageable gaps in your content, it’s time to get moving. 

Information Architecture

Consistent naming conventions, rich metadata, and taxonomic structure are foundationally necessary to resolve the problem that brought you here. And keeping resolved.

Without a strong information architecture, your content library will become less stable as it grows. That’s why it’s the obvious starting point of executing your content overhaul.

Start with taxonomy and terminology work. Choose a structured format. Establishing information taxonomies will help you organize the hierarchical structure and importance of your information. Laying down terminologies ensure that your naming conventions are consistent within your information’s taxonomic structure, which makes it easier to find things in your content repository. 

Of course, once you establish taxonomies and terminologies, it’s easier to identify and sort content in the future, making you better able to prioritize content updates, value, and problem areas.

Pick the Low Hanging Fruit

Quick wins turn heads.

You’re already taking on the task of reverse engineering content that exists within a working system. This jumps from the previous point about sorting what’s most valuable to your organization. You know what your most valuable content is, but poor information architecture has kept you from being able to find it. Now you can.

You’re never going to be able to fix everything in the information architecture of a large organization. Even in smaller organizations, it isn’t easy. 

Once you’ve performed an audit, and established some semblance of order within your information architecture, the next step is to identify changes that are easiest to implement. Look for the quickest, fanciest wins. These wins tell people in your organization: “Hey, they can do exactly what they said and it works well!” 

When you’re tackling content projects of this magnitude, it’s important to have allies. Quick, fancy wins are the best way to gain credibility and clout to influence change. Once people see that you can execute your plan and see it work, they’ll trust you to implement bigger changes. This is where your allies and fellow champions of change will come from. 

Content Organization Requires Good Systems

Long term strategy is as important as it is difficult, but you don’t want to repeat this process do you? 

Being in the same position you started a few months down the road wouldn’t be ideal. Having to reverse engineer changes in information architecture and content management means that long term strategy wasn’t strong before, so you need to build systems that ensure a sustainable future. 

Now is the time to really dig into establishing and solidifying your Content Operations because putting that work in now will ultimately be better for scaling and supporting your content down the road. Operational systems need to be put in place that will uphold the structural changes you plan to implement. 

We talked about the content audit earlier and critiquing your systems demands a similar process. This means you need to look at your operational environment by analyzing current systems, personnel, and content and how they interact with each other. And good content operations are made better by strong information architecture. 

It helps to create a checklist or rubric from which you can assess these aspects of your organization. What that rubric looks like is something that you’ll need to collaborate to create based on your business goals and the relationships between the moving parts of your ContentOps. 

The simple truth in this question is that you’re doing this now so that you won’t have to do it again — or at least not at such a scale — down the road. It’s not a one-time fix, but ongoing strategic maintenance and critical evaluation of the systems you have in place.

Change management is hard. Changing the status quo of content in an organization is every bit sales-oriented as it is political. Starting here, you can influence change, bolster your information architecture, and harness the true strength of your organization’s content. 

Patrick Bosek
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