Feedback loops

In January, I posted a couple of times about general aspects of content-related workflows. The first of these, "Three gears", described how process, technology (tools) and organization (structure) provide the three inter-related components of an overall workflow.

I followed that up with a somewhat prosaic (okay, practical) list of questions that publishers could use to start "Workflow conversations". Taken together, the posts give any content producer a consultant-free way to analyze their own workflows.

More recently, I've been thinking about the value of feedback loops as a smaller-scale way to implement process change. The idea isn't new; W. Edwards Deming and others developed statistical approces to measure process outcomes in the first half of the 20th century.

To improve across departments or functions, we need to provide feedback. In my experience, though, feedback loops are somewhat rare in publishing.

In the early 1990s, when I was a production director at Time Inc., my department adopted a "total quality" goal. Most production staff committed to the idea, but the effort never moved upstream to sales, editorial, marketing or circulation (now called audience development). Because quality is a function of a process, not a single department, the initiative died on the vine.

To improve, we have to measure, analyze, revise, act and … measure again. This seems self-evident, but we're an industry that perfected its core processes a long time ago. As new products and platforms have taken root, we've added them to the mix, but we haven't stepped back to analyze whether the established ways remain the best ways to create, manage and disseminate content.

Although I get hired (often enough) to "fix" workflows, the tools I use are already in the hands of the people who invite us in. I've yet to meet someone in publishing who wants to do a bad job. I've met plenty of people in publishing who lack the context required to understand how the things they do affect other parts of the business.

Improving workflows benefits from a wide-ranging vision, but the work gets done by bringing enough data back upstream to change a department's or an individual's behavior. Patience, persistence and a suspension of judgment all play supporting roles. But the work gets done by establishing feedback loops that build on data to make change stick. 

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.