[Guest Post] “Content Strategy: A Wicked Problem”, by Ray Gallon

Guest PostsTechComm

Wicked Problem: a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.

From the Wikipedia Article

If this feels like familiar territory to you – and it certainly does to me – you’ll have no problem recognizing that we content workers need strategies for living with, and in, complexity.

Imagine yourself waking up in the morning. As you open your eyes, your cerebral implant projects your schedule for the day onto your augmented cornea. Even before breakfast, you grab one of your appointments with your hand and move it to tomorrow. The change request is automatically sent to the other person. When you arrive in the kitchen, your refrigerator tells you what groceries you need – and you tell it, by voice command, to order from your favourite market. When you get ready to leave for work, your domotic system automatically starts closing your windows; it adjusts the temperature for maximum energy efficiency in your absence, dims the lights, and opens the garage door …

Got a content strategy for documenting those interactions?

Our businesses are becoming less about goods and services, and more about experiences. Customer needs and wants are about to become the most important vector for our work:

  • Old CycleUntil recently, content consisted of information we thought people should have.
  • We produced it in a form we thought reasonably accessible to our users, and passed it on to them.
  • They gave us feedback that allowed them to use, or reproduce, the knowledge that we were supposedly transmitting.
  • When it didn’t work, the users said “they didn’t do it right” and we said, “they didn’t learn it right.”

Already today, this process is reversing itself. Our current job is to empathize with our users, understand their wants and needs, and relate a meaningful story to them:

  • Current CycleWe inquire, test, learn about our users, then do all we can to attract them to our information.
  • We create some of that information, and curate the rest of it. This information occupies a shared space, and some of it might come from the same users we want to communicate with.
  • Users build their own stories out of the hypermedia stories we tell them. But each user’s story follows its own path, and might be completely different from ours. Hopefully, users will share it with us, so our own experiences can be enriched.

This scenario is already much more complex than our traditional one. But, of course, real life is never as simple as theory. Both of these scenarios are functioning today in our industries, and sometimes they co-exist in the same organisation – leading to some strange, twisted inter-relations:


This is where real complexity steps in. Designing a content strategy for an enterprise or organisation that takes all of these exchanges into account is a daunting task, and probably no one person can grasp all of it. In fact, in a recent article, Yaneer Bar-Yam, President and Professor at the New England Complex Systems Institute, states, “A group of individuals whose collective behaviour is controlled by a single individual cannot behave in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising the control.” This is why traditional command and control structures in industry and government are failing. The top-down model cannot cope with the level of complexity of the society around us.

In other words, as individuals, we can at best hope to co-ordinate a content strategy whose parameters and scope are more complex than even the best of us is capable of comprehending. Wow!

Solving Complexity Using Nemetics

One tool for dealing with this new complexity is Nemetics – developed by a group of researchers as a global thought experiment. A NEME is defined as a superset that integrates three different kinds of replication elements:

  • Genes are replicators in Physical Space – they are the building blocks of living organisms.
  • Memes are replicators in Cognitive Space – they are the idea equivalent of genes.
  • The term “lumenes” is coined by Mark Frazier, President of OpenWorld … for a free, resilient, and generous world. Lumenes are the equivalents of memes in Emotional Space.

A NEME, then, is a complex replicator, that acts in complex adaptive spaces, and includes aspects of all these other replicators. It is also an acronym that represents a process for dealing with complexity:

  • Notice
  • Engage
  • Mull
  • Exchange

These are steps toward finding emergences in the midst of tangled complexity. An emergence is any order that emerges out of chaos. An emergence can be negative or positive. As content strategists, we want to find the positive emergences that are inherent in a chaotic, complex system, and help them to become predominant.

What follows is an attempt – at a very basic level – to adapt the Nemetics process to our processes in developing content and content strategies. We’ll need to go deeper, of course, to really tackle the new complexity, but here’s a start.

Questions to ask in the Notice phase:

  • What succeeded the last time you did something like this? Why?
  • What failed? Why?
  • What never got used? Why?
  • What don’t you know?
  • Which design will best serve to deliver the content to the user?
  • What must you give the user so that s/he can solve problems, extrapolate to other tasks, get out of difficulty?

Things to do in the Engage phase:

  • Work to understand the user’s world and act on that understanding (do user research – meet them face to face)
  • Create user stories
  • Understand the user’s global process – not just what s/he does when interacting with your product.

Things to think about in the Mull phase:

  • What have you learned from your research?
  • How can you tie what you’ve learned to your discovery (Notice)process?
  • How can you apply what you’ve learned to other domains in this product, or in other products?
  • What are your criteria for evaluation/success?
  • How can you improve on what you’ve done?

Ways for us to Exchange:

  • Add value by obtaining user feedback. Encourage users to add value by exchanging among themselves.
  • Retest:

    • What gets used – and what doesn’t?
    • What gives users the most problems?
  • Give users a place to exchange with you and with each other:

    • What do they say to each other?
    • What do power users share with beginners or intermediate users?
    • How do they work around problems they encounter – is it useful to generalize, or does it lead to negative entropy?
  • Document what you learn, and enter it in the Notice phase of the next iteration.

For more information about Nemetics, take a look at the RGB Waves blog of Dibyendu De, a process engineer and “chief mentor” of The International Nemetics Institute.

Guest Posts, TechComm
Ray Gallon

Posted on 07-25-2013


Join the discussion