This article was originally published in May 2022 on The Content Designer Blog by UX Content Collective. As the author, I have been given permission to republish it on the Fourth Wall Content blog, though you should check out their blog for plenty of other helpful articles on content design and UX writing.
Content maturity models are solid frameworks to assess your organization’s state of play in relation to content and operations. They’re also useful for starting conversations with stakeholders and subject experts as a way to start the process of getting buy-in to invest in improving content operations.
If maturity models are used as a blueprint or roadmap for success, they can be problematic and demotivating. Every organization is different and will need its own version of a maturity model that is contextual to their circumstances.
In this post, I’m going to offer some advice, based on my own experience, that will help you use content maturity models effectively.
Let’s start with what is meant by content operations maturity before we look at example models to assess your organization’s maturity. As stated by Content Science:
Content operations maturity is a way to articulate the degree to which your organization can make content strategies and plans happen.
With that definition in mind, any tool, process, framework, or model can be helpful in setting a course and providing a basis to build from. But they won’t suit every situation at every organization. They should support what you’re trying to achieve—not get in the way. They should encourage and enable— not discourage and isolate.
Content maturity models fit into this school of thought. Find existing models, or maybe even create your own, but don’t take them for a prescription of every step you should follow. Use them for your own uses and needs, use them in ways I’ll outline in this article to ensure they are helpful.
As I refer to content maturity models, I mean publicly available models and frameworks that have been created and shared by various organizations and practitioners. Perhaps by coincidence, each one has five stages with labels and descriptors that summarize what an organization will look like at each stage in terms of maturity. They are used to determine the current state and ability of an organization in a certain area, or for a particular discipline. Additionally, they aim to assess an organization in relation to continuous improvement. So they are trying to tell you lots of things about what you are doing and what you’re not doing—hence why they need to be used with clear caveats and parameters.
This is the content operations maturity model from Kapost:
They have labeled the five stages to summarize the behaviors and characteristics seen at an organization for each of those stages. Here’s an example that outlines the Reactive stage from their article Where Do You Fall on the Content Operations Maturity Model?
From their preliminary research, Kapost estimates that 15% of organizations are in the Reactive stage. This stage is categorized as:
Other models use a similar naming convention and subsequent descriptions of their stages.
The model developed by Content Science and featured in The Content Advantage by Colleen Jones defines their five stages as:
Here are the descriptions of those stages:
There is a lot that needs to happen and change to get from chaotic to thriving. That’s one example of the value these models can provide because they break the transformation into iterative stages, albeit with a lot to consider, implement and achieve at each stage and between.
Kontent by Kentico has an excellent webinar about the role of digital and content maturity, in which they share their five-stage model with the stages being:
They also provide more context as to what those stages mean in the context of their model:
Even with this overview and not looking at each model and stage in detail, the overlaps in the stages and the behaviors, circumstances, and challenges they represent are evident. I’ll use these models as the backdrop of this article as I’ve used all of them to assess content operations at various organizations during my work at Fourth Wall Content.
There are risks associated with every tool, framework, process, or model. This is largely because they cannot meet all needs in every context.
Maturity models should be used as a conversation starter, or an example to follow, but the names of the stages and all of the characteristics they represent won’t entirely match your organization’s circumstances. Also, there is no single way to do something. For example, there’s more than one way to define a content workflow, engage stakeholders, or disseminate research outcomes. Often it is a case of using the most appropriate tool or process at the time, adapting as needed, and supporting it with other inputs where necessary too.
I’ve seen organizations take a maturity model and have immediate expectations that they can quickly progress through the stages to new levels of success and operational efficiency. The most common question I’m then asked is… how long will it take?
Of course, the answer is, as with many content challenges, it depends. But what I try to help those organizations understand is what those dependencies look like. For some, there may be issues with processes or gaps in roles and skills. It could be that the tools in place aren’t fit for purpose or aren’t being used in the most appropriate ways. The list of potential dependencies is vast and it takes time to compile that list for each organization.
Maturity models should be used with the knowledge that they won’t solve everything. Here are some things to watch out for and keep in mind when introducing others to maturity models and to help manage expectations.
Maturity models are linear and proclaim that an organization moves from one step to another by advancing its practices and situation to a certain level. It’s a classic case of doing something good, level up, keep doing good to keep leveling up, or else you’ll experience a plateau.
This means they’re rigid because they suggest only one path to maturity or success.
The reality is that there are many ways to progress and it’s not always a case of being stuck at a certain level if a checklist of things isn’t completed. Other scenarios are possible too:
In the very way that maturity models are presented, they reflect a step-by-step improvement. Consider that the path is likely to be more meandering, sometimes with more steps back than forward, although long term you move in a forward direction. There will also be diversions, pit stops, and fast lanes depending on the circumstances.
Another rigidity of maturity models is that they don’t consider the nuances. An organization may be advanced in one area but lacking in another. Maturity models tend to refer to organizations as a whole, rather than by departments or disciplines, for example. An additional nuance is that some things are quick fixes and others are much longer-term, so an organization could be further along than perceived.
Arguably, how the model is applied to an organization is down to the person or people using them, but content is too complex to be squeezed into any rigid process or stages and maturity models could result in misplaced optimism.
This leads to managing expectations. If stakeholders think looking at a maturity model will be a prescription for how the organization will be in clearly defined and distinct phases, they will be disappointed.
Maturity models are not roadmaps because they do not tell you what to do in any detail and certainly not how to do it. This is also a good thing as every organization will be at varying stages of maturity, have different priorities, and have its own resources available for improvements. They will also have their own preferred timescales, advantages, and constraints.
So it makes sense for maturity models not to be prescriptive in this way. Yet, if they are being used as a blueprint for plotting an organization’s current maturity level and looking at where they need to get to, it can quickly become a blocker as once the plotting has taken place there is no immediate guide for how to process and progress.
If you use maturity models alone, you may identify as ‘siloed’ and recognize characteristics in your organization at that stage. If the model then tells you that the next stage is ‘mobilizing,’ it isn’t clear how you move from one to the other.
The word maturity has specific connotations of what it represents. If an organization isn’t considered mature then are they immature? It’s not very encouraging or positive language and it may not be accurate to describe an organization as lacking in maturity because there are improvements that can be made. Language like this also doesn’t allow for celebration. Successes and results shouldn’t be diminished or ignored because the organization is only being considered in relation to where it fits into a maturity model.
That said, to mature means a significant period of time has to pass. That is a worthwhile factor to keep in mind because maturing content operations isn’t a one-off project. It is a long-term commitment that requires significant progress and transformation which usually means changes to the entire culture of an organization. Understanding this upfront is important because while there may be quick wins along the way, investing in and improving content ops will take time.
I don’t believe any of the maturity models referenced earlier in this article, and any others, are claiming to be the answer to all issues. They are ways of framing circumstances and starting conversations in a meaningful and pragmatic way. Maturity models can serve a useful purpose.
Here are some tips and things to consider that will help you use maturity models effectively, and help others understand their use and purpose too.
You may need to find titles and descriptions for the stages of the different models you’re mapping and assessing against. Use a language that will resonate with the people you’re trying to engage. You may want to use more positive language but sometimes the directness and frankness of terms like ‘chaotic’ and ‘lagging’ can have a bigger impact on people.
Be mindful of how the models are described in relation to your organization and find the right balance between being candid but considerate as it isn’t going to be a case that people want things to be chaotic and often they want change to happen.
The models are a good starting point to get an organization thinking about where they may be and to see that there are different sets of circumstances to aspire to and move toward. The models tell the what, but they can’t tell the how.
When talking through the models, even in the early stages when the exact work to be done still needs to be defined, start to think about how the organization can progress through the stages. This starts to tie the model to daily activities, pragmatic solutions, and measurable outcomes.
It’s absolutely fair for a stakeholder to ask how they may get the organization to move from ‘starting’ to ‘progressing’, for example. It’s also fair that you may not have all the answers. The entire process should be collaborative and transparent. You’ll learn as you go. Use the models to agree on some initial areas of focus and priorities.
Once you are aligned on how the stages of the models relate to your organization, whether you used the labels on existing ones or created your own version, you can define what those stages look like.
If you follow the models precisely, what does it mean for your organization to be ‘piloting’ or ‘siloed’? Give examples, and note as much detail as you can about what is currently happening for the business to have been mapped to a particular stage. For the stages you’ve yet to move to, it will have to be aspirational. What do you want to see change and become business as usual that would move the organization to a different stage?
Again, this would all be subject to change. Some areas may change more quickly than expected, other areas may take longer. You’ll have to react to the circumstances regardless of how much planning you do. Accept you may get stalled or take steps backward but for the greater good of then being able to move forward more effectively.
It’ll be important for others to know they have moved onto a new stage.
When you look at a maturity model and say “We’re there and we have to get there,” it can be daunting and intimidating. It won’t be easy or quick. Where possible, break down the core stages into more manageable and less intimidating ones.
It’s good to have sight of medium and long-term goals but keep the focus on the short term and what needs to be done right now. Having smaller goals and outcomes will feel more achievable (and will be just that) and it also gives more opportunity for evaluation and iteration as you go.
You may want to map out processes between stages so there is a plan for progression.
An organization may not be lagging, immature or chaotic in all areas. You do have to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s not working as well as it could and where improvements are needed. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the parts that are already working well.
The harsh reality is that there will need to be difficult conversations and some admissions that people may be uncomfortable with making. But at every opportunity, you can balance that with successes, wins, and what’s already successful. This is also a chance to learn from what’s going well and identify if that can be scaled or replicated elsewhere in the organization to expedite success and maturity.
When I’ve worked with clients, as well as showing them where on the model they are, I have also shown where they could be. It’s not always a case of the goal being the final stage. In fact, aiming for a stage or two up as the next milestone can be more empowering. But it has also worked well to try and show or tell them what good looks like. If you are at this stage, then you will see improvements in these areas, and you will benefit from these things. And so forth. If you have real-life examples, bring those into the conversation.
Stakeholders often understand that things need to improve. Find out what matters to each stakeholder and talk about the maturity models in relation to what they care about. Make the content ops models meaningful to their work and the improvements they could experience.
With such long-term work, it can be easy to lose sight of all the improvements along the way because the focus tends to be on the grand finale. There is no grand finale to this work. Momentum and enthusiasm can be hard to sustain and so the less than ideal ways of working start to creep back in.
A way to combat or reduce this is to keep communicating progress and next steps. Even if it is two years since the start of the work. Internal blog posts, week notes, or short video updates. Whatever the appropriate method for sharing updates, never forget the importance of keeping people updated. It can be more demotivating to feel like you’re not informed than it is to be informed when something isn’t progressing as well as hoped or that a problem has been reached. Transparency and honesty in communication will be imperative to the success of the work.
Use maturity models as a way to elevate organizations and not tear them down. There will need to be a focus on the negative but it can be framed positively, as an opportunity for change. Find the language that works for your organization, be honest but with empathy, and keep in mind that nobody has set out to make things inefficient. An organization’s operational maturity develops over time and changes take a similar amount of time to take effect.
Maturity models are a great way to start important conversations and begin to align people around understanding where an organization may be on those models. Adapt them as needed, use them carefully, and don’t forget to celebrate your progress at every opportunity along the way.