Episode 40: Gord Roberts, Bank of Canada - Governance, collaboration and good practices

August 31, 2021

Gord Roberts loves website content strategy and instilling good practices for successful collaboration on content. As Manager of Web Content Strategy at the Bank of Canada, Gord shares his thoughts on connecting silos for unified content strategy and the relationship between content operations and design. Gord has experience leading a team through a pandemic, delivering crisis comms and making a case for content strategy.

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About this week's guest

Gord Roberts

Having cut his teeth on technical writing, document design, and intranet management, Gord Roberts officially made the jump to content strategy in 2013—and hasn’t looked back. He currently leads a small but mighty team of web content designers and publishers at Canada’s central bank in the nation’s capital city of Ottawa, Ontario.

Gord lives with his wife, their two children, and an astonishingly large Star Trek collection.

Episode transcript

Kristina Halvorson:

Hello and welcome to the Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson, and every episode of this podcast I chat to established leaders and exciting new voices exploring our ever-evolving field of content strategy. We cover all the topics that inform how we shape digital content. From user experience design to customer experience, accessibility to content design and everything in between.

Hello friends. Welcome back to the podcast. I hope that you are all enjoying these waning days of summer. I returned not too long ago from a very long road trip through Yellowstone and Glacier Park with my two teens. That was an adventure. We actually had a really great time and I am also very proud to say that when we crossed the border into Montana, I had officially visited all 50 states, even Alaska. That's correct. So I feel that that is a big accomplishment in my life and in my career.

Actually, the reason that I visited all 50 states is largely because of my career and all the running around that I've done. In all the running around that I've done in my career, a human being that I have encountered on more than one lovely occasion is here with us today. How's that for a segue? Yeah. How am I doing? Hey Gord. Hi.

Gord Roberts:

Hi. That was lovely.

Kristina Halvorson:

I was reaching a little bit, but I also suddenly realized, "Boy, if I don't wrap this up, I'm going to start talking about all the different wildlife we saw in Yellowstone, and nobody wants to hear about that." Except maybe the bears, we did see some bears, but we saw them from the car window, not coming around the corner on a trail. So that was lucky.

Gord Roberts:

Was it a content strategy bear?

Kristina Halvorson:

Content strategy bear showed up in several of my presentations in the early 2000 teens, but we'll link to that. Anyway, that was a good question. It was not a content strategy bear, nor was it Smokey the bear. Okay. Before everybody just stops listening to this podcast, let me introduce you and we're going to get going because you are way more interesting than my bear sightings, even that.

Having cut his teeth on technical writing, document design, and internet management, Gord Roberts officially made the jump to content strategy in 2013 and hasn't looked back. He currently leads a small but mighty team of web content designers and publishers at Canada's Central Bank in the nation's capital of Ottawa, Ontario. Gord lives with his wife, their two children, and I can attest having seen this in the background of my virtual meetings with Gord, an astonishingly large Star Trek collection. Gord, welcome to the Content Strategy Podcast.

Gord Roberts:

Thank you so much for having me.

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm so delighted to have you here.

Gord Roberts:

Me too.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yay. So a thing that I ask all of my guests right at the top is to tell me a little bit about your journey to content strategy. Would you mind sharing that with our listening audience?

Gord Roberts:

I do not mind at all. It really does boil down to technical writing, was my entry point. I think you've said that before, it seems like most content strategists either come in through technical writing or journalism and it was technical writing for me. My background is in linguistics and I don't know, I just, I was always fascinated by language and the structure of language. And I think that led me into linguistics. And then from there, I just kind of stumbled into technical writing as my first grown-up job. I did that at a software company for about 12 years. And I think in my time there, I kept thinking, I just remember thinking in the back of my head, "What would happen if we got the technical writers together with the marketers and the support people? Couldn't we all be working on the same things together?" Say, have a unified content strategy and all work on these things at the same time, instead of working in silos.

I put together a plan at the company I was at for that. We just got it started. I think it was just a little bit ahead of its time there and I think that's when I really, I found out about you, I started finding out about Confab about that time, and that just led one thing to another, but I jumped from there to intranet management at another organization for a few years. That led me to enterprise content strategy and enterprise knowledge strategy, and then I made the jump from there into my current role doing website content strategy at the Bank of Canada.

Kristina Halvorson:

Let me go back just a minute, because I want to talk about your experience at Confab, which is the content strategy conference that we produce here at Brain Traffic. 2014 Confab was still, it was just a couple years old and people were pretty fired up about website content strategy, enterprise content strategy. What at Confab set off light bulbs for you? Like, "Oh, this is this thing that I knew should happen, this coming together of these different silos so that we're all one centralized function?" Were there any ‘aha’ moments for you there?

Gord Roberts:

You have said this many times before, it really was like finding my people. Like, "Oh, you all get what I do." And that was exciting and it gave me, I think by that time, by 2014 so I would have been two or so years out of my old role doing technical writing, and I just remember, yeah, it was a total light bulb moment. "Oh, there are other people out here who do this." I think the thing that really drove me to go to Confab that year was I was doing the intranet management at a time for a social intranet that was entirely distributed publishing and really trying to wrap my head around the, how do you make that work?

Kristina Halvorson:

That rolls us into this topic that you and I have gone back and forth about quite a bit, which is content ops and it's interesting that the seeds that were planted at those early Confab content strategy conferences, those are the conversations that kept coming up, right? How do we make distributed publishing work? How do we bring silos together? How do we advocate for this idea of, if not centralized services, then at least centralized guiding principles and frameworks in which we operate to create and produce and take care of content? And this topic has really become a little bit of a passion of yours. And can you just talk to me a little bit about how you see content ops? What is that? And then the relationship between that and content strategy?

Gord Roberts:

I love that phrase you used there about good practices. I think the word governance in and of itself has probably always scared me a little bit and I think scares a lot of people.

Kristina Halvorson:

Well, it does. It implies top-down policing, right?

Gord Roberts:

Yeah. Every time I hear governance, I picture in my head this giant bag of rules that just goes thunk on the desk in front of you. I remember reading probably about the same time I was at Confab 2014, I remember reading Managing Chaos, Lisa Welchman's book about that time too. And that just blew my mind. I really am a fan of good practices. I think this is what I like about content a lot. It's a big gray space. There's no extremes to content. It's all messy and it's all ambiguous and you have to get comfortable with that ambiguity and just navigating that gray space.

I think what I like about my favorite part of governance is setting those boundaries, what's the frame we can set up that people can work within? The last organization I worked for, we used to call it freedom within a frame. That's my approach to governance, operations, and repeatable processes. What are the good practices? The things that we've tried that we know work? Let's do more of those, the things that we know that don't work, let's stop doing those things.

Kristina Halvorson:

Is that something that is coming from centralized ownership? Because I know that that can often be a struggle is that teams will introduce, "Here are best practices. Here are guidelines." I think if we would all play from the same content playbook, we could create really cohesive user experiences across all these touchpoints. Tell me a little bit about how that works specifically at the Bank of Canada. Actually, let me back up for just a second. Talk to me a little bit about the specifics of your role at the Bank of Canada.

Gord Roberts:

So we really are half and half, at least within my team. When I started at the bank four, almost five years ago now, I was hired as the bank's web content strategist on the web team. And over time, I thought it made sense to fold both the publishing operations and I really wanted to get into more, I wanted to set up a content design shop. And my director, Andrew Geraghty, was super supportive of that and helped me make that happen with our senior leadership team. And really I love what I do.

I love content strategy. I love design. I'm learning more and more about content ops. I really like that phrase. I enjoyed the podcast a couple of weeks ago with John Collins. This is all really top of mind to me right now and what I'm learning and seeing more and more every day is to make content strategy work, you need to have design and ops working together. Your design can only go so far without having those real world scenarios coming in of things that you actually need the website to do, the requests that are coming in. And you can do so many cool things by helping ops and design learn from one another.

Kristina Halvorson:

That's really interesting to me that you talk about at your organization, that content strategy is acting as a connective fiber between design and ops, as you call them. Gord, in between where you sit with content strategy and you talk about ops and design needing to work together. Tell me what a typical week looks like for you there.

Gord Roberts:

I'm a big fan of regular touch points and I know I'm not a fan of meetings for the sake of meetings, but I do find the biggest way to get things moving forward is to get people in the rhythm, develop the repeatable processes, even the repeatable dialogue about, what is it we need to do this week? What do we need to work together on? So honestly, pretty much every Monday for me is quick touch points with my closest partner groups, most of them within communications. And that's literally what we do is talk about, what is it we need to work together on this week? What do we need to get ahead of for next week? What's up and coming that we might need to also be working on, maybe in subgroups?

That's typically my Monday. I'm a big fan of setting up the pins for the week with those touchpoints. And I run working groups and same things. And usually by the end of day Monday or into Tuesday, I'm through all those. I have a good sense everybody knows exactly what we're tackling together that week. I get out of the way. And then I'm there, I jump in to support everybody, one-on-ones let's say, or there might be separate breakout sessions to get done what we need to do that week for the rest of the week.

Kristina Halvorson:

Tell me how the teams are set up. Do you have a content team, like four people who are responsible for one section of the website and then they go to the designers for assistance with laying out a page? Tell me about the different roles that exist within your team.

Gord Roberts:

Within my division, so I mentioned my director, Andrew, so within his division, we've got the developers and they actually report to the IT department in the bank, but we're sort of together as a functional unit, which is really fantastic. And then I manage the content team with the publishers and content designers. I have a colleague, Mike, who runs the graphics and publishing production teams. So a lot of our major publications, that will be what Mike's team leads. And we've also got employee communications with my colleague, Heather, that's embedded within our digital strategy and services division we call it too. It's really all of the key players that we need to plan these things out, design them, critique them amongst ourselves and get them delivered, working with our business partners either in our broader communications department or different departments, business departments across the bank.

Kristina Halvorson:

What are some of the elements that you will use between your teams as these common principles and frameworks, just in terms of actually using content strategy to serve as that overarching guide to pull together design and ops?

Gord Roberts:

One of the tricks in my toolkit is to meet people where they are. Couple years ago at Confab I spoke about the chicken and the egg of content and design and which comes first. And I spoke about, I actually am a big fan of even just getting people to work together in Microsoft Word files and just focus on the text of the page. Can we just focus on the structure, the headings, how is the content here organized? Track changes with edits, comments and that kind of thing, distill it right down too. Can we just focus on the text for starters? And once we've got that figured out, well then we can move on and see what it's going to look like within a webpage, for example. But let's start with a text and work with people in the tools and in the ways, be that email, virtual meeting, Microsoft Teams chat, meet people in those spaces that they're comfortable with because that's where you get to the good stuff.

Kristina Halvorson:

How do you collaborate with folks in those spaces? Is it a live meeting? Is it back and forth with edits?

Gord Roberts:

All of the above and it depends on the team. It depends on the type of content, the type of information that we're working on. I'm generally a fan of working, can we just focus on the text as long as possible? One of the other things we have to do, because we're Canada Central Bank, everything we're delivering in English we also need to deliver in French on the website. So we're factoring in translation, working with our editorial team and that kind of thing too. A lot of the work I try and do is to simplify things for everybody. Can we get a plan? Can we lock down our English text as early as possible so that we can get it to translation sooner?

I'm a big gap filler too. So whatever it is I'm called in to advise on or carefully interject myself into, I try and fill gaps. For me even if that's something small as, I don't know, offering to take down the notes and actions or draft some texts that everybody can react to, even if what I come up with is really bad, all I'm trying to do is show the value of what I'm trying to do and help people trust me and get them on board with working with me because then they're going to want to come to me even sooner next time.

Kristina Halvorson:

What's so interesting to me in hearing you talk about leading a team is that you don't really talk about managing, you talk about supporting, you talk about filling gaps, you talk about coordinating and building bridges and building trust and so on. And yet, that is a leadership style. You had to lead your team, as so many people did, through this unbelievable year, now it's been going on a year and a half, thanks COVID, of change, these unprecedented times. And I know that there were certain organizations, I think a lot of organizations actually were just like, "Oh right. The content. This is really important to copy on our website now all of a sudden in a way that we didn't realize previously, because everybody is at home and they're turning to us digitally." So I would imagine that there were some unique pressures on your team. Talk to me a little bit about how you led them through those times.

Gord Roberts:

Absolutely unique pressures, especially because early on with this too, there was a lot of urgent communications to get up on the website. So, one, not only are we trying to get that work done, but two, we're trying to get that done on a laptop on a dining room table at home, let's say. Funny enough, it was not funny at the time, but funny enough I had to learn a lot of this the hard way about how to work virtually and how to lead teams through unusual circumstances at my previous job. We had an office fire there over the year-end holidays while all of us, while most people had their laptops, had left their laptops on their desks at the office over the holidays. So we just woke up one morning and suddenly we're told, "You will all be working from home effective immediately. We don't know for how long."

And it ushered in, at my previous organization, just a lot of that culture about new ways of working and working virtually. And we don't all need to be in the same room at the same time to decide on things. It doesn't even necessarily need to be a meeting. So the short answer to your question is, a lot of what I learned there, I was able to jump in and apply right away to my own working when the pandemic work from home kicked in last year, applied to coaching and leading my team through it, and then all these partner teams I mentioned I work closely with, kind of coaching everybody along too.

The first thing I did was switch all of our meetings to virtual and just lead them all and coach people through, "Here's how it's going to work. I'm going to do the agenda ahead of time and we're going to go through it together. I'm going to take notes live and share my screen. I'm going to talk everybody through and I'm going to watch for you to go on and off mute." And I just coached people through to try and help everybody get things as normal feeling as possible.

Kristina Halvorson:

I, along with everybody else, I mean at Brain Traffic, we had six weeks to turn a physical conference into a virtual conference. And that was a masterclass, not only in what are we doing for production, but also in communication. In terms of, how were we selling this new product now. How were we encouraging people to trust us and still come and be a part of this community? And part of what we found was so critical, even as a small company, was really being able to sync up messaging and information on our website with the messaging and information that was going out in emails, not only to new people we were trying to sell to, but also to people who had already purchased tickets who we needed to give them choices, plus across social, plus update all of our metadata. I mean, there were a million different places where the messaging had to shift and it had to shift quickly. Did you find that? Or have you had that happen within your team, within the website and associated communications? And if so, how did you all manage that from a coordination standpoint?

Gord Roberts:

I think one of the things I've learned from scenarios like that is, while you've got people's attention focused on needing to do something very specific very quickly, for content people, we can be using that same sort of strategy and attention all over the place. So for example, one of the things I do now, if I know that there's a project coming up and they need to deliver X, Y, Z in a certain amount of time, while we already know we've got everybody's attention focused on getting that done, what else can we get done at the same time alongside that that we've been wanting to do? Can we work alongside a content audit and do a bit of a cleanup? Do we have some subject matter questions we've been looking for that we can sync up with that? You have to watch for scope creep, but those opportunities, besides helping to get the work focused and done in the way that makes sense, the amount of comradery and collaboration you get out of that is astounding.

Kristina Halvorson:

You've talked about collaboration quite a bit and you talked about having people meeting them where they are, so maybe you're collaborating in Microsoft Word, for example. Where else do you collaborate with folks?

Gord Roberts:

Right. Sometimes I will say, it has shifted. Working from home has shifted it. Our digital strategy team has our own sort of dedicated breakout space that we can work in. And the stereotypical pictures that we have of designers, developers, content people all working together with stickies on glass walls or whiteboards, honestly that was part of our day working in there together and actually moving things around and sketching things out.

I will say working virtually, we have had to shift more, as I say even in my own toolkit, I use Word a lot and get people to just look at the words together one way or the other. Mock-ups are another one that we do. Let's actually take that stuff in and put it in a sample webpage and move things around and play with components, design components for it, and actually iterate together and build something live to see how it works.

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm going to change the topic just a little bit and ask you this question, in a recent conversation that we had, we were talking about content design versus content strategy, and content design and apps versus content design and websites and you were very adamant that you were going to hold on to this term website content strategy until your dying breath. Then you also mentioned that you have introduced a content design function at your organization. Talk to me about why you love website content strategy.

Gord Roberts:

Each time I made a career or an industry shift, let me say it was because there were some other aspects of content strategy I really wanted to delve into. The first job was technical writing and it was really online help I was delivering. I really did want to delve more into employee experience and intranet and that's sort of why I shifted there and segued from there into enterprise content management. How do you make what's on SharePoint gel with what's on the intranet, for example? But I wasn't yet really getting to dabble in the external stuff and that's part of what appealed to me then about the web content strategy role with the Bank of Canada was getting to work on website content and social content together.

The reason I like having design and publishing operations under that same sort of web content strategy umbrella is because ultimately you need to make sure it's all moving in the right direction. Even if you don't have or don't need a dedicated content strategy statement for everything, just having that group of people together, working on the content together, everybody bringing a little something to the table and having it under that umbrella of content strategy, making sure you're headed in the right direction with it, I just I love it.

Kristina Halvorson:

Where and when do you, because in listening to you talk, I feel like a lot of where you identify your own success or where you get your own fulfillment is really from the empowerment and collaboration that you're able to facilitate within your own team. Talk to me a little bit about the end user or the customer, the person that is using, the citizen, the person who's using the website. How often are you either in touch with the customer voice or working with analytics or research? Is that something that is a part of your day to day, or are you largely empowering and equipping people to serve that customer?

Gord Roberts:

I am very fortunate and my senior director, Annie Portelance, helped me make this happen. And she started up a research and planning function within my broader communications division and brought in analysts to help us do public awareness surveys and really analyze the website content, social content, and help me understand how it was performing. And now that's part of the regular functions that we have every month, let's say, is getting a bunch of us together to look at how things are performing. And my favorite part of all of that is starting to have the discussions with folks about, "Okay, what did we learn that we can change right now? What's a little something we can do to test or experiment? Or what's one small change we see from this that we could either do more of or that tells us maybe we should stop or do a little bit less of that, and then let's meet next month and see what a difference it made." I love that stuff.

Kristina Halvorson:

Another thing that's interesting to me and I've had this theme come up across my last several chats with folks is you've said on multiple occasions, just in the last half hour, I was so lucky with the support of my director, or because of the work, the advocacy of my boss. I have really seen in my own work, especially over the last couple of years, that without leadership that gets it, it can be very difficult to work on behavioral change and perception of the value of content design and content strategy. Have you ever been in a position at least in one of your past jobs where you really were having to make that case in terms of, "Here's the value of the work. Here's how we can shift behavior. Here's how our organization can function better from a content ops perspective so that we are delivering that clear, consistent, meaningful, effective content?"

Gord Roberts:

Across all the content work I've done, I would say, when that does happen the biggest thing I've learned is that just because... If we can't make it happen right now, it might just be because it's not the right time. And I'm thinking of examples, like when I was in technical writing and really trying to come up with a corporate-wide plan on how we can sync up all the content around even just starting with an editorial calendar? I just couldn't quite get there yet, just because the timing just wasn't right. Folks maybe weren't quite ready to think about content or building bridges, breaking down silos in that way. So I try to keep that top of mind in everything I do when it does feel like maybe we're not going to be able to push this one as far forward as I like. Right now, that doesn't mean, we're not ever going to be able to do it. Why don't I just park that one for now and pick the moment to come back to it later.

Kristina Halvorson:

Gord, we're just about out of time, but I do have a question that I've been wanting to ask you. You've been a longstanding member of the content strategy community and what we have seen is this really fast, really exciting evolution, I would say over the last couple of years around content design and UX writing and product content strategy and the relationship between those three areas of practice. We debuted Button, our content design conference, last fall and there's a lot of buzz around that. It's like content design is the new shiny bright thing in the room. What is your advice or counsel to people who are like, "Yeah, content design. That's what I want to get into?" What are some of the things that you would suggest or encourage them to be thinking about in the months and years to come?

Gord Roberts:

I love some of the discussions that they've been having recently about remembering that there's a difference between what folks' job titles are and what their roles or responsibilities are. And the biggest thing I would say is, content strategy is so big, even just as we've talked here about it today, there's so many different ways it applies. It can be very messy at times. Find your thing. If you like working in content, find your thing. Try lots of things out.

But I think the thing that's going to give you the most joy day in and day out is just being able to focus on find that one thing you uniquely can do and figure out a way to take the biggest advantage of that and worry less about your job title and more about figuring out ways to do that really marvelous thing that maybe really only you can do. Go do that thing and enjoy doing that thing, because as I say sometimes content work is so hard, you need to find your joy and you need to find that unique thing that you can do to really help yourself push it forward.

Kristina Halvorson:

I will add onto that, I hear from a lot of folks, "Oh, I don't have anything unique to contribute. It's all already been said. And look at all these smart people in the field and what could I possibly contribute?" And what I always have to remind people is the thing that you do, that you know inside and out, that you could happily stand up and talk in front of a room of 50 people and feel zero imposter syndrome because you know it so well, that oftentimes is your joy. That's where you have dug in. That is where you have expertise and you have experience. And most people don't. People want to hear about that. So, go forth and self advocate.

Gord Roberts:

Yes. And don't be afraid, when a Button call for speakers goes out or a Confab call for speakers go out, put your idea in. Don't worry if you think somebody else has done it before, we want to hear from you. You have something unique to offer. Own it and be proud and enjoy sharing it.

Kristina Halvorson:

Absolutely. That actually leads to a good thing, which is that the Confab call for speakers, for Confab, the content strategy conference coming up in May 2022, I believe is going to be open by the time we are able to air this podcast. So I encourage everybody to go to confab, C-O-N-F-A-B, events.com and submit your idea. And in the meantime too, if you are hoping to find your people like Gord and the other content enthusiastic we've discussed today, I hope that you will join us at Button Conference happening in October. And the URL for that is buttonconf, C-O-N-F.com. Tickets are on sale now.

Gord, thank you so much for joining me today at the Content Strategy Podcast. It is a joy, as always. And next time I am looking for a mortgage, I will not call you.

Gord Roberts:

Thank you so much for having me. It's always a pleasure talking to you, but no, I cannot help you with your mortgage. Sorry.

Kristina Halvorson:

That's okay. There are a lot of other things you can help me with. I know.

Gord Roberts:

Okay.

Kristina Halvorson:

All right. Thank you, Gord.

Thanks so much for joining me for this week’s episode of the Content Strategy Podcast. Our podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy services and events company. It’s produced by Robert Mills with editing from Bare Value. Our transcripts are from REV.com. You can find all kinds of episodes at contentstrategy.com and you can learn more about Brain Traffic at braintraffic.com. See you soon.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

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