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Jul 02, 2004: Why Should We Be Trusted?

A colleague recently told me that one of the biggest challenges that she and other in-house information architects face is earning management's trust.

Initially this shocked me, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. There are the standard reasons--staff may be the legacy of a previous manager, there may be personality issues, whatever. But information architects also face some unique challenges: we are a newish and oddly-named profession, lacking in certification or other associated academic pedigrees, assigned to the wrong departments and working on highly abstract tasks that don't translate into clear return on investment.

What can we do about it?

My colleague suggested reminding managers that information architects are smart, hard-working, and trustworthy people because we're self-motivated and self-taught. In a new field, these qualities are entry requirements. In a way, she suggests taking a perceived disadvantage--we're an unknown quantity--and turning it to our advantage.

We can also point to our successes. But this is a Catch-22; it's hard to achieve success if our managers don't have faith in us to begin with. And it brings up the old justification-by-ROI issue that's been discussed ad nauseum before.

Perhaps our best bet is to provide wise and confident counsel to managers whose information environments are increasingly polluted by an explosion of content, continuing content ROT (Redundant, Outdated, and Trivial content), and failed implementations of CMSs, portals, and search engines. This sort of environmental degradation is inevitable, and over time our calm reactions and guidance can do more to illustrate the value of information architects than any sort of explicit self-promotion.

However we might validate ourselves, trust is an incredibly important issue, especially for the many in-house information architects who've been hired over the past two or three years. By hiring staff, managers have taken the first (albeit somewhat theoretical) step toward accepting information architecture's importance. The next step will be more pragmatic: managers will actually listen to and accept their information architects' ideas, suggestions, and contributions as practical, useful, actionable, and necessary. That's a very different thing than just having one on staff.

But it's not yet clear what information architects need to do--if anything--to get their bosses to down that second gulp of IA Kool-Aid...

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Comment: Kyle (Jul 2, 2004)

I'm shocked that this would shock you Lou. I face this same challenge at the start of every new project. Whether acting as an in-house IA or consultant (worked as both) the biggest challenge for me has always been estabishing trust, but not just with the managers... with all of the content owners. I never resent it because it makes perfect sense. My job is based on changing the categorization of content which is bound to step on the toes of the content contributors.

Until I have convinced people that my changes are for the better, I'm typically not fully trusted. The proof is in the pudding. The only way to get trust in this field is to earn it.

Comment: Lou (Jul 2, 2004)

I guess I must be naturally trustworthy. ;-)

But the important question is what proof comes from your pudding?

Comment: Kyle (Jul 3, 2004)

Naturally trustworthy...maybe, but I think writing a book on the subject may have something to do with it. ;-) Wouldn't you agree?

Most IA's don't have instant name recognition, so I think we have to work a little harder at earning trust with our clients.

After I hand over the 1st round of deliverables (the pudding), stakeholders usually feel better about my intentions and have more trust in me because they now have proof of my abilities.

Comment: James Robertson (Jul 4, 2004)

Hi Lou,

This is certainly a widespread issue, but like you, I think it can only be overcome by "delivering the goods" and building confidence that way. Not amount of "talking the talk" will solve this problem.

In practice, I don't find that we have this problem. In part, that's because we don't "pitch" for work, instead waiting for the client to contact us when they feel they have a need.

To a large part, though, we have developed our strategy of extensive "knowledge sharing", such as the many articles we've published, as our way of building this trust.

(We are obviously not alone in this approach, and many excellent articles have been published by the likes of Adaptive Path and UIE.)

Our experience is that the more we give away, the more work we get. And I think that's directly because of the issue of trust...

Cheers, James

Comment: peterme (Jul 4, 2004)

Trust is something earned, not bestowed.

And the only solution to this issue is time. Over time, IAs and the field of information architecture will become more trusted as it positively contributes to organizations.

Comment: skebrown (Jul 5, 2004)

This post gets me thinking about an ALA article: Retooling Slashdot with Web Standards and what Creative Good has done in their case studies regarding measurable ROI.

In each example, they both offer a measurable ROI. ALA with bandwidth savings and Creative Good with increased sales.

If trust is earned, perhaps THAT trust is earned by lessons learned; from a few examples already done by others? I don't mean steal their examples either, but maybe a new way to think about gaining trust from managers.

Thanks for the space,
ske

Comment: Jason (Jul 5, 2004)

I agree that time is good for the future, but for now there are a few things that, in my experience, can help build trust.

Thing one: Be clear about what you do. I have gained the most trust from managers when i could clearly communicate what they could expect from the IA team and where, within the course of a project.

Thing two: Be critical of ourselves and figure out why we should be trusted. We know the value of IA, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of those whose trust we are looking for. Managers don't read the blogs nor attend the summits. They may not even know about the polar bear book (oh, my). We have to communicate the value of IA within the context of the project, the team and our manager's goals.

Something along the lines of the "five whys" might help. Maybe something more like the five "so whats"

example: (simplified, of course) "A controlled vocabulary will be crucial to the success of this project"... ok.. so far every IA in the room is on board. So What? "Well, the disparate terms used within each content silo may cause communication problems"... getting somewhere. So What? "The manager wants to reduce the risk of liability when communicating sensitive financial information. A controlled vocabulary will do just that". eyebrows raise and you are getting somewhere. Now you just need thing three.

Thing Three: Do it. Deliver on the promise of great IA and show the results. This will lessen the trust issues in the future, and over time we will build the trust we know we so deserve. Then, thing four.

Thing four: share. One thing i have found a lot of is information about how important IA is. I have bought it fully and am proud to carry that flag. But I would love to see more proof of concept. The models and theories are an important foundation, but ultimately it is the results that will fuel the need.

Comment: Lou (Jul 6, 2004)

Much of what we've come up with here is great, but not especially concrete. I'm still looking for what ultimately constitutes the "proof" in Kyle's pudding for people working as in-house IAs. I think the key is sharing, whether that means offering in-house workshops, or getting your work published in B&A (as external validation often leads to internal validation).

I also agree with Evil Peter (and have said as much before) that the passage of time is really the thing what helps us the most. Hanging around is a good thing in this case; familiarity doesn't always breed contempt. ;-)

Comment: Pintu Sharma (Jul 6, 2004)

Building Trust takes time and develops gradually with sucess and hard work.

Comment: JasonAgain (Jul 7, 2004)

Wait a minute. Time isn't an answer. It is what goes by while we are proving we can be trusted.

Some concrete things i have done since before i formalized the IA department at my company.

1. Created a weekly newsletter called "IA is OK" and sent it to management, sales and even the president. Each release contains a new IA concept described in terms that made sense to each reader. Sales got zippy buzzwords backed by substantive elevator speaches, the project manager got a description of where the deliverable fell within our process, etc. It doesn't describe how to create a content inventory, it shows how to sell it and why it is necessary.

2. Created monthly workshops that showed the importance of IA in our process and within the culture of the company. The demos and presentations raised the bar on the other disciplines in the room and (rather delicately) challeneged everyone to consider their contribution to the success of our projects. The result is a more balanced appreciation for each contribution.

3. Referred to myself as "The IA Team" before there was an IA team. Eventually it came to fruition.

4. Found examples of succesful information architecture and posted them for all to see. Whatever I could do to make this relatively new field shine as much as the other 100 year old fields in the office.

All of these things took time, but it was time spent doing stuff. That's all i'm saying.

i'm done commenting here now. i promise.

Comment: Lou (Jul 7, 2004)

Jason, this is great stuff. I especially like the sneaky seed-planting you did in #3. With #2, you were sharing knowledge, as others ohave suggested, but in a more agressive way than many of us would naturally do. We really need to take a lesson from the marketers; self-promotion is not always such an evil thing, especially when it ultimately benefits the company and its customers and employees.

Comment: Halabar (Jul 15, 2004)

Welcome to my world. Being based in an in-house graphics department, and placed under managers who don't understand the process, technology, or even fundementals like "audience", my career is hell at the moment.

Just today, a manager chopped 6 weeks off the timeline for a site redesign, just because he "felt" things could be done sooner. (groan).

With my freelance work, my input and expertise is valued and desired. With the "day job", it is neither valued or desired.

So, I give them templates for Contribute, and wash my hands....

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