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Thought leadership from SAI to accelerate your performance

Systems Alliance Blog

Opinion, advice and commentary on IT and business issues from SAI
Date: Apr 2016

Disruption in Your Workforce Strategy 

The last four or five quarters at SAI have been packed with hundreds of interviews, workshops and conversations with our clients, industry experts and others about changes in workforce learning as we’ve gathered requirements for Acadia and worked through early adopter projects. I’ll attempt to distill some of the larger points in this blog and we’ll continue to share our findings in individual conversations if you’re interested in more detail.

I have been reminded several times through this process of Clay Christensen. Christensen has proven to be one of the foremost business strategists in our time and I’ve watched him accurately predict the disruptive innovation of several industries (technology, telcos, education) during my time at PwC and SAI. The increasing pressure being exerted in some segments of the workforce today around learning, compliance and change management are consistent with some of the fundamental changes that Christensen has predicted in the past.

Demographics and Work Arrangements

Whether you like PwC, Accenture, Deloitte or dozens of other consulting firm’s predictive capabilities, all are forecasting an accelerating transition to more part time, contract and contingent workers in the years ahead with a consensus forecast of more than 50% by 2025. In parallel, work component design, Glassdoor, LinkedIn and a confluence of demographic factors are aligning to make employee portability an emerging threat for enterprises as we struggle to build capacity in a workforce that often isn’t aligned with job requirements. Sprinkle in a host of retiring Boomers with little documentation around best practices and you have the potential for rapid deterioration in quality and differentiation among large enterprises.

Our clients have explained in great detail across multiple verticals (retail, healthcare, dining, manufacturing, retail banking) that the cycle time to onboard new team members has been largely unchanged over the last several years despite large investments in technology, staff and processes. While voicing increasing support for automated recruiting platforms that are shortening the recruiting cycle, getting employees up to speed quickly and consistently has continued to constrain organizational growth and effectiveness. Rapid turnover is exacerbating the problem as HR professionals struggle to meet a larger regulatory burden with an accelerating number of staff changes.

Long Live Content; Content is Dead

A second recurring theme across many of our workshops revolves around the idea that organizations have created significant amounts (“mountains” …) of content (LMS content, learning aids, etc.), all with the hope of enabling more effective training and development only to be disappointed that employees can’t find the right content at the right time and quickly give up looking for it. Many of our clients described high six and low seven figure investments in LMS platforms that are essentially unused except for deploying mandatory compliance training as the staff that are most qualified to create the content don’t have the time or experience with the tools to be able to quickly create training content.

‘Content freshness” was identified in multiple workshops as another serious concern, i.e. the inability to figure out how to quickly update content on a timely basis and get rid of stale content before it creates other disruptions; this appears to be a particular problem with HR and other back office content. One of our clients referred to this as “lurking” content, another as “content debt”. The emerging “content debt” problem was identified in approximately 65% of our interviews as the primary obstacle to improving employee effectiveness as content owners don’t have the capacity or detailed process experience to rework, replace or remove the content.   

Access Speed and Mobility

By my count we have heard seven different variations of the “if I can find the answer to who that guy was in “Taken” on my phone, why can’t I find out what our IT policy is about <fill in the blank>.” Problems with content accessibility were most often associated with the usability of the content (scrolling in Office documents) and inconsistencies in the content across different devices. Subject matter expert content creators don’t have the time or experience to figure out how to work around technical issues and no clear owner appears to exist for these problems in either the business or IT.

More to Come

We are accumulating specific industry and functional domain business case and ROI information around these issues through our Acadia Early Adopter program and we would be happy to share that information with you (whether you are an Acadia customer or not J). Please drop me a note at if you have questions or would like to discuss any of this further. 

Whether you know it or not, user experience (UX) is already part of your brand. When people visit your site, they make associations with your organization based upon their experience. Often, the only interaction they have with your organization is through your website, and there is often little or no separation between your website and your organization itself.

If your site is easy to use and the content is worthwhile, your audience will project their positive experience onto your brand. But if they are frustrated, confused or disappointed, they will transfer those negative emotions instead.

Here are some tips for how to start aligning user experience with your brand strategy.

Getting Started

For many, the first step is to make sure UX is part of the discussion. Marketing and design teams are often responsible for creating and maintaining a brand. Unless you are working with a dedicated UX designer, don’t assume someone else is thinking of ways to bring together the brand and UX.

If you’re lucky enough to be part of a team that is already moving in this direction, then you’re off to a great start! If not, don’t worry. Here is an overview of how to make it happen:

  • Find out who's responsible for your brand at your organization and talk to them about incorporating UX into the overall brand strategy
  • Make sure brand UX is part of the timeline, budget and skill set of your team
  • Come up with a few specific ways you can use UX to reinforce the brand (use the tips below as a starting point)
  • Review and revise your UX strategy throughout the process to make sure it aligns with your brand

There is no magic potion that makes it all happen at once. Whether you’re working on a team or alone, the key is to just get started.

Tips for Brand UX

Start a Conversation

When a user comes to your site, they are starting a conversation with your organization. It’s the equivalent of a customer walking up to a salesperson, a student talking to an admissions counselor, a prospective member talking to a representative. Your website should do what any of these folks would do in person: greet them, ask how they can help, listen to their requests, ask for clarification if necessary, and then help them directly or give them the information they need to help themselves.

Try It:

  • Make sure the tone and voice follows brand guidelines
  • Include answers to common questions your audience has when they come to your site
  • Provide clear links to common actions

AACO Website Screenshot

Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Government starts the conversation by asking how they can help, and then anticipates responses by giving a variety of ways to find answers to questions. 

Be Real

Websites are made by people. Organizations are made up of people. Your audience consists of people. You don’t have to pretend to be a robot or a disembodied corporate voice. Your audience will be able to connect with your organization better if they feel that it is made up of people who understand and care about them. If your brand is on the serious side, you can still be personable without being unprofessional.

Try It:

  • Avoid passive voice
  • Write in the first person unless there is an important reason not to do so
  • Be conversational and use language that is familiar to you and your audience

BCM Website Screenshot

Baltimore Collegetown Network connects with their audience by being direct and writing in a friendly and personable tone of voice.

Make a Joke

A common trend in UX is humor. Even if humor is not a main attribute of your brand personality, it can still be a useful way to connect with your audience. If you use the kind of humor that resonates with your audiences, it’s a good sign that you’ve done your homework.

Try It:

  • Use humor to make error messages less painful
  • Entertain someone while they wait for a long screen to load
  • Don’t take things too seriously; try to make dry or boring content more engaging through humor

YCP 404 Page Screenshot

York College softens the frustration of getting an error page by blaming it on the school’s number one fan, Screamer.  

Be Succinct

Try taking the classic web writing advice and reduce copy to a minimum. Make life easier for your audience, and show them that you respect their time by not forcing them to read redundant or irrelevant copy.  

Try It:

  • Be vigilant about editing every line of copywriting
  • Remember that web writing can--and should be--more concise than traditional prose
  • Use headings, lists and short sentences to avoid “walls of text”

Packard Center Websiite Screenshot

Packard Center for ALS Research makes their About Us page easy to read by breaking text into short paragraphs and using plenty of white space.

Write Good Microcopy

Microcopy refers to small pieces of explanatory text (including headings, instructions, notifications, form labels and link or button text). It’s a popular topic in UX because it is essential for usability, but often overlooked. Microcopy provides key information your audience needs to find information and interact with the site.

Try It:

  • Use microcopy as an opportunity to reinforce your brand personality’s tone and voice
  • Identify who will write microcopy, and plan for it in the schedule and budget
  • Make sure your organization has a good style guide that helps you use consistent language for microcopy

Stevenson University Image

Stevenson University uses a clear tagline and coordinated button text to emphasize the brand promise of preparing students for the future.

Make Interactions Easy

A good website experience is made up of hundreds of small interactions. Use intuitive navigation menus to give users clear pathways through your site. Make sure your forms are easy to read and complete.Take the time to design menus and forms that are aesthetically pleasing and minimal.

Try It:

  • Group related links together, and limit the number of options in a menu
  • Avoid long forms by breaking them into sections or steps, and resisting the urge to ask too many questions
  • Build search and filter options to give people alternative ways to find information

JHHR Website Screenshot

Johns Hopkins Health Review online magazine includes a simple dropdown form that allows users to request a print edition.

Be a Guide

Confusion should not be part of any organization's brand. Luckily the web is not a one-way street. As a user moves through your site, you can give them feedback to help guide and encourage them.

Try It:

  • Display friendly tips to reduce errors
  • Make recommendations for related content
  • Use interactive content to create useful and fun ways for your audience to find content and accomplish tasks

HCC Website Screenshot

Howard Community College helps guide prospective students to the content they’re most interested in by letting them cross-search in different categories.

Exciting Opportunities

It’s tempting to look at brand UX as another facet of an already complex process. But it’s actually an exciting opportunity to be creative and differentiate your organization from competitors. Organizations and businesses in every field are creating unique, sophisticated brands by weaving together technology, visual design, marketing, user experience and even offline customer experience.

The payoff is worth it. You can build a powerful feedback loop where a strong brand draws the audience in and positive user experience defines their interactions--which ultimately reinforces your brand.     

How would you describe your electronic document retention policy?  Are you prepared to defend it in court?

Bits and Scales of Justice

A recent Wall Street Journal CIO Report article highlighted the fact that executives charged with overseeing the systems which store electronic documents and correspondence may now find themselves more deeply involved with litigation involving document retention. If you have responsibility for information technology in your organization this is critically important to you personally and professionally.

First, in the event of litigation, executives may be called to testify about how data flows through their systems and how and when it is retained.  In an environment featuring ongoing technological changes, this is no small feat.  

Second, CIOs and others may be personally liable for issues relating to e-discovery and document retention.  That should be very disconcerting if you’re not prepared to handle a litigation hold or deal with e-discovery requirements.

Electronic document retention is a serious problem. If you don’t have a comprehensive solution in place you may find yourself in a very uncomfortable and expensive situation.

What’s the Worst Case Scenario?

When companies are notified of pending lawsuits, they are obligated to save any relevant correspondence and other material that could be deemed related to the issue.  IT, Compliance, and Legal departments all play a role in making this happen.

Taking a step back, where would you find yourself if the phone rings and counsel gives you notice of a legal hold on your corporate electronic document system:

1.We have a policy that is aligned with our regulatory obligations.  Our policies and procedures accurately reflect the technology in place today.  Users have all been trained and the system is fully automated.

2.We don’t have a policy.  We don’t know what our obligations are and there’s no solution in place to support document retention or e-discovery.

3.We have a policy. The policy may not reflect our current IT infrastructure. User training is limited and our solution lacks automation so there may be gaps that allow important documents to fall through the cracks.

Which one of these is the worst case scenario?  You may be inclined to choose option two, but that’s a mistake. Option three is much, much worse. Having a policy and not following it exposes you to a number of risks around spoliation of evidence.  This can be extremely painful as your non-compliance with your own policy can be interpreted as intent to hide or destroy critical documents.

Electronic Document Retention is Complicated

Understanding the ins and outs of electronic document retention is tough.  You’ve got a mix of ambiguous legal standards and regulatory controls that are being applied to complex technological solutions touching everyone in the organization.  You likely have different requirements for different types of documents.  The number of solutions available both for normal use and for retention / e-discovery is staggering.  There is no off the shelf solution that will work for every organization.

Some organizations may be tempted to sidestep the issue either by letting end users decide what to keep or by simply keeping copies of everything.  Neither of these is a good approach.

Letting end users decide can be hugely problematic.  You’ll have some users who delete documents before retention periods are up.  You’ll have other long term employees who keep every piece of correspondence, which incurs unnecessary costs for your organization.   This isn’t a good plan because it introduces too many opportunities for mistakes to be made.

Simply saving everything forever isn’t a good option either.  This is counterintuitive to many organizations because the cost of storage is always getting cheaper.  The technical solutions for comprehensive retention are reasonable to implement in many cases.  Storage is not where the costs lie though.  Saving everything exposes your organization to unnecessary litigation risk by retaining documents beyond the required retention periods. Meanwhile although storage might be cheap, the discovery process is definitely not.  Searching, sorting, and reviewing large volumes of unnecessary and irrelevant electronic documents can be hugely expensive when you’re being charged by the hour.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This isn’t a problem that will be solved exclusively by the IT department.  While they have a role to play, they’re not subject matter experts on your obligations.  In addition very few IT departments have experience with the solutions available today to automate retention.

At the same time, it’s rare to find legal and compliance experts who have deep knowledge of technology.  They may understand the legal and regulatory frameworks around your retention obligations but when it comes to executing it on a daily basis that’s a different story entirely.

What you need is someone to facilitate a discussion around the issue that includes IT, legal, compliance, and other subject matter experts throughout your organization.  Getting these groups to come together, produce an actionable policy, and implement a technical solution is critically important to reducing your exposure to litigation risk.

Want to start a conversation about electronic document retention and IT compliance concerns? Don’t wait. Send me an email at

Branding Collage

In the second post in our Anatomy of a Brand series, we begin to tackle a subject that’s close to my heart as a former consumer products marketer -- differentiation. While it's a critical component of brand strategy, differentiation isn’t always top-of-mind among B2B, higher ed and nonprofit marketers.  It so happens that these categories make up the bulk of our client roster at SAI, so we’re tackling the topic here.


Because of the nature of our clients' businesses, we sometimes encounter a bit of skepticism when we talk about the importance of differentiating brands, which isn’t surprising when you consider that the term "Unique Selling Proposition" comes from the world of packaged goods advertising.  To understand why we universally recommend strategic brand differentiation, let’s consider why some may push back:


  • ​“We’re in a crowded categor​y, an​d there’s nothing material that separates what we do.”  We hear this more frequently than you might imagine; it’s a common sentiment in competitive segments like professional services and certain manufacturing sectors.  In a timely turn of events, The Good Wife’s main character Alicia Florrick delivered the following line in the most recent episode, summing up the problem succinctly:  “The firm needs to be defined. It needs an identity. All service firms tend to do too much. No one knows what they’re about.” Alicia may be a fictional lawyer, but she cited a real issue. ​


Why is it, then, that so many brands do little to try to cr​eate separation between themselves and their competitors? Simply put, it’s their way of casting a wide net. Out of fear of limiting potential sources of revenue, their value proposition remains vague in hopes that they don’t turn business away. However, that rationale is faulty. Trying to be all things to all people, as the CBS TV writers pointed out, is the surest way not to stand for anything at all, relegating your brand to commodity status. With no distinguishing attributes, “me-too” brands inherently compete on price, defeating the purpose of having a brand in the first place, which is to create value.


  • Complex or intangible p​roducts/services cannot be distilled down into tangible benefits like most consumer goods can.”  This is another popular obstacle in the path of strong brand differentiation, but it’s built on a misconception that intangible or complex value propositions are somehow above being considered brands at all. Realize that every “sell” doesn’t always result in a simple business transaction. Whether you’re providing financial services, admitting students to a college, building a new housing development or encouraging people to become organ donors, you still have “consumers” and differentiation would benefit your brand. 


  • “We’re not a product or​ service; we have no competition.” This bit of feedback is related to the one above. Every brand has competition, it’s just a matter of how direct the competition is. Sure, Coke has Pepsi and a long list of other carbonated soft drinks, but there are also bottled waters, iced teas, energy drinks and juices to consider – all on nearby grocery shelves – but what about tap water? And beer? The point is that thinking about your competition in more general terms can only help your marketing efforts. It’s less about knowing what brands are being chosen in place of yours (although that’s important too, as you will learn in an upcoming blog post); instead, consider what factors are keeping consumers from choosing your brand in general.  If you are a marketing director for a trade association, for example, what’s keeping you from increasing membership? Perhaps there’s no other association in your industry (direct competitors), but there are still plenty of alternatives to your brand. They can learn about best practices by following industry blogs, or they can network and search for jobs via LinkedIn or other social networks. There may be ad hoc industry groups on a local level that depress your membership. In any case, awareness of these circumstances is an important initial step toward differentiating your brand and adding real value to your organization.

Now that we’ve convinced you (hopefully) that differentiation is necessary, stay tuned for our next blog that explores various ways to do so.  

Until then, if you have feedback or questions, drop us an email at 

Apr 2016