Reinventing yourself in the midst of the economic duldroms

Between 2007 and 2008, my company began to experience the economic pressures other companies were undergoing. Consequently, sales slowed down, we lost several co-workers and we had to do more with less. Throughout this downturn, I’ve had enough billable work for my company to keep me. For that, I am extremely grateful, but there were plenty of slow days during this period. It was important, therefore, to reinvent myself frequently and remain productive.

I stayed productive by looking for ways to keep myself employed while things were moving slow. My supervision was minimal, and my leaders counted on me to be a self-starter. They asked me to identify what the company needed next and go after it. To that end, I learned to look to be more aggressive in finding out what we needed next. Then I strategized with my leaders on ways to improve our communication practices, and they were visionary enough to see the possibilities with me.

My goal has always been to make my company more efficient and cost effective in terms of its communication practices. Lately, my approach has been to develop standardized working templates with standardized content. If I can get everyone to use a template with standardized content when communicating with our customers, we can save time and money. The message I’m trying to drive home is that a consistent message will enable us to face clients with greater confidence and spend more time making the sale instead of constantly reinventing the wheel.

Three years ago, my leaders asked me to develop sales collateral and help with their customer responses. As I gained experience, they asked me create marketing collateral for our company’s partners and customers. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some highly recognizable clients, and have gained valuable knowledge about several classes of sales assets. As a result, I came back to my company each time with more ideas about improving our own message.

I also had time to step back and consider some of our weaknesses. I saw, for example, that we rewrote our company information every time we created a response to a request for information. Very little was the same from one response to the next, and this chaotic practice led to many headaches.

Consequently, I’ve identified opportunities for improvement along two fronts. One front involves our sales collateral. We needed several types of customer-facing and internal-facing sales assets. The other front involves the way we respond to our customers. We needed a template that would encourage consistent, structured writing and the reuse of existing information wherever possible. In both cases, we needed to document our processes to identify the industry’s best practices and develop repeatable practices based on them.

For our sales assets, I’ve identified the following opportunities based on templates that some of my colleagues designed for a large client:

  • Solution briefs (customer facing)
  • Customer presentation (customer facing)
  • White papers (customer facing)
  • Case studies (customer facing)
  • Battlecards (internal facing)
  • Competitive positioning briefs (internal facing)
  • Sales presentations (internal facing)
  • Podcasts (customer facing and internal facing)

The audience for customer-facing assets is our clients, and their purpose is to move clients toward a commitment. The audience for the internal-facing assets is our own sales force and our partners. The purpose of these assets is to equip our sales personnel a standardized message and ideas for handling a variety of competitive challenges.

For our responses, I worked with our Strategic Sales Support team to identify the steps of our response process and the parties involved. From the knowledge I gathered, I documented our response process. After that, I worked with them to develop a template. The next step is to create an online help system for using the template effectively. We designed the template to take advantage of several native paragraph styles in Microsoft Word, but had to create a few unique styles to accommodate client requests.

Last year, a larger corporation based in Europe bought our parent company, and we’re in the midst of an extensive rebranding effort that has brought the need for additional changes. As a result, we’ll be working on several other types of communication in the future. Our company has merged with three other companies and we want to project a new image that communicates the right message.

One could look at a merger and acquisition (M&A) as a sign of trouble, but I don’t see it that way. This is my opportunity to help our rebranded company to identify and implement sound documentation practices while they’re trying to figure out what their message will be. I’m also excited about showing our new parent company what we’ve done to document our processes and develop a cost-effective communication model.

Right now, we still have a long way to go with enterprise content management, but we have made progress. With Microsoft SharePoint, I’ve learned how to build document libraries, use version control and build metadata into our files. In addition, I’ve developed task lists in SharePoint that will support agile documentation with the scrum management method. I’ve also developed and tested a SharePoint single-sourcing strategy based on Ann Rockley’s enterprise content management philosophy.

I haven’t done anything like implementing Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) or Extensible Markup Language (XML), but I have used Microsoft Office and SharePoint to emulate many of the more expensive content management systems. For example, SharePoint can automate our documentation workflow and notification to fit our documentation models. I’ve documented my approach extensively in separate articles and presentations.

The beauty of this system is that we are building it on IT investments the company has already made. One of the best ways to get IT support is to design your solutions around existing hardware and software investments. The same principle applies to winning buy-in from your leadership. To the greatest extent possible, design your solution around standard, company assets. Remember the maxim: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

We went digital and we’re still unemployed. Now what?

three-dimensional character working on computer connectet to globe
Welcome to Digitopolis

I wrote this blog for anyone who is disappointed with the current jobs market or feels that the American dream is lost forever. Let me start by assuring you that all is not lost. Get over that absolutist thinking right now, because it’s sapping your creativity and robbing you of happiness. I hope my words will not only leave you with hope, but give you a roadmap for a successful American dream. Let’s talk. Shall we?

I’m sure you’ve heard all the hype during the last few years about the world becoming digital. Thomas L. Friedman wrote his famous book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, and everyone wondered what to do about that wake-up call. One of his key points was that the playing field is now level and that we’ll have to compete with people overseas who are not only as educated as our children, but more so and willing to work much harder for next to nothing.

Also, if you’ve been conscious since 2007, you’ve noticed that we’re in one of the worst recessions of our collective memory. I’m sure folks who grew up during the Great Depression will beg to differ with us rug rats, but this is the worst economic downturn our generation has ever seen. With the debt crisis in Greece and other members of the EU, the recession also promises to deepen. So, how do we confront these new realities without growing so depressed that we spend the rest of our lives popping Lexapro and playing Farmville every day?

I think two things are necessary. One thing is that younger people need to take better advantage of their education, and think outside the box. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your degree entitles you to a job. It doesn’t.

If you’re young, educated and don’t have a job, you may want to consider incorporating yourself as a business and contracting your services. You didn’t get all that expertise just to throw it way. Get out there and find the opportunities; they exist right now. You’re probably not going to find them through the classifieds or Monster.com, but you may find them by writing about your own creative solutions on social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Your key, in this arena, is to attract the right kind of attention.

Furthermore, with the advent of the Cloud, wireless networks and mobile devices, several new career fields are likely to emerge over the next five to ten years. For example, you can already earn income by designing and creating mobile applications or writing instructions on their use. You can also derive income from other types of online services, but you have to be aggressive in finding and pursuing the opportunities. In essence, you must become your own sales force.

Those of us who are middle aged may feel lucky to have a job, but we don’t need to languish. We can exercise creativity within our careers by sharing our knowledge with young people who are willing to learn. We can find fulfillment in mentoring, and this is the kind of networking that may eventually lead to additional opportunities. It starts, however, with volunteering your time.

Those who have left the workforce through retirement have earned their rest, but I’ve noticed something. The people who live the longest, happiest lives stay at least partially involved in the work force or socially engaged for several years into their retirements. That’s not to say older people who are unemployed are irresponsible. There are many potential circumstances that may mitigate against their continued employment: sickness and age discrimination to name a few.

Older Americans do not have to sit on the sidelines and wait for the world to leave them behind. They can get in on some of the action too, and it may actually be good for them to some extent. Learning new skills preserves cognitive function. In the case of our older peers, however, I would say they should only maintain the lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed. In other words, work to live in comfort and take plenty of time off. You’ve earned it.

For all Americans, this kind of out-of-the-box thinking will become far more important for at least the remainder of this decade. Most of the traditional manufacturing jobs have permanently moved overseas. Those that return to the United States will be high-tech jobs that require the kind of creative and technical thinking I propose today.

The other thing is that the U.S. must collaborate with businesses to create new opportunities based on emerging technologies, green and otherwise, here and abroad. There is no turning back to a predigital world. The playing field is permanently leveled, and now we must compete on a global scale with people who are just as bright as we are, but far more cost competitive.

To compete with a low-wage, global workforce, we must lower our own costs. That is no small feat, but I think we can achieve it through greater efficiency. The way to become more efficient is through technological innovation, identifying best practices and implementing them in every aspect of our lives. We don’t necessarily have to give up our standard of living, but we need to think things through carefully instead of taking everything for granted.

I also think the leveling of the playing field may work in our favor. The digital revolution has made it easier than ever to render services and collaborate 24/7, regardless of location. Technology is exploding right now and revolutionizing every aspect of our lives. It’s unsettling, but for those who keep a watchful eye out for opportunities, there is a great abundance of them.

So, what about that roadmap I promised? Well, here’s a start, but it’s by no means complete. I suggest the following steps:

  1. Take the time to figure out what you really want to do for the rest of your life.
  2. Draw up a feasible plan. If necessary, ask your family and friends for advice.
  3. Network on sites such as LinkedIn, but keep your message tailored to your career goals.
  4. Write or blog about the career in which you are interested, and announce it everywhere.
  5. Volunteer your time to help others and find opportunities to assist organizations.
  6. When you’ve done something fantastic, let everyone know about it.
  7. Talk to an accountant, incorporate yourself and contract your services.
  8. Create a web site solely dedicated to discussing the services you offer.
  9. Build up a portfolio of previous clients and projects.
  10. Write case studies of your success stories.

Notice I did not advise you to write a résumé. Honestly, paper-based résumés may no longer be the most effective means of finding work. You’re better off posting something like a résumé, as requested, on a company site. You’ll have to be responsive to their requested format. It’s almost as if you’re writing a miniature response to a request for proposals (RFP). What’s more, companies have the option of grading the conformance of your online résumé to their exact specifications. I have some ground rules for writing an effective résumé, but I’ll have to discuss them in another blog.

Today, one of the most important things you can do to find work seems almost counter-intuitive: get involved with a social network. One of the best networks these days is LinkedIn. If you can get recommendations from previous employers on LinkedIn, you may have a significantly better chance of finding work than if you send a paper résumé, unsolicited, to a company.

Moreover, you can find career groups in LinkedIn that regularly post job openings specifically in your career field. It seems obvious, but if you help someone on LinkedIn, and they have a job opening, you could be on the top of their list.

Finally, one of the most effective ways to use LinkedIn or any other social network is to write often on your area of interests. Write with passion about your career field, but make sure you do your research first or at least write to seek advice. Also, if you use someone else’s ideas, provide proper attribution and limit the amount you use. Remember, people are reading your profile or blog to find out what you think, not what someone else thinks.

I hope my words have inspired someone to find their niche or fulfill a life-long dream. Thank you.

How do I reinvent myself?

Featured

Jacksonville, Florida is a microcosm of a world that’s changing around us. Empty buildings stand as ghostly reminders of a busy past. In a few cases, these structures were built as far back as the dawn of the 20th Century. For years, they’ve stood as hollow shells of businesses that once bustled with activity and life. A few years ago, I looked inside one of these architectural relics and the only thing I saw was a nest of pigeons. In other cases, however, businesses recently closed due to the latest recession.

One cause of our economic misery is technological innovation. Automation has enabled companies to cut down tremendous amounts of backlog while significantly reducing overhead. Of course, that means they laid off workers by the thousands never to rehire them. As with all things, technology is a two-edged sword. We can either let it hack us to death, or we can wield it to carve new roles and groundbreaking opportunities for ourselves.

Today, I’ll discuss two opportunities. One of them is self publication. This opportunity doesn’t just apply to writing books. It applies to almost any creative or technical thing you do. It is no longer necessary to submit your work to a publisher. This is one of many ways the Internet and digitization have leveled the playing field. Seem too simple? Lots of people are doing it.

For example, people are publishing music on their own and keeping the profits. They’re also writing every genre of literature, and adding to their bottom line. A lot of it is drivel, but that’s not a new development. Moreover, it represents an additional opportunity for freelance editors and writing consultants to assist with tools that make them more productive and profitable.

Similarly, it’s getting easier to program applications. In fact, it’s so much easier that it’s quickly becoming accessible to the public with inexpensive tools. This used to be the exclusive domain of highly trained specialists. No longer! All you need is the idea, and these tools will do most of the work for you. In a few more years, we’ll see many more tools that will transform our ideas into profitable applications without hiring teams of developers.

On the other hand, developers can enhance their careers by transforming their knowledge, skills and experience into marketable services. For example, they can become consultants for those who need quick advice in developing their ground-breaking applications and businesses or they can create code for specialized functions not covered by the standard functions of these new applications.

Progress is unavoidable, but you don’t have to let it destroy your future. As long as you can imagine the possibilities, you can reinvent yourself in a multitude of ways. As I look at those empty buildings in Jacksonville, I don’t see rubble. I see new opportunities to rejuvenate and transform them into future hubs of innovation. That’s what I hope you’ll see as a result of reading this note: an opportunity to reinvent yourself for the future.