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Transformation projects require clear job descriptions

Does your newsroom have them?

By Dietmar Schantin | Mar 6, 2019

It is an uncomfortable fact in many newsrooms that strategic thinkers are valued more than the people who do the heavy lifting of implementing their plans.

If someone is a strategic thinker, they can sometimes advance more easily in the company. Or, so the thinking goes. This person is worth more. Recognition, prestige and pay increases go along with it. And if a person is an implementer, then they are someone who “just” implements something that someone else conceived –– a “worker bee”.  

This attitude is actually a big mistake.

So, let’s take a minute to recognize the people whose job it is to implement those grand strategies, without whom even the best ideas will go to waste.

When a newsroom goes through a digital transformation process, or any transformation process, everybody wants to be part of defining the future of the company. And while that is a worthy ambition, it often isn’t practical, and can be even dangerous.

Do what you’re supposed to do, not what you like to do

If everyone wants to only do strategy, there might not be anyone interested in doing the unglamorous work of implementation, even if their assigned role in the organization is to make things happen and not only talk about it. This results in people doing what they want to do, and not what they are supposed to do.

The traditional school of management separated people into those who define what needs to be done, and people who actually execute it. And while in today’s world that might be too rigid, opening the strategy discussion to everyone is also unmanageable and not practical. Creating an environment and culture where strategy is perceived to be sexier than implementation diminishes the appeal and undervalues the importance of simply getting things done.

So, what can be done when everyone wants to work on strategy to the detriment of implementation?

One measure is to create a clear understanding of responsibilities, which are formalized in job descriptions. This can work as the antidote to a culture in which everyone does what they want to do, instead of what they need to do.

Clarity is the goal

The problem of unclear roles and responsibilities is compounded by history; newsrooms traditionally don’t put much emphasis on job descriptions, preferring instead to allow practice to define the roles. We have yet to see a single newsroom where job descriptions were up-to-date, reflected the reality or even existed in a consistent manner.

This isn’t the case in most other industries. Job descriptions are used for recruitment, are part of creating employment contracts and are used to evaluate staff in the yearly appraisals.

In the news media industry, job descriptions are seen as slightly bureaucratic, are often hazily formulated or don’t even exist because media is “a creative industry and a creative person doesn’t need a job description”.

The result is often that, over the years, people tend to find their comfort zones and do what they like to do, what they’re good at. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it complicates the work of an organization undergoing change. Because the changes are massive and usually have an impact on every single job in the organization, clear job descriptions become a necessity and very helpful.

As new digital workflows, new jobs and new responsibilities emerge, confusion will result if job descriptions aren’t clear and precise. When an organization is redesigned, it is very important to make sure everyone knows exactly what to do.

Customer centricity, digital first and multi-format thinking need to be much, much stronger.  At the same time that traditional jobs are changing, new roles are being created as well. Newsrooms are now filled with experts in analytics, social media, digital product development, tech and much more. These roles need to be defined as well.

New roles are added, and old roles evolve

For example, the person overseeing the news desk might find themselves suddenly overseeing all the different platforms. Or, the existing web editor finds themselves promoting stories on social media and curating content produced elsewhere. And the print editor in a mobile-first newsroom finds themselves without reporting staff – the job now is to take content that is produced for digital and make the best print product out of it.

Completely new jobs have emerged as well. Data scientists are a fresh and new position in newsrooms, as analytics take a growing role in determining content and understanding audience. Newsroom personnel are also taking a leading role in digital product development, working in teams with technology and marketing. Even the role of digital circulation director, in an era of paid content, has been moved into the newsroom in some organizations.

I just do my job and hope that it works.”

In many newsrooms undergoing change, people say, “I actually don’t know what is expected of me. I just do my job and hope it works.” Without clearly defined roles, it is also very difficult for management to lead and provide feedback, because nobody has formulated what is expected from everyone as their jobs evolve.

This means, for both the existing roles that change, and for the new roles, people will need to understand both their own responsibilities and those of their colleagues’, as the transformation takes place. People feel more comfortable when they know what their place is, what they’re supposed to do, what is expected of them. Job descriptions help clarify these things.

Describe the job, not the person

Still, there is likely to be resistance. A new job description can be difficult to accept, especially for people who have become comfortable and competent in their existing job.

There is likely to be pressure to write job descriptions to accommodate the people already in the role instead of defining new, necessary tasks in order to avoid conflicts with that person. And even if the job description defines the role and not the person, the job holder could return to their old habits if there is no monitoring and they are allowed to do so.

All the clever strategies, and the endless deck of presentation slides, can become very quickly worthless if people who actually implement it don’t understand what they’re supposed to do.

A successful transformation may very well rest on the task of providing well thought-through and well-defined job descriptions that are taken seriously, and enforced.

d.schantin@ifms-ltd.com | @dschantin

The Institute designs digital transformation strategies for newsrooms of all sizes and cultures.

Cases in digital reorganization and cultural change from Wall Street Journal and New Zealand Herald among others can be found here 

 

This article does not express the views of Reuters. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.