Monday, November 26, 2007

CMS Business Case

There has been an enormous amount of writing and discussion about building a business case for a CMS and I don't have much to add other than to say that most of what I have heard is totally wrong ;)

The conventional approach to the problem is to focus on process and efficiency. There is usually some spreadsheet that promises time savings from better tools for editing and accessing content. The estimates are usually wild guesses that have been adjusted to make a particular point. The uncomfortable reality is that most companies are under-investing manpower in managing content. You can't save money by saving labor that you are not applying in the first place. A slightly more reasonable approach (especially in the advertising based industries such as media and publishing) is around the volume of content: more content means more indexed pages that may translate into more search engine traffic that leads to more page impressions and potential for ad click-through. If your content stinks, the equation doesn't work.

In my opinion, the business case discussion should be around the content itself - not the technology used to manage it. This is a difficult conversation to have for a number of reasons. First of all, the human effort required to manage content (no matter what tools you have), while very costly, does not have a big spending event that triggers an ROI conversation. The expenditures from managing content (or the cost of not managing it) happens in drips and drops but it can really bleed a company. Secondly, there is a misperception that all content is good and worth managing. CIO's like to say that "disk is cheap" but it really isn't. The cost of disk drives continually declines but the operational cost of managing the information is actually going up. I don't have any hard data to back this up but I think it is obvious. For every byte on a disk, you need to back it up, you need to organize it, and you need to scroll past it when looking for something else. Most importantly, you need to find it and combine it with other bytes to make actionable information; otherwise, that byte is worthless - less than the cost of saving it no matter how cheap the cost of the disk drive is.

Estimating the value of content is hard and frequently complicated by sentimental or otherwise irrational feelings. A person's content is typically more often more valuable to him than it is to others. Not just because he was interested in the topic but also because he feels the need to justify the effort that he invested in creating the content (or paid someone else to do it). There is also a timing aspect. The value of some information goes up over time, while other information goes down. For example, there was a time when the most important piece of content for me was the master's thesis that I was writing. Now, I don't even know if it still exists in paper or digital format. Two years later in the corporate world, I was submitting a purchase request for $8,000 to recover the data off of a 3.5 inch floppy disk that was sitting in some ooze at the bottom of someone's desk drawer. It may have had an old financial report that was needed for a taking the company public. I will never know because the $8,000 recovery attempt failed.

At cmf2007, Bob Boiko's keynote talked about how we are not yet in the information economy because we have a hard time determining the value of content and the markets for trading information are primitive. Content managers are put into the subservient role of having to post everything that they are given. I would tend to agree with him. I do not feel like companies are any better at deciding what content to keep than the parent of a prolific three year old artist. In fact, I feel like the parent has the edge because he has a finite amount of refrigerator door space.

The next time you are looking at a new CMS because you are drowning in content but starving for information, ask yourself "is this CMS just a bigger refrigerator door?" "If i just dump my content into another CMS am I really solving the problem?" " Do I really understand the problem?" Those questions are hard to answer without understanding what content you have, what it is worth, and how could be made to be worth more. Here are some questions that I like to ask.

  • How often are these assets requested?

  • How often are they revised?

  • What is the value of the business processes that this content enables?

  • What is the cost of the content being wrong? This may have to do with brand image, misinformation, etc.

  • What would you pay to recover this content if you thought it was lost?

  • How much would another company (maybe a competitor) pay for this information? Not saying that you would sell it, but if you were selling it.

You start asking these questions and all of the sudden, content starts looking like the most important asset in your company. It probably is... either that or the people. Just like with people, you can get more out of content by retaining and investing in the right content (and either improving or letting go of worthless content), creating better processes, and providing an environment (or repository) where the content is more productive (accessible). I have never heard of a company trying to calculate the ROI of moving from one office to another. Most companies accept that they need good office space that does not interfere with people doing their jobs. Physical office space is considered a cost of doing business that has very real but complex and difficult to estimate value. It is never considered a substitute for good people or good processes. I wonder if a CMS should be valued in the same way. A CMS will not solve your content management problems but it will make your life more pleasant while you are doing the work. A little like a nice office.