Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Content Management as a Practice

A few weeks ago Deane Barker from Blend Interactive wrote a thought provoking post about content management as a practice. Deane and I started talking about this idea in June when we were in Chicago for Web Content 2008. I understand why Deane took a few weeks to write up a post. This is a big idea that lots of people have struggled with. To summarize, it is not that hard to build a team of people who understand how to implement a specific platform and translate requirements into configuration and customization of that solution. It is harder to build a team of people who understand the foundational concepts in the abstract (that is, not tied to any vendor's implementation) and know how different implementations perform in different situations. (that is probably an overly brief summary. You should definitely read Deane's post and the follow up comments).

To understand content management at this level you need to experience lots of different products, tease out concepts and patterns, and do a lot of comparative thinking. This is hard to do because it takes a certain kind of curiosity that I find surprisingly rare and certainly expensive to cultivate. Most people stop looking when they see something that works. They find it frustrating and risky to ignore familiar concepts to look at a problem from a fresh perspective. They dread the steep initial incline of a learning curve. They only suffer suffer through in the hope of flatter pitches ahead. Few have an insatiable need to challenge and be challenged. The instant the learning curve starts to level-off, they are looking for another one to run up against. They like the feeling of being dropped into a totally unfamiliar place and finding their way. You can't carry too many (TADD: Technical Attention Deficit Disorder) people like this on staff because nothing gets done the same way twice. To build a successful content management practice (that balances predictability with innovation), you need both types of people. You need some people that are constantly searching and challenging and you need others plowing ahead on well traveled paths. I don't know what that perfect balance is and there are plenty of companies that do very well by picking a repeatable solution and getting very good at efficiently implementing it. You can try to supplement your own exploration by buying research but I feel that most industry analysts don't go deep enough into the solutions to really understand them and have useful things to say. I think most of what you get is some quick (often misguided) observations and some unsupported theories presented as trends.

To take the conversation one step further, I would go on to say that "content management" is too broad and ill-defined to base a discrete consulting practice. "Content" is a squishy term - really no more descriptive than the word "stuff." Every software application manages some kind of data that (depending on the perspective) could be considered "content." Even within the accepted segment of content management, the different disciplines of web content management, digital asset management, digital records management, and document management have so little common ground. Ever sit through a discussion with a DITA evangelist and a marketing communications person whose idea of content is a press release written in Word?

I think the biggest issue is that content management (in of itself) is not a business problem. Media companies need help creating rich content experiences for their audiences. Consulting companies need to improve the way they collaborate to produce and re-use deliverables. Manufacturing companies need to organize and bundle specifications for their products and the supporting end-user documentation. Marketing organizations need a destination to point their various campaigns. All companies need at least a few pages on the web to communicate to the market what they do. Content is just a common thread through these different business problems that it takes different skills and approaches to solve. As content management professionals we should not get so distracted by the fact that there is "content" involved that we lose focus on the business goals that are to be achieved. This is where industry specialization is important. I think it is more important for a consultant to understand best operational practices for a specific industry than generalized practices in content management. There may be commonalities in how technical documentation and news articles are managed but how much does that really matter to the customer who is only concerned with their manuals or publications?

What really hammered point home for me was at a wedding last weekend. I am used to getting blank stares when I say that I "help companies select and leverage content technologies." This time I said "I help media and publishing companies select and leverage technologies to manage the content of their websites." Everyone instantly got it and I had some great conversations with people who either worked in media businesses or were just interested consumers of media. I could have said that "I help select and leverage technologies for e-commerce companies to make their websites more effective selling tools. That is also true. It is OK to specialize in more than one thing (I also work in the high-tech and entertainment industries). The key is to focus on the customer's higher level business objectives, not a set of capabilities that defines a software market segment. Yes, an understanding of workflow as a foundational concept is useful but even more important is to understand the different editorial processes that happen within a news organization.

I think this is a fascinating topic and I hope the discussion continues. Please comment here, on Deane's blog, FriendFeed, Delicious. You name it.