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Where content meets technology

Dec 10, 2004

Content as Cathedral and Bazaar

I have been thinking about the idea that ECM (one central system for all content) is a myth and I feel like there is a lot of credence to it. As an implementer of CMS, I know how hard content management projects can be if several departments are involved. It is very difficult to get all the stakeholders (creators and consumers of content) at the table and even those who are represented are not happy with the compromises that they have to make. As an architect, designing a universal content model that is both all encompassing and easy to use is very difficult (it is easier in the case of unstructured content such as a document management system where everything is either a document or a folder).

If the project is successful, once the system is in place and people start really using it, they start to learn its potential and come up with innovative new applications and extensions. The list of enhancement requests grows and grows but, the more constituencies that use the system, the harder it is to scope future releases. Users start to feel like they are not being heard and lose a sense of ownership over the system. Interest in the system declines as users direct their creativity to circumvent the system with work-arounds (EMAIL!) that undermine the spirit of the initiative of building a high quality centralized content repository.

In lots of way's I am reminded of Eric Reymond's famous metaphor The Cathedral and the Bazaar. For those who are not familiar with the metaphor, the cathedral is a centrally managed and architected structure and the bazaar is a decentralized organism that is defined by individual motivations adding up to market forces. The reason why I like this metaphor for content is that, in many cases, content is a creative process where people have an idea or knowledge and want to communicate it. A marketplace is created when creators and consumers of content connect and collaborate. As Reymond put it: "a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches". A cathedral is controlled by the vision of a central authority. It is formal. Nothing gets in without the architects approval.

Like a society, an organization needs both: a bazaar for employees to navigate, collaborate, and innovate; and a cathedral to show the world its achievement and its aspirations. The bazaar is the internal team workspaces, departmental wikis, and blogs. The cathedral is the publishing process and product. To drive this metaphor into the ground, I picture the cathedral's architect working his way through the bazaar to identify the images and artifacts that he will incorporate into the cathedral.

When an ECM vendor tries to shoe-horn a company's bazaar into their cathedral, they threaten to either make the cathedral too chaotic or to stifle the creative energy that drives the company. In a real world example, if I wrote up some instructions for solving a common problem, and I decided that my peers could benefit, in that moment, I want to publish something. If I have to jump through hoops to get it done, I may just forget about it and let it die on my hard drive, or at most, email it around to the people that I know could use the information. However, if I could publish it to a more permanent place, the information has a better chance of surviving.

So what can be done to make the bazaar less chaotic and intimidating? I think that the answer lies in enterprise search and other technologies that can deal with navigating a repository that was not primarily meant to be navigated. Search is what keeps the Web useful. The litmus test for a good repository is that it improves, rather than degrades, over time and I think the Web, and search, passes that test. I saw a presentation on some very cool search technologies that make me feel confident that things are going to get even better. Another strategy to sort out all of this confusion is the directory model like DMOZ. A while ago, I did some work for the Department of Defense, and learned about DefenseLINK where military sites can register to be indexed and included in a directory. In order to be included in DefenseLINK, you have to meet certain standards (like accessibility) and have someone responsible for the content. I think they also require some metadata although I am not sure how it is used.

These strategies shift the burden of organizing the universe of content away from the content creators at creation time to a centralized organization or technology trying to make sense of everything after the fact. I don't underestimate the difficulty of this responsibility but I think it is more realistic than to expect all content communities (small groups of creators and consumers) to adhere to the same set of rules and expend additional effort when it is not related to the immediate task at hand.

If you have some ideas in this area, please shoot me an email.