The Trials and Tribulations of Content Management
August 17, 2009
For the last twenty years, I have been working in a field of technology that travels under a variety of names: information management, document management, content management, component content management, and I am sure there are others that have escaped my memory. What distinguishes this field is the fact that it directs its attention, and endeavours to apply automation in useful ways, to the handling of the robust content artifacts that people create and use. For simplicity, I will refer to this field broadly as content management.
Traditional information technology evolved to address the challenges surrounding data processing and telecommunications. These challenges focused on automating the storage, manipulation and communication of data resources and on performing computations based on these resources. Within this traditional technology domain, it would be safe to say that the field of content management has struggled to define its place, role and relationship to other technologies. This has been the case because the specific challenges surrounding the handling of content artifacts are not challenges that traditional technology practitioners are familiar with, or perhaps interested in, addressing. It is also the case that many of the challenges surrounding the handling of content artifacts call for different tools and techniques than those traditionally deployed in automated solutions and this makes content management appear strange to many technology practitioners. Consequently, content management can be described as the Rodney Dangerfield of technologies – it doesn't get any respect.
As an industry, content management has consistently under-performed relative to other technology fields. The revenues being realized by suppliers of content management technology and services consistently look like the spare change that is left over after organizations have refreshed their desktops, deployed their enterprise applications and established their supplier interfaces. Within these organizations, there are individuals who advocate, at times passionately, for the application of better technology to the critical business activities that depend to a very large extent on the efficient and effective handling of content artifacts. Most commonly, these business activities are seen as producing and using documentation of various forms – proposals, contracts, plans, specifications, instructions, policies and so on. In the vast majority of modern organizations where a preponderance of the staff can be classified as knowledge workers, a survey of daily activities would assuredly determine that much of the work performed by these knowledge workers involves the creation, modification or application of document content. Despite the apparent importance of content to organizations, it continues to be the case that content management has not been able to win any respect either for the tools and techniques it deploys or for the problems it sets out to address.
Now all this is beginning to change. Slowly but surely, content management is gaining ground in large part because organizations are finding it necessary to improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which they handle sophisticated content artifacts. These efforts, however, have encountered further challenges with the consequence that the content management industry is again struggling to sustain what new attention it is getting. The source of these latest struggles can be traced to two primary sources. Firstly, the handling of content artifacts is in fact more complex than is usually conceded, even by practitioners in this field, and as a consequence most, if not all, content management solution deployments fall short of their declared goals. Secondly, and perhaps even more seriously, there is an almost complete absence of an accepted set of definitions for its core concepts that would allow the members of the content management industry to speak coherently amongst themselves in order to coordinate their efforts or to engage business customers and traditional technology practitioners in order to define and deploy effective content management solutions.
So the first task at hand is to tackle the second of these problems. Clear definitions must be established with which to frame the concepts needed to give content management the methodological rigour that will in turn make it possible to address the innate complexity of content and thereby to deploy successful content management solutions. Given that nothing succeeds like success, the content management industry, by taking these important steps, will finally earn some of the respect it rightly deserves.
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