Why has managing content been such a persistent and irreducible challenge? The reason is that content has many sides and when we set out to manage content we usually find ourselves trying to managing more than just one thing.
As we have covered in previous posts, content is potential information, and among other things this means that when we survey the information assets of an enterprise one of the things we are looking for is what information can be reused (what has the potential to play a role in future information transactions). Perhaps another way to define “content” is to say that “content is what can be reused” and this includes what has already been enacted as information. But immediately we see we are juggling two very different things. Information is an action and this means that it has already happened when we get around to managing it. Content, by contrast, is potential, and therefore its realization as something valuable always lies in the future. Clearly, how we manage information and how we manage content is fundamentally different. Indeed, the reasons why we manage information and why we manage content are fundamentally different.
With the management of information (see the earlier post Managing Information) we encounter a focus on accountability and this characterizes the rather substantial side to the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) industry that is focused on finding, securing, and eventually destroying information, together with its attendant costs and liabilities. With the management of content (see On the Management of Content) we see a focus on the future, on the products and services that will be offered. You can immediately see how the types of people who will be drawn to these respective endeavours will be quite different – different in disposition, skills, background, motivation, and method.
One of the challenges of managing content, historically, has been that these differences are generally ignored, or at least muddled, and these two different groups of people are typically thrown together into content management projects only for them to work at cross-purposes.
When we are considering intelligent content, as content that has been realized in a way that surfaces its different dimensions, we see that the situation is even more prickly. One of the other dimensions of content to be surfaced is its knowledge value, the relationships and accumulative expression of understanding, with this being almost purely an embodiment of future potential. Knowledge becomes valuable insofar as it has been accessed, internalized and converted to effective action and this is what gives content is “future-orientation”. The people who are closest to this side of content will tend to be highly focused on the people who will be creating, modifying and using the knowledge. Another dimension of content is data which is made up of precise representations of meaning to which are applied very specific constraints so as to make them amenable to computation and manipulation usually by automated means. The people who are focused on the data within content will be highly attuned to the automated applications that will depend on the precision and predictability of the data representations manifest in, or associated with, the content. And once again we have two groups of people who don’t typically hang out together in the cafeteria.
Just recently, I was in a meeting where the very different perspectives of data, information and knowledge stakeholders were thrown into sharp relief. The project is intended to deliver a “discovery service”, a mechanism for helping people find information resources that will, as a collection, help those people do various things. The information stakeholders are very focused on what will be provided to users and even more concerned that nothing important is missed. The knowledge stakeholders are focused on how the latent knowledge assets can be exposed and leveraged so as to make something useful of the otherwise intractable sea of information. But the most forceful players in the room were the data stakeholders. Part of their strength derived from the fact that they were all but oblivious to the other perspectives. If the word “consistency” was used once by the data stakeholders, it was used a thousand times. The idea that managing content relied on introducing new, more flexible data structures was anathema to these people. Technology applications are generally notable for their inability to adapt and people hailing from the data camp have, through years of bitter experience, come to fear and even despise difference, deviation or change because, for their business applications, these are all forms of poison. Peace among these divergent stakeholders was not going to come easily and someone was going to have to budge.
It occurs to me that one of the most fundamental challenges facing the management of intelligent content, and that has faced the quest to better manage content generally, is a human one. The perspectives of the different stakeholders in intelligent content, with its constituent data, information and knowledge value, must somehow be reconciled. While there may be some technical ramifications, the real outcome is that a new relationship will be needed amongst these divergent perspectives. Right now it is something of a Mexican standoff, with there being the more far-sighted knowledge confronting irascible information and unforgiving data. I think I have seen this movie before. I even think I remember how it ends.