Intelligent content is a simple enough idea. If we want to be able to do many things with our content and we want to do so quickly and sustainably, then it makes sense that our content will need to be intelligent. In practice, a number of ingredients must come together to make content intelligent. And this fact complicates our efforts to explain what intelligent content really is. Intelligent content, in essence, is content that has been consciously designed to be manageable and reusable such that automation can be efficiently applied to the discovery and delivery of the content in an unlimited range of contexts. Complicating matters further, intelligent content evolves rapidly once it has been published – feeding on, and reacting to, the behaviour and contribution of users. I have touched on several of these considerations before but I want to focus on one of them specifically - the need for an optimal balance between investment and returns. In short, I want to look at the business side of intelligent content.
In case you have not noticed, business has become a pursuit where measurement, analysis and projection play an increasingly large role in decision making. Indeed, there are many enterprises that, in order to compete, need to shave pennies and seconds from every process. Of course, there are some ventures that fail to notice when it is time to recalibrate their controls and they continue to rearrange deck chairs when the analysis of emergent patterns calls for more serious changes. We live in a world that is both highly competitive and rapidly changing and our approaches to managing and leveraging content should reflect this fact.
One thing that becomes imperative is that our investments in content, and its management and publishing, should provide substantial and immediate business benefits. This is pretty easy to say but then we recall that, given the types of information that users demand today, we need to create, manage and leverage content that is fundamentally more intelligent. And we need to recall that intelligent content doesn’t happen by itself – it calls for the investment of time, expertise, effort and money.
So a question arises. How do we square this circle?
Historically, this was not an equation we could actually balance. The level of investment required, and the difficulty of reaching a sufficiently broad audience of users quickly, meant that a return on investment, in real terms, took a long time if it was ever reached at all. Mercifully, things are very different now. In particular, almost all of the software applications deployed today can do something intelligent with intelligent content. They can accept it and they can be used to produce it. There is also a convergence of best practices and standards, with these bringing more sophisticated design and processing techniques into mainstream web environments. It is this that makes it possible today to deploy intelligent content applications quickly and to reach broad communities of users in a way that delivers substantial benefits.
With this in mind, it should become possible to set down some basic rules of thumb on how intelligent content applications should be planned and budgeted for.
First off, there should be an orientation towards “content applications” – specific deployments that allow subject matter experts to create content and see it automatically delivered in different ways to different consumers. Certainly the key pieces need to be in place – but for any one content application only a subset of solution components needs to be present. The general capability to deploy additional content applications can grow over time through a series of successful individual deployments.
With this application focus adopted, it should then become possible to achieve a very compelling balance between investments and outcomes. As with many of my rules of thumb, this one will sound daunting. This is quite intentional, because in being daunting these rules force us to carefully trim our investments so that the emphasis remains on simplicity of design, speed of execution and tangibility of results.
In the case of intelligent content applications, we should set our sights on a return on investment of no less than 2 to 1 within the first year after deployment. In other words, the application should deliver benefits twice the value of the initial investment and do so in year one in the life of the new application. An investment should make a positive contribution to the bottom line in the fiscal year the application comes into service. This regime should in fact make it possible for both the investment and return to be encompassed within a single fiscal year and thereby to be at least neutral in its budgetary effects. This does tell us something about the scope of most content applications – they should not be sprawling undertakings but rather they should be specific, focused, tactical and completed in a relatively short period of time (specifically measured in months not years).
Now in measuring both the investments and benefits, there will be aspects that are quantifiable and aspects that are less so. A great many of the things we might prefer to see as qualitative, or strategic, can indeed be made subject to some form of measurement, even if the increments being used are not recognizable currencies. Measurement should be brought to bear on as broad an array of impacted factors as possible even if we find ourselves counting seconds, visits, orders, retweets, comments or something else. Oftentimes, innovation takes the form of finding something new, and important, that can be measured. In looking at the calculation of the return on investments, we should make sure we apply measurements to the current state of affairs, and that we measure the impacts associated with making the change investments, as well as measuring the future state. It is a management role to determine how measurements will be compared against a baseline measure, specifically dollars and cents, or whether this is necessary or reasonable in all cases.
But we do need to keep the subject of money at the center of our attention when discussing both investments and returns. On the investment side, there is unfortunately another rule of thumb that should be applied and this one has the effect of increasing the amount of money that should be budgeted for every content application project. For every unit expended on the technical implementation of the application, with this covering all design, development, documentation and deployment expenses, as well as the associated management and technology licensing costs, there must be an equal amount directed towards the business side of the project. This will include investments in content improvements, creation and control procedures, work practices, team member skills, and all the other steps that will need be taken to make sure that the content application reaches its target audience with a new level of service and with compelling improvements over what was done before.
I sometimes refer to this budgetary rule of thumb as “content management tough love” as it forces management to look resolutely at both sides of the effort. It is in fact a lot easier, and therefore common, to trim the budgetary demands of projects by only allocating for the technology side of the equation and this is a monumental mistake. This is in fact why the vast majority of content management investments (or indeed all technology investments) flounder.
The combined effect of these two rules of thumb is quite simple. Content application projects must be specific, targeted efforts that seek to deliver compelling new services in a relatively short period of time and to do so without completely overturning the way the participating stakeholders currently work. If this is done successfully, then a new content application can be realistically brought online within a matter of months and this effort will see content stakeholders using their familiar tools in new ways to inject higher levels of intelligence into their content and content consumers using their familiar tools to access and make use of this intelligence.
Sequences of such investments can be planned as part of a broader strategy to make systemic improvements in how an organization creates, manages and leverages intelligent content. This type of strategy is to be preferred because each incremental investment, and with it each intelligent content application, will demonstrate its value and harvest real-world experience that can guide each subsequent step. Almost as important will be the fact that each successful content application deployment will generate positive results and produce budget surpluses that can be used to fund subsequent investments. Content assets, and content application investments, that learn over time and that help to sustain and grow their sponsoring organizations are in fact intelligent and that is what we are talking about.