People who know me are frequently surprised, and perhaps pleased, to find that my blog so rarely mentions the three-letter acronym with which that they have come to associate me. This acronym is XML which is distilled from Extensible Markup Language. People who have known me for a long time are even more surprised because in the later 1990s and early years of the new millennium I chaired the XML World conferences. In this capacity, I used the stage to pronounce upon the many important things we could use XML to do. Often these pronouncements paid only passing attention to the benefits that most advocates were seeking and moved instead onto topics that I am sure those same people found baffling.
As one example, I gave an opening keynote at XML World 2002 in New Orleans and the title of that talk was "Super-Integration: The Next Big Thing". The subject of this talk was the role XML could play in passing small units of data between applications large and small to provide completely new types of services. In retrospect, there was a measure of truth seeded within these prognostications.
Now since that time I have moderated my message and adjusted my focus more and more to the topic of content and less and less on the specifics of a particular encoding and exchange standard. Part of this moderation has come from the fact that XML itself is something of a compromise attempt to provide this type of exchange mechanism for data, application messages and then perhaps content. Also, having been raised on SGML and having been a great admirer of its grammar for modelling the structures present in content as it is found in the world, I continue to find XML somewhat lacklustre as a "meta-language". However when I was asked recently whether it was possible to have "intelligent content" that was not managed as XML I grudgingly said "No". Today, it is only by using XML that we can interact with all of the applications that are in use and thereby achieve the type of integrated behaviour that makes a real difference.
The title of this post comes from the title of a presentation I gave at the XML-in-Practice conference in 2009 - The Reason and Passion of XML. In this talk I tried to summarize what I had learned over the years about the types of applications that open markup standards make possible and the types of justifications that I have found to be most successful for engaging executive decision-makers. The "Reason" side of the equation specifically looked at the mechanics of a good business case - where numbers are used to quantify the benefits that will accrue to an organization if XML is used to enable intelligent content solutions. A couple of cases were used to illustrate the types of numbers that can be presented and then realized through effective implementations. However, the "Passion" side of the equation was, to my mind, the more interesting, and far more important, part.
The "Passion" side of the equation is really about framing a vision of how business might be conducted when an organization taps into the wellsprings of their content and brings the latent intelligence to the surface using open markup. The underlying point of the presentation was that the rational side to the business cases has never been enough to sustain "intelligent content projects". For the vast majority of organizations, open markup standards such as XML are simply too new and the impacts across their operations too various for these types of projects to be "easy". While addressing the practical managerial mindset, as embodied in the finance department, is an essential step to get an investment in XML approved, it is not sufficient to carry these projects through the hours of darkness and uncertainty that doubtless lie ahead for them. For such projects to be sustained and successful, it is necessary that the vision of something new and compelling must be taken up by those executives whose role is more strategic. If this type of support is put into place, then projects introducing XML-enabled content solutions can be explosively successful. Again, case studies were used to illustrate what can happen when all these stars are aligned.
All of this then takes us back to the subject of my last post, Content Management at the Crossroads, where I argued that the content management industry has collectively failed to make a connection with the strategic mindset of business executives and therefore has failed to excite any genuine passion for the types of business change that intelligent content technologies can unleash. I further argued that a key part of this failing can be found in the fact that we have not, as an industry, collaborated sufficiently on making the complete value of our specialization accessible and tangible to these all-important stakeholders. We have not established any shared demonstrations that can be used to showcase the types of content scenarios that are becoming possible and without these we cannot excite any real passion for what we can do.
Without collaborating as an industry to embody and exemplify the passion side of the content management business case, through the use of shared content scenarios, advocates for content innovations, whether these are vendors of content management tools or individual champions within organizations, are forced to work alone. They are forced to trade only in rational arguments that speak to the practical mindset and to the skepticism of auditors. And this, as Bob Boiko so correctly identifies is a dead end. If this path is followed alone, it is not long before financial savings become the only acknowledged benefit and soon any hope of innovation dies from a thousand self-inflicted cuts. The business of content does not need to fall into this trap and it is therefore critical that collectively and individually we pay ample attention not only to the reason of XML but also to the passion.