Content can be a little frightening, it’s true. Not to everyone mind you. Some people simply love content, with all its oddities and challenges. More often than not these are the people who spend much of their time designing and creating content. But there are definitely people who look somewhat askance at this thing called “content”. The reasons why some people are less than enamored with content are worth considering and not only to refute them. There may well be good reasons to be afraid – or at least to approach content with due respect.
Now the truth is that the vast majority of people do not fall into either of these categories. These are the people who have never given any thought to what content might be. And if these people are confronted with the question – What is content? – their answer might be something like – It’s the stuff we publish. Actually that’s a pretty good answer. But it’s not an answer that is necessarily based on much reflection. In most cases, what we will find underneath this answer is a base assumption that content is a pretty simple thing.
Now what typically happens when you start into a content management project with the base assumption that content is a simple thing? The answer to this question is simple – disappointment and sometimes even dismay. It turns out that content is anything but simple. And strategies and implementations that assume otherwise quickly encounter problems.
Among the areas where this pattern is seen in action most frequently is within the Information Technology (IT) branches of organizations. To people who are seasoned implementers of databases and business applications, content is merely the stuff that has not yet merited their attention and therefore has not yet benefited from the discipline that comes with proven analytical and design methods. The distinction is made between unstructured content and structured data. A common statement you will hear is “it’s just content – what we need is data”. Seen strictly from the perspective of what most business applications can handle, this sentiment actually does make some sense. Or at least we can understand it in this context.
However, experience has repeatedly shown that several consequences immediately flow from the viewpoint that sees content as raw material that is simple, unstructured and awaiting proper organization. First, the analysis activities that genuinely attempt to model all of the structures evident within content quickly find themselves in a continuous loop of refinement. If they are carefully attending to what they are finding and to what the various stakeholders are saying about the content, it seems that there is virtually no end to the details that come to the surface. Second, the design and implementation of the database environment becomes a far more onerous undertaking that anyone expected. Third, the output products generated by the publishing processes always seem to disappoint someone. Finally, because it was assumed that content is simple both the project budget and the selected solution technology are found to be completely inadequate. The need to continue applying resources to refining the analysis, stabilizing the database environment and adapting the outputs therefore hits the wall of management impatience.
Following this path at least has the benefit of delivering some of the lessons that only implementation experience can provide. It is often at this point that people really begin to wonder about what content might be. And if they reflect back on their experiences they come to see that content is not simple and that it’s best not to think of it as “unstructured”. In fact, it becomes evident that it is much more prudent to classify content as “hyper-structured”. Content brings together a variety of data patterns, often from diverse sources, pedigrees and domains, and then arrays these data patterns within complex rhetorical structures that professional communicators are adept at using to convince people to behave in certain ways – literally to “inform” them. This is one of the key take-aways from Bob Boiko’s book “Laughing at the CIO”. For content to be modelled and managed well and for useful, and usable, information products to be published, it is essential that content initiatives start with this more fulsome understanding of the nature of content.
Now when the true nature of content is encountered, even if it is not fully appreciated, one common reaction will be denial. It won’t necessarily be recognizable as such but it will clearly be visible in shaking heads, dismissive hand gestures, glasses being removed, notebooks being closed, meetings coming to an inconclusive end, managers being called, accusations being made. For those who assumed that content is simple, and that their content projects would be easy, the inevitable disappointment still comes as a rude awaking.
In all too many cases, particularly amongst IT shops where content will almost always remain a peripheral distraction, an initial disappointment does not lead to much in the way of learning or adaptation. More commonly, the next content initiative is simply supplied with additional resources and an emboldened mandate. This time the implementation team will get a firm sign-off from the business stakeholders on the requirements before commencing the design and development effort. With this clarity in hand, the elusive success will come into reach. Sadly, each successive effort along these lines will become a yet bigger failure and still the pattern will tend to repeat. With each repetition, a glimpse is provided into what content is really like but the cycle is sustained by an impulse to turn away ever more resolutely and to re-embrace the base assumption that content is simple and we just need to get the analysis right. This is in fact an anti-pattern that is best labelled “Fear of Content”.
However common this anti-pattern may be, there is still hope in that it is becoming increasingly important that we improve our content management systems and publishing processes and that more and more people are coming to a better appreciation of what content is really like and how it really needs to be handled. And when approached in the right way, the very features of content that can make it challenging to manage and process can also be seen as what makes it valuable, important and even at times fascinating.
As something of an echo of this post, I wrote an article for TechWhirl for Halloween 2013. It was intended to be a Content Management Horror Story. It can be taken as an illustration of themes touched on in this post. See A Tale from the Content Management Crypt. The text has also been included in a comment below.