One thing that you will often hear content strategists talking about is the need to break down organizational silos. Only then will content flow from where it is created to where it is needed. It would be more than a little ironic then to discover that the world of content strategy is itself respectably well-outfitted with its own silos. Rubbing salt into the wound, we need to confess that these silos are almost perfectly cut off from each other. The community of content strategists in one silo will be largely unaware that there are other communities of content strategists working away in parallel silos. When practitioners from one or another silo accidentally encounter professionals from another, more often than not, they cannot understand what these strangers are saying and sometimes they cannot even recognize their counterparts as fellow-travelers. What we see here are silos of disciplinary bias in their most perfect form.
This should not come as much of a surprise really. Business silos are a ubiquitous phenomenon and they are not something we can simply wish away. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you were to peruse any literature on the topic. Advancement usually follows a five to seven step program of innovation with the second or third step invariably being something like “erase barriers to collaboration” or “knock down the silo walls”. The only thing, apparently, that has blocked progress in the past was the absence of modern enlightenment and youthful innovation (a perspective we can call the TED Talk fallacy).
In truth, there are many reasons why business silos form and so quickly re-form after this or that bold reform has swept through. Perhaps the most important among these reasons is something we can call “disciplinary bias” which refers to the fact that practitioners will build up a way of looking at the world that flows directly from what they deem relevant in order to do the things that they do. The truth is that the stronger practitioners are at pursuing their chosen specialization the stronger will be their disciplinary bias. So it is not something that organizations can simply do without, let alone attempt to remove. The question then becomes how to integrate and coordinate across these disciplinary perspectives. And this is why, quite rightly, content and business strategists return time and again to the challenge of tackling business silos.
Out of a morbid curiosity, we can take a closer look at the business silos that have formed within the general field of “content management” – zeroing in on the silos that currently corral working content strategists into separate tribes. A scan of the content management landscape will scare up enough examples for our purposes. We quickly spot enterprise content management, web content management, learning content management, and technical content management. Each of these will also have internal sub-specializations. Within technical content management (which we might recognize as technical documentation management or technical information management) we will find practitioners focused on end-user help documentation who will have a different set of priorities than those who focus on the engineering information of interest to developers and integrators. Practitioners in any one of these groups will be familiar with different management tools and techniques, and will be driven by different measurements of success.
It is interesting, for me at least, to look at what it is – exactly – being managed in each of these silos. This in turn tells us, rather clearly, why practitioners in one group haven’t historically spent much time or energy looking into what other groups are doing. For example, those in an organization responsible for rolling out an enterprise content management system will typically hail from the information technology and management group. Their focus, if we are being honest, is not on managing “content” per se but rather on managing the information transactions, and records thereof, that essentially constitute a representation of the enterprise itself from an information perspective. In a sense, then, we can say that an enterprise content management system is really managing the communication channels within an enterprise as opposed to managing the content that engenders the individual information transactions that unfold on a daily basis. An ECM therefore is not really about managing content at all. No surprise then that the people working in enterprise content management will glaze over in mystification if they encounter someone who wants to really talk about managing content itself.
If we look at web content management, we find something similar. These systems don’t in fact do a particularly good job of managing the content within information transactions whether these events are web page renditions, messages provided to an interface, recommended associations, or even, heaven forbid, pop-ups. What is really being managed within a web content management system (WMCS) is the user experience and this actually makes complete sense because this is precisely where the investment in content assets will achieve its objective, or not.
As a small aside, we can turn back the clock to 1995, when the web was young. At this time, a few nascent web content management systems appeared. I happened to be involved with the design and development of one of them (yes, I am that old, and yes, I am inclined to just that type of delusion). The web content management system in this case was called SpiderDocs and it was produced by a company called InContext (RIP) that specialized in technical content management using the now unfamiliar Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). Like others in that part of the marketplace, InContext was trying to find a way to be relevant in the new world of the web. SpiderDocs was different (then and now) in that it sought to be a WCMS that focused on managing, of all things, the content itself. The premise was that if we could manage the content, we could generate any number of web pages, and even any number of web sites, that were called for. In this regard, it was years ahead of its time.
SpiderDocs was also spectacularly unpopular amongst web designers and developers. Their focus lay elsewhere. Their focus was drawn to the user experience, to how it could be made as impactful as possible, and then to how to measure that impact. Not surprisingly other WCMS products multiplied to fill this niche so that, today, there are hundreds of competing products, and many very good ones, seeking to equip web content professionals with state-of-the-art tools for designing, deploying, measuring, and improving user experiences. What we can take away from this story is that web content management succeeds or fails in how well it manages the user experience. Web content management is not really about the “content” at all and this explains why web content management systems provide such weak services for managing content assets or facilitating complex content processes. This also explains why web content strategists recoil in horror and disbelief when they encounter people who, in working in a different business silo, talk about content assets being managed as content and as being weighed in terabytes or petabytes. The most common response I get from Web Content Strategists when discussing content in this way, and on this scale, is “What’s that for?” (also heard as “WTF?”).
We could go on. Similar stories can be told regarding learning content management or some sub-specialization of technical content management. And these stories will all illustrate the same point – that practitioners working in one specialized silo within the content business will not share much in common with colleagues working in other silos. Or so it perhaps seems. In truth, they do have a lot in common and they do have a lot to offer each other. In spite of their terminological efforts to the contrary, all these practitioners do have an interest in content being managed as content. And the evolution of many organizations and their drive to improve efficiency and effectiveness through integration are forcing content practitioners in different business silos to bump into each other more frequently and even, believe it or not, to collaborate.
As evidence that a trend in this direction is under way, we can point to the growing interest being shown in what has sometimes been called, rather unfortunately, “component content management”. I say unfortunately because if you define and consider “content” properly then adding “component” is redundant and potentially misleading. Practitioners of “component content management” have historically been found buried within technical content management groups, or within what Sarah O’Keefe has delightfully characterized as the “TechComm Ghetto”. Solutions and techniques fashioned for this specialization emphasize open standards like the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) and the deployment of automated validation, assembly, and rendition processes. People working in other silos in the content landscape, such as in web content management, are finding that they have requirements that seem to call for many of the capabilities that have been hammered out over in this unfamiliar domain.
That people are starting to reach out across the business silos, or are being forced to do so, is a very good thing. And this circumstance has encouraged some to return to the terms and definitions that are being used to describe content and the associated management practices so as to find new formulations that will appeal to practitioners across all the silos. Clearly “component content management” was not helping as a concept (uncharitably I have said that this phrase was coined by a niche vendor community who are determined, oddly, to remain a niche). One such effort can be found with “intelligent content,” a phrase that has received a fair amount of attention over the last few years. As some will know, I have jumped in and tried to contribute to this particular effort including quite recently (more on this to come).
More recently, I found myself trying to explain what “real content management” meant to people who were far removed from the inner-party politics of content management. At first I tried “advanced content management”. This attempted to position the other forms of content management as focused either on parts of the content problem or on a basic level of that problem. Advanced content management then would be looking at a more complete picture or at the next level up in sophistication. It did not take me long to withdraw this candidate. It sounded more than a little boastful and this would run the risk of undervaluing the strengths seen in each of the other content specializations.
And then it hit me that what I was talking about was actually Integrated Content Management. There is a sense that it surpasses the individual efforts seen in the past as enterprise, web, learning, or technical content management. But it only surpasses them in that it combines and cross-leverages their relative strengths and does so with a view to realizing an integrated benefit for the organization and for the community of content stakeholders who are inescapably involved. I like this latest formulation because it reminds us that it all comes down to integration, a quality that is intrinsic to the nature of content and that is something that we have already explored as the core challenge of content management (Why Content Technologies are Hard to Implement). Integration is also the chief benefit and opportunity that can make content management, broadly considered, a much more interesting and impactful player in how organizations operate and evolve.
So in answer to my original question “Would the Real Content Management Please Stand Up?” currently we have identified a candidate in Integrated Content Management. I had thought of extending it to be Integrated Content Business Management or ICBM but sometimes acronyms shouldn't be pushed too far.
There is one more candidate which I have considered in the past and that is Strategic Content Management. This one is even more ambitious and seeks to paint a picture of content and content management rising in importance and reaching a level where it can be genuinely deemed "strategic". I will keep this one in reserve as it is so far beyond where most practice actually hovers that it can start to sound a little comical. It is, however, where we should really be trying to go.