Under the auspices of the Information Management Framework, a volume of Information Management Best Practices has just recently been released. I have been looking forward to its release for two reasons. One is that I contributed one of the chapters and the other is that I really did want to see what a group of fellow IM practitioners had to say about their various Information Management (IM) project experiences.
Since receiving my copy of the book, I have been digging into some of the case studies. I jumped on two cases in particular - driven by the correlation between these cases and a couple of my current projects. The first one is by Bob Boiko (one of the volume's editors) and Mary Lee Kennedy and its called "Creating a Desired IM State". It recounts the experiences of the authors as they set out to find an optimal structure for organizing information resources within the Harvard Business School (HBS). The second case was provided by Stephanie Lemieux, Seth Earley and Charlie Gray and it traces the various considerations that come up when you undertake to integrate the tools and techniques of taxonomy management with those more commonly found within content management systems. I would suggest that it is one of the singular virtues of this book that it assembles together 19 different case studies covering a range of IM topics and provided by practitioners working in different organizations throughout the world. This means that no matter what aspect of IM you are embroiled in today, there is a pretty good chance that there will be a case study in this volume that illuminates some of the lessons learned by those who have gone down that particular path before.
In some domains where I travel, the very notion of a "best practice" is routinely called into question, and not without good reason. There are times when you come across sanitized "how-to" checklists that purport to provide the one best way to do something. When the scope of the best practice is anything more complex than baking a sheet of cookies, the naïveté of this conceit can spell disaster. However, this book of Information Management Best Practices is different. What I liked about the approach that was applied was the fusion of a real story, something that actually happened, with the distillation of measures that stand out as being particularly effective. This approach adds a dimension of realism that balances, and grounds, the suggested actions. I know that in my case, the waves of reality build up as the story progresses and the one thing that is not left over by the end is blind optimism. I should hasten to add that the case study does include a number of techniques that do in fact work very well and subsequent projects have since confirmed their merit. (And for the curious, I should say that there is a joke embedded in the case study and I am currently thinking about a suitable reward for the first reader who correctly identifies it.)
As for the details of my case, it covers a sprawling, multi-year project pursued in a large and complex enterprise environment. The stage for the case was provided by the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) and more specifically the Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support (CALS) Office. The roots of the project extend back to the mid-1980s and stretch forward into the new millennium. Given the span of years covered, the case follows and reflects many of the major revolutions that have reverberated through the Information Management business: the birth of open content standards (specifically SGML), the heyday of the CD-ROM as a distribution method, the birth of the Web, the appearance of XML and the emergence of large, multi-enterprise environments leveraging web services. On a different level, the case study embodies an unusually wide array of political ups-and-downs and many of these, I would submit, remain highly relevant today. Specifically, it should never be forgotten that no matter how sensible a particular course of action may be, there will be those who, for various reasons, will set themselves against it.
All in all, I took a lot from the experience of writing the case in part because it challenged me to dig back into my archives and to call up memories that had long ago slid from recollection. There is even an element of sadness in how the story ends. The final key lesson that I offer up in the conclusion reads:
"Sometimes the harvesting of lessons learned and the use of history as an instructive case study is all that can be salvaged once the forces of organizational entropy have eroded all that has been accomplished."