Not too long ago, in early 2015, I asked the question "Would the real Content Management please stand up?" Going back several years earlier to 2009, I had posted a meditation on The Trials and Tribulations of Content Management. Between these two bookends, I have been on something of a quest, a quest that a good many people have joined in on by contributing comments and asking questions. To all these people I owe a heartfelt thanks in no small part for their patience as I ventured this way and that trying to figure out why content is so special and why it is so important for us to help organizations to manage it well. This post sums up where my adventures have landed me and shares why I think I may have finally solved the riddle of content.
Recalling my post from early 2015 that set out to find the real Content Management, I will point out that I concluded this search by declaring that what we are really seeking is "integrated content management". In a keynote speech at the Information Energy 2015 event in Utrecht, I spent time digging into Web Content Management, Learning Content Management, Enterprise Content Management, and Technical Content Management. I did so to find what it is that unites these disciplines and how these disciplines might be integrated so as to work together instead of at cross-purposes. This led to my initial use of the phrase "integrated content management" - the need to combine the different content management disciplines into a single and coherent whole.
Of course it did not take me long to move beyond this point and to dig more deeply into what "integrated content management" might mean. This led me to focus in on "integrated content" and its management as the real question. If we could establish what integrated content is, then we should be able to sort out what its management should look like and therefore how the various content management disciplines, and technology products, could be constructively coordinated. And in turn it did not take long to see that what we were really doing is exploring the integrated, and integrative, nature of content itself. So over a number of years, I had basically come back to the conclusion of my 2009 post on the Trials and Tribulations of Content Management - to the call for a clear, shared, and well-grounded definition for what it is we are trying to manage, with that being "content".
I am going to use snippets from some of my 2015 presentations to provide a survey of where my various inquiries have taken me when it comes to what it is we mean with the word "content" and why getting to this understanding was (at least to me) so important. Now it may be true that I am the only person on the planet that has been taking any comfort from these discoveries. But I do take solace in having arrived at them and this means I can't help myself and just need to share them.
To begin at the beginning. Let's establish the organizational context within which we must think about content. This context is the concept of the "Enterprise". This actually takes me back to a presentation from 1999 called "Managing Knowledge in the Fractal Enterprise", a fact that helps to illustrate how long I have been mining for answers to these questions. This short segment comes from a talk I did at TCWorld 2015 on "Practical Steps towards Integrated Content Management" (full presentation from Slideshare included below).
In understanding Enterprise in this way, as a dynamic and purposive assembly of organizational resources and capabilities, we immediately get a sense for what content must be in order to live and thrive within this context. It must be portable and processable - something that can move between different systems throughout its lifespan. As I state in this segment, one conclusion that emerges from this is that "open standards are central, not peripheral" to the nature of content and therefore are "fundamental to content management".
The next stopping point in this inquiry is to grapple with what we mean by the word "information" and therefore what we mean by "information management" (by the way, the primary focus of "enterprise content management systems").
The domain of information, and of mis-information, is a fascinating one. This is the domain where we can see, and begin to understand, the true nature of organizational silos. What we come to see are the swirling whirlwinds of information transactions that continually unfold within and around organizations. And what we notice is that many of these information transactions are intended to convey control details about that is going on, or about what organizations would like to see happen. We also notice that a great many of these transactions are intended to define and defend the boundaries of organizational silos - forming as they do disciplinary and operational echo chambers. In this, we see a picture of barnaclization, of individual innovations and contributions actually working against the long term viability of the enterprise (see my 2008 post on the Barnaclization of Systems). And finally we notice how many of these transactions are really intended to be deceptive, to be mis-information, to be "spin". It is an overwhelming picture. A bit like the head of Medusa, if we were to see the full sphere of organizational information transactions all at once we would surely turn to stone. One reason we should start to think about content as something seperate from the fog of information is that doing so gives us a chance to manage (using abstraction among other things) the information domain more effectively than we do currently.
This brings us to the climax of the inquiring into content - to the point where we establish a clear definition for the word "content" and for how it relates to our understanding of the word "information". Interestingly, perhaps, this core definition of the word "content" is one I framed on the same day in 2009 (in a post entitled "The Truth about Content") that I wrote my piece on "The Trials and Tribulations of Content Management". Here is a more recent encapsulation.
In this most recent encapsulation, a few declarations stand out. One is that "content strives to be truthful". Another, and one that flows from this first declaration, is that "content is an asset and it is always an asset". These are important insights as they shine a light, indeed a very bright spotlight, on why content is so valuable and why it so merits effective management and use. So what is it that elevates content into being this uniquely special asset that stands as a truthful touchstone within an enterprise? The answer to this lies in its integrated, and integrative, nature. Content pulls together grounded details from across an enterprise and does so in a way that maintains their context and infuses them with "rhetorical momentum" that aligns with what the enterprise is trying to achieve, its goals. In assembling the details, together with their contexts, content becomes a uniquely high-value asset that can be used to make durable connections between disciplinary and operational silos. Good content becomes the basis for building better connections with the customers and users and these connections actually reflect back into the organization in a way that reinforces the connections being made between silos. At this point, it might be helpful to invoke the help of an example from history.
What we see in the work Luca Pacioli in the late 15th Century, with the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping (a key milestone in the history of modern accounting), is relevant because what we really see here is "triple-entry bookkeeping". The third entry refers to the text that each journal entry exhibited. I argue that this changes the nature of the accounting journals from being purely an assemblage of data items to being integrated content that actually explains, and places into context, those data items. The completeness of these entries, and their understandability by just about any stakeholder, is what is most interesting, and revolutionary, about these examples. These entries showcase the true nature and power of integrated content. It points us towards how integrated content can be used to fundamentally improve how enterprises work by grounding subsequent information transactions on a bedrock of truthful and meaningful details. So let's look at the idea of integrated content even more closely.
Once we come to see content in this way, as an asset that integrates a variety of inputs and that enables specific types of grounded communications between silos and between an enterprise and its external stakeholders, then we gain a better understanding of how content evolves within a content life-cycle model. We come to see what it is that we want from the content technologies that we will need to put into place and how those technologies will need to handle content as content - as complex composite artifacts that must be respected as such. We come to see how our work with content assets must maintain its responsive orientation towards how the information products they engender are received - in how well they work for the users trying to do something.
Although this post is already too long, it has been scrambling through a lot of material, and a lot of ideas, with the consequence that I have probably failed in communicating why I think seeing content in this way is so important. Essentially, I contend that if we see content as a complex composite artifact that brings together grounded details from across the enterprise and that can be used to produce information products that external stakeholders really need, then we understand why content is such a unique, special, and valuable asset. We can see why it merits the attention of a specialized community of practitioners and calls for a vibrant marketplace of content technology providers. In effect, this contention is important to me, personally, because it helps to justify, somewhat after the fact, the time, effort, and money I have invested in this field. If I am totally honest, I will leverage this contention to at least explain the major sacrifices I have made over the years and for which I have yet to fully atone. All this to say, content is more important than any of us fully appreciate.
So this brings us back to the topic of Integrated Content Management. Once we have established what content is, and brought to the fore its integrated and integrative nature, then we can see how the different content management disciplines and tools can be themselves integrated. If we put in place the infrastructure to genuinely manage our content assets as content, we can then produce the types of enriched information resources that the more mainstream content management systems (web, learning, and enterprise) can leverage to address the very real business needs that they are each designed to handle. And when all of these wheels are working together, the real winners are the enterprise and its community of stakeholders, its staff, suppliers, customers, product users, and yes even shareholders.
Here are the slides I used for this presentation at TC World 2015: Practical Steps Towards Integrated Content Management (TCWorld 2015 PDF)