It's the Content Management, Stupid

A combination of good process decisions and strong software to support and automate parts of the process can save even mid-sized companies thousands of dollars a day.
By Jim Howard

Stop me if you've heard -- or lived through -- this one before:

When I came in to work this morning, an e-mail from my boss greeted me, asking me to find an image that used to reside on the corporate page, under the "management team" copy. I could throttle that kid who used to update the pages! I'll wager a week's pay it was erased on his hard drive when he quit last year. The IT group tells me that if I know the name of the image, they might be able to find it on an old tape backup, but only if it's less than six months old. I told them to forget it.

I spent the next two hours digging through e-mails and calling people, trying to find the final version of a press release from last quarter that they now want updated ASAP. I had to get the document re-approved by PR and legal, because nobody was sure which version was final. When I finally got it ready, the IT group was out for lunch. They're usually pretty diligent about updating material right away for me when I need them to, but...

Just then, one of the brand managers came in to tell me that he noticed two broken links in the product section, and that he hired a design shop to re-do his area. Before I even looked at it, I knew that the new design had nothing to do with the rest of the site's navigation, look and feel, tone, or anything else. He then admitted that legal hadn't seen the copy, and told me that it was my job to get the approvals done -- before the launch scheduled for tomorrow. Arrrgh.

The fact is, these "mornings from hell" play themselves out in organization after organization, day after day. The pain is palpable, the responsibilities diffuse, and the costs -- human, organizational and, most of all, financial -- all too real. The good news is that there's nothing inevitable about content management meltdowns. The disconnect embodied in this nightmare scenario arises from valuing content but failing to understand the infrastructure and technology issues that support its timely development, presentation and publication.

A combination of good process decisions and strong software to support and automate parts of the process can save even mid-sized companies thousands of dollars a day. The antidote to this turmoil lies in awareness of the potential choke points in content management:

Asset Management Process or System

Asset Management is a concept that is as old as recorded time, with a timeless goal -- create a library for your files. And like a conventional library, the objective is to store assets -- in this case, digital assets -- efficiently and then rely on a catalog system for quick and easy retrieval. One approach to asset management involves developing a set of rules for manually naming and creating versions of files on your file server. Another approach is to buy and install a digital asset management system. These systems typically provide features like stored meta data (data associated with a specific asset), search of text and meta data, image or document conversion, image preview modes, automated versioning, and source control (preventing the loss or over-writing of files from multiple users working on the same files at the same time).

It's remarkable that given how much we know about library science, and how available digital asset management systems are, that most companies continue to store their content in scattered folders or on local hard disks with no catalog system. Using a well-defined folder structure and a file naming system can help tremendously if your information is highly structured but you are limited to just one system. If your work environment supports several combinations of folders and names, a more sophisticated system is required -- and user confusion, redundant files, lost elements, and rogue structures often appear. Generally speaking, the larger the number of relationships between files and the greater the complexity of those relationships, the more quickly a file folder system will break down.

A software-based digital asset management system allows users to apply keywords and other descriptive data to each item, and enables them to search for files or groups of flies using that data. In this way, users can get as sophisticated as they want in finding the right asset. Keywords -- one type of meta data -- enable users to supplement a document's information with specific words relevant to their business. Developing a company standard for cataloging can be time-consuming, but once the system is up and running, users can take advantage of pre-existing fields in an asset management system to automatically enter much of the data on each asset, and to enforce rules on mandatory fields and categories.

Data Security

The second critical problem with local hard disk asset storage is security. Hard disks fail all too often, and usually at the most inconvenient time. Having regular backups is essential. In the event that a company has a shared storage environment, data security should include the basics -- regular backups, multiple and redundant storage devices, offsite storage of backup data in a fire-resistant environment, and so on. For companies whose data is their business, multiple file servers with fail-over -- when one system goes down, another automatically comes on-line -- highly redundant systems (e.g., having two different and independent power supplies, where most elements of a system that could fail have an independent, duplicate system), and offsite system and data backup are essential.

Of course, simple data backup does not mean that users can restore a document repository or a live Web site quickly. In order to be able to restore to a precise configuration on the spot, it's necessary to have a system in place designed to do just that -- or, at minimum, a duplicate in place somewhere. Often, a "staged" version of a live application or document repository can act as a high-speed backup. In addition, many higher-end content and digital asset management systems on the market provide this capability. The best of them will actually enable users to restore or roll back an application to complete, previous versions. The ability to roll back or to publish previous versions is vital for healthcare, legal, and financial services firms that could face legal challenges to published material years down the road.

Source Control

Once users have the basic hardware and network solution in place, it's time to look into a source control or configuration management system. Source control enables multiple users to work on the same fields or files simultaneously -- without overriding each other. A source control system allows for user check-out and check-in files, to ensure that only one person is editing a file at any time, or to help merge the content if there are simultaneous edits. Although merging is a powerful concept, it is limited to text documents. Once a user has check-out and check-in in place, there's the added benefit of being able to revert a document back to any of its earlier versions. And for those who work on groups of files, configuration management enables treatment of those files as a group, for movement, deployment, etc.

Work Flow Process

Companies that adhere to strict regulatory requirements understand workflow well, but most other companies can also benefit from a well-defined workflow process. After a document is created, it may require several edits, then go through an approval/update process before being published or delivered to its intended location. At each step, comments are made, and the document may need to be re-submitted for approval if substantial changes are made. Having a well-defined workflow is essential in moving information through the process quickly and efficiently.

Over the years, computer systems have begun to replace the "walk-around" process for some of the most complex workflows. These days, most of the quality products in the area of asset management, document management, and online content management provide workflow tools that enable users to replicate (or sometimes improve) a company's physical workflow process. The best are highly flexible and can be administered by non-technical users. Features in workflow systems include parallel approvals, automated notifications, collaboration features, access control and rights management administration, and integration with other tools (i.e., source control and versioning).

Publishing Tools

One of the most time-consuming and expensive processes plaguing companies involves taking elements of content and publishing them in many ways to many places. Consider: a product description that is used in the sales catalog (in Quark), on the main website (in regular HTML and in a printer-friendly format), in the e-commerce application, on the sales brochure (word and PDF), on the distributor extranet (different look and feel than the main website), and sometimes in e-mail newsletters or other ad copy. Every time a new product is launched, eight departments are touching and publishing content in different ways. Keeping track of the most recent version is difficult. Incorrect or outdated descriptions are common, and a lengthy time lag to get the newest products into the sales channel is the rule, not the exception.

The most capable content management tools on the market allow for flexibility in publishing content in multiple formats, and managing that content in a unified way. Output templates can be created to allow for publishing into multiple output formats. Automated inter-linking between newly created content elements is also possible, using a good content management/publishing tool, with some degree of custom work.

Link & Spell Checking

Link and Spell checking are in fact part of the QA process for a site, and should be integral to the workflow. Getting used to some basic QA tools will help prevent site errors.

Link checking is available in hundreds of development tools, but it is often overlooked. Link checkers are integrated into such page editors as FrontPage and DreamWeaver, and they also exist as stand--alone tools. Most stand-alone tools can be installed on the Web server, or pointed at the Web site, to notify specified individuals when broken links appear. There are even online services that allow you type in a URL and get a report in minutes

Getting the cleanest copy possible often comes from working with the originating applications, like Word or Quark, which have good spelling and grammar checking features. Spell checkers are becoming commonplace in the stronger content management systems, though each has features and limitations in the size of the dictionary, and quality of the suggested spelling.

Style Guides

Style sheets enforce brand integrity. They establish and shore up a strong foundation of information architecture and site usability, and encourage organizations to stick to the plan. Just as information architecture and design represent basic building blocks for Web development -- governing the organization of information and its presentation -- so the term "style sheets" carries a dual meaning. Agencies refer to style sheets within the context of how the brand is treated online, of audiences, of tone of address, color palette and logo use rules. For developers, style sheets evoke XML documents that define output parameters for HTML display. Simplifying matters are applications that can help enforce style sheets.

A good Web page editor or design application will enable users to select their own style sheet, or be set-up to prevent users from going outside the style sheet. The decision on how much latitude to give the author depends on the company's desire to have flexibility vs. mandating consistent presentation. Even more powerful tools exist within the better content management systems. They typically foster very flexible control over content output, ranging from giving the author no power over output, to giving the author a high degree of freedom to create, within the template framework.

In this article, we reference software applications that will solve some or all of a related set of issues. In every case with a computer application, however, it takes a commitment to the solution (involving all those who contribute content and assets, as well as those using the application to run the business) for the system to work correctly. Your employees won't accept a system that isn't customized to fit with your business. And, of course, the solution has to be cost-effective enough so that it pays for itself quickly.

Because we've introduced a number of business problems and given a general description of different approaches to them in this article, we'll get more specific about the types of software applications that solve some of these problems in the next installment. We'll also dig into the cost and trade-offs associated with the different solutions. That article is entitled, ""What percentage of the money you spend on content goes to creation, and what percentage to management? Do you have that backwards?

Jim Howard, CEO of CrownPeak Technology, has helped pioneer content management solutions since 1995, for such companies as 20th Century Fox, The Hollywood Reporter, Amgen, NBC.com and The Academy Awards. This story first appeared on newmedia.com, an internet.com site.






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