Laying one’s hands on worthwhile content used to be slow and extremely expensive. Monks spent years painstakingly copying a single manuscript. Monarchs required a scribe standing by in case they wanted to send a note to a counterpart in a neighboring fiefdom. A small quantity of data moved slowly, mostly by word of mouth or messenger.
And then came the content explosion. Fueled initially by Gutenberg and his printing press, a steady stream of technological advances such as typewriter, mimeograph, copier, computer, desktop publishing and digital cameras has revolutionized the field of information. Content has become so cheap and ubiquitous it has been downgraded from priceless treasure to throwaway status.
Google, for example, now indexes more than 3 billion Web pages, 700 million Usenet messages and 35 million non-HTML documents. As impressive as those figures are, they represent a fraction of the public Internet. Far more information is stored in databases or behind firewalls beyond the reach of web crawlers as enterprise storage grows from Gigabytes to Terabytes to Petabytes.
The main challenge today is not creating but managing content — keeping it accurate, up-to-date, complete, relevant, authoritative and easily accessible.
Taming the Flood
The state of content management within most companies is typically a barely suppressed disaster. On the surface all may appear to be well. Behind the scenes, though, a large team of writers, designers, webmasters, IT personnel, PR and marketing staff and harried executives struggle to keep the Web site and Intranet current, to keep corporate messaging unified and corporate knowledge from being lost.
It is quite common for someone to spend hours creating a presentation or RFP only for a colleague to create a similar document from scratch a short time later. As most information is not available to immediate associates, never mind the organization as a whole, enormous amounts of duplicative content creation take place while valuable content lies forgotten in the vast information ocean that is the modern corporate network.
These are just a few of the problems addressed by content management software (CMS). A well-designed content management system captures, stores, manipulates and publishes various types of enterprise content, including business documents, presentations, video, audio and more.
Content publishing capabilities and open standards enable effective enterprise content and digital asset management. This serves as a collaborative environment for the management and distribution of digital assets to numerous users through multiple channels of delivery.
But CMS alone does not offer a complete answer to the challenge of content management. Content management, in fact, is part of the broader subject of Knowledge Management (KM).
One of the principle tenets of KM is that all content is not created equal. Just look at some of the junk you find in your e-mail. The first task, then, is to prioritize content as “essential,” “should be archived” or “worthless.”
This also applies to documents created in-house. All sales proposals are not the same — some garner contracts and others fail. Similarly all training materials are not the same — some are clear-cut explanations of key product features, and others are muddled texts which only the author understands. So before you start worrying about the technology used to store and retrieve information, you first need to decide what content you will really need in order to meet your business goals, who will create that content, who needs to access it, who decides what content is correct and relevant, and who will keep the data current.
Many organizations, however, skimp or ignore this step and let anyone post anything on the Intranet. The logic goes that you can install an internal search engine to help people find what they need. Doing that is at least one step up from not having anything available, but eventually the glut of unevaluated information will catch up with you and someone will need to sort out the mess. The last thing you want, for example, is someone using an early draft of a design document and compounding previous design calamities.
Another faulty concept in content management is to hand IT the role of determining content value. While IT is involved in setting up the infrastructure that hosts the knowledge, it takes input from different units throughout the company to prioritize information.
The sales department, for example, needs to select which proposals should serve as templates and which just go in the files of a particular client. Similarly, tech support would select the documents customers can access on line, and those which should remain internal.
So who’s in charge? Companies take different approaches to solving this problem. Some appoint dedicated knowledge management staff who permanently oversee content. Others prefer to assign people to committees as an additional duty rather than a full-time post. Whatever method the company takes in deciding what information is vital to share, to be effective it must become part of an ongoing process. Changing business needs and new technologies require that the system and methodologies used be flexible and continually updated.
Content Management Supply Chain
Once you have a basic understanding of what type of content your organization needs, it is time to start structuring the appropriate content management actions. To illustrate the different activities and how they interrelate, International Data Corp. analyst Brian McDonough lays it out as a supply chain with six major steps:
Build and Organize
Administer and Maintain
The first three steps apply to creating the content, the others apply to presenting that content to different types of users.
Collection, the initial step, involves assembling all the data into a single physical or virtual store. Some of this content will already exist in different forms throughout the organization, while other content may have to be created, or purchased.
Many of the documents may already exist on the company’s storage servers, although sometimes there will be key documents only in hard-copy format that need to be digitized.
But once you start looking at things from the viewpoint of strategically improving the company’s utilization of knowledge, the holes show up. It is often necessary to have internal experts write down all the knowledge capital they are carrying around in their heads so others can harness it. You may also need to force employees to surrender valuable information hoarded on laptops or workstations.
In addition, there are other types of information you may want to acquire from external sources and add to your own content, such as maps, stock quotes, tech support self-help databases, employee training materials, feeds of industry-specific news articles or graphics to spice up the home page.
Build and Organize
Once you have the content, it must be organized and put into a usable format. This includes indexing, categorizing and cataloging each piece. This may involve the conversion of word-processed documents or graphics into PDF docs for download or reformatting to look more professional.
You also will need to set up meta-tags that describe the documents for easy retrieval and to set policies on updating documents or removing them when they become dated. At this step you would also do any editing or add in links to other relevant information. This step is complete when the content itself is in its final, presentable form.
Administer and Maintain
While much of the first two steps can be done by anyone in the company authorized to create content, administration and maintenance belong to IT. This includes the routine IT steps of backing up, restoring and archiving information, controlling versioning and migrating to new data formats as they come out.
The next two steps form the layers that take the content and present it to the end user. Access includes any searching, browsing, data mining and database visualization activities to extract the content the user wants.
Fulfillment assembles the content in the format appropriate for the particular user and includes encryption, personalization and access control. This level ensures they get what they need, but nothing they shouldn’t have access to.
Finally, there is the client experience layer, where users search, view, browse, store, print and edit the content pertinent to them.
Content or Discontent?
Doing the job of content management effectively, therefore, requires the use of tools addressing each point of the content supply chain. Companies have the option of writing their own homemade applications or cobbling together different applications which each addresses a part of the overall activity.
More recently, the trend is toward using CMS suites which provide an integrated approach to the entire problem.
CMS simplifies the task of managing content by automating the processes and making content more readily locatable and usable. Among the things such software does are:
It does take a bit of time, money and resources to properly manage content. But it is a small price to pay when compared to what it costs the company to do the job poorly. Just add up the amount of time people spend looking for information or writing sales proposals when they could rapidly locate a successful one and change the names. The losses ensuing from such internal inefficiencies dwarf the $3.4 billion organizations spent on CMS last year.