Goal-directed content management

A year ago, most software industry analysts were predicting that Content Management (CM) was going to be the hot sector this year. Unfortunately, sales for most CM software providers are not meeting expectations, and even CM insiders are suggesting that the cause could be a growing disappointment with CM implementation results. Anecdotal evidence from within the CM industry indicates that CM implementations fail to meet corporate expectations about half of the time.

Part of the reason for missed expectations could be poor usability. Forrester Research recently released a research paper on the subject: "Packaged Apps Fail The Usability Test." In it, they don’t name the vendors, but they rate the usability of two popular CM systems. Both rated very poorly. Forrester’s conclusion is that much better design is needed to win user adoption and higher rates of corporate satisfaction.

That said, it is not Cooper’s first inclination to place blame with the CM software providers. Instead, we draw parallels to the failings of ERP systems, which largely resulted from corporations simply not being prepared on a holistic level to effectively drive the organizational change necessary to receive maximum benefit from the systems. As was the case with ERP systems, corporations implementing CM systems are looking for quick fixes and cure-alls for their overwhelming need to get information under control quickly. Unfortunately, that fix is not as simple as implementing a new software application. There are many non-system issues—from corporate strategy to individual employee task assignments—that must be resolved before even considering a technology solution. When such issues are not properly addressed, it becomes a matter of trying to overlay a system on top of broken processes. Anything resting on a weak foundation is not likely to stand for long.

To address these broader considerations, we have captured some thoughts that could be helpful to any corporation considering a CM implementation. Please read on.

Introducing Goal-directed Content Management

by David Fore, Director of Practice
with Pat Fleck, Caroline Toland, and Chris Weeldreyer

Many organizations today are overhauling their Content Management (CM) systems by introducing more software into the equation. Unfortunately, that software tends to be designed, developed, purchased, and installed with little respect for the needs of the people using it, much less the objectives of the organizations footing the bill. And while few managers would tolerate staff who behave in rude and random ways with one another (much less with customers), many somehow find it perfectly acceptable when their software behaves poorly. As such, it is imperative to take a clear-eyed approach to dodging the pratfalls of CM system design.

CM systems are so important because their job is to provide people both inside and outside an organization with the information they need to do business with you. The character of your CM system will determine your organization’s identity, its ability to develop partnerships, its appeal to customers, and even its relations with employees. Not only can CM systems radically alter the way you do business—for good and ill—they can also be awesomely expensive, particularly when their installation triggers changes in time-honored roles, work practices, and relationships. After all, CM systems—like sibling systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and supply chain management (SCM)—are actually organizational re-design projects that masquerade as software-based systems.

The selection and roll-out of CM systems are too often haphazard affairs doomed to failure or, at best, mediocrity. This is largely because most organizations lack a sufficiently flexible and rigorous methodology for choosing their CM systems. Rather than setting off on a voyage of discovery to parts unknown when initiating a CM system effort, it can be more effective to adopt a decision-making framework focused on the goals of the people and organizations who will be affected by the new system. The eight phases of this Goal-Directed Content Management Method are summarized below.

Phase 1. Identify information customers

Before doing anything else, answer this question: With whom do we want to share information, both inside and outside our organization?

Don’t restrict your answer to those who receive information from your organization by electronic means. Take into consideration those with whom you communicate via traditional media as well. This will illustrate connections between, say, the business card a sales rep provides a potential customer, and the Web link on the card the customer will follow for more information. For the complete picture, it is also essential to consider the needs of internal information customers, such as marketing/communication specialists who use white papers generated by R&D. Be sure to center your investigation around the future needs of your organization—today’s information customers may not be the same as those you need to serve tomorrow. Also, remember that communication goes both ways. Consider who should be empowered to reach your organization, whether they are delivering content to you, or using information you supply.

Phase 2. Identify the goals of information customers

Humans being human, they will take action to subvert your new system if this helps them achieve their goals. So rather than build a system that simply automates the misery of your current system, determine the goals of your information customers up front. In other words: Why are these people interacting with our organization in the first place?

When undertaking a fundamental transition, tasks can be a moving target. For instance, it may no longer be worthwhile to mail out brochures, but distilling documents into PDF format for electronic distribution may be imperative. In both cases, the goal is the same: satisfy customers with useful information. Understanding the goals of your information customers is the most efficient way to ensure your system will be valuable for years to come.

Phase 3. Identify the content your organization generates and uses

Once you understand your information customers and their goals, analyze every class of information you are willing to share with them. This should include material that they (and you) would like to have accessible over the Internet; also consider email, fax, regular mail, and so on. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What should information customers know about our organization?
  • What do we need to know about them to satisfy our goals?

For each class of customer, determine what information or services you need to provide or acquire from them to satisfy their goals and yours. Consider the needs of internal customers as well, such as that mar/com specialist who uses white papers as marketing collateral for external information customers.

The information you share internally and externally defines the boundaries of your relationships with your information customers; in many cases, this information is your organization. From that observation, of course, follows another: not all goals are worth satisfying. Consequently, this phase requires a sanity check to ensure alignment with corporate strategy. In other words: What business are we in?

Phase 4. Define fundamental content assets used by information customers

For the purposes of planning a CM system, a useful definition of content is all the information that customers use to further their goals. This content can include paper documents and electronic files of all media types including text, image, video, and sound. Many companies often supply databases to their information customers who then fashion them into their own tools, so you may consider databases as content as well. Some CM system planners even include ephemera such as voicemail entries and information delivered through instant messaging services. In this sense, applications delivered to information customers, such as a mortgage calculator or an online order form, need to be considered as well.

Once you know the classes of content used by information customers, break that data down into its fundamental characteristics such as time sensitivity, sources, authors, purposes, size, etc. Do customers take this content whole, or do they use only parts of it? Do they combine it with other information, including their own? In other words: What are the smallest useful units of information, and what are their characteristics?

Phase 5. Analyze how fundamental content assets are currently produced

Next, take a snapshot of the ways your organization generates and uses content: How do you create and distribute content?

Is a single asset generated by multiple people, then combined by another person in another department? What procedures do they follow? What technology helps them along the way? How long does it take to produce and deliver content? How much does it cost to produce it?

In this phase, it is also important to take into consideration the non-fundamental content assets (those that failed to make the cut in the previous phase) in order to capture baseline data that will help you understand the costs of managing content in your current (and presumably inefficient) system.

At this point, your technical staff should undertake a study of the capabilities of available software and hardware solutions so they have a thorough understanding of the implications of a potential installation. Be careful not to let this process get out of control, though. While a benchmarking process may be a useful way to determine the acceptability of certain technology solutions, at this point it is still too early to begin signing agreements with vendors.

Phase 6. Model the optimal system

By now you should know the information assets you need to produce and why. You should also have a grasp of the basic characteristics of this content and how it is currently produced. Now you can look into the future and determine the characteristics of an optimal system.

The purpose of this phase is to shape a system of roles, relationships, information assets, procedures, and technologies that can produce and deliver content as efficiently and effectively as possible for the purposes you have identified. Ultimately, this model must provide coherent answers to the following questions:

  • What roles will be required to meet the needs of information customers?
  • How will these roles balance one another in the overall organization?
  • What will motivate people to cooperate?
  • Who will be responsible for monitoring and resolving conflicts?
  • What customs, principles, and processes will guide decisions?
  • What recruiting, training, or reporting structures will be necessary?
  • Will a new kind of organization be necessary?
  • How shall the system balance the goals of employees with the objectives of the organization?
  • What metrics will be applied to the performance of the new system?
  • What can be done by software, and what is best left to other means?

Since CM systems require an unusual degree of cooperation among a range of parties inside and outside the organization, orchestrating understanding and buy-in is critical to the success of the system.

That said, there exists a fundamental tension between the corporation’s objectives and the goals of information customers. In many situations, particularly where high achievement is prized, information customers will do whatever it takes to be effective in meeting their goals. For these people, efficiency is secondary and its benefits seem rather abstract in their routine world. Organizations, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with efficiency—driving down costs or increasing profits—and empowering their information customers is merely a nice-to-have.

The key to a successful CM system is to bring this efficiency/effectiveness conflict to the surface and provide the means for its resolution. Wishing away problems or simply punishing reprobates will inevitably backfire on you. Instead, your best bet is to model a dynamic, evolving system that is transparent and rewarding to those who join together to meet its objectives. Such a system, however, will require definition of key negotiation points that balance the needs of all system participants, whether they be IT staff, information customers, managers, or executives. Moreover, in each negotiation, the authority and responsibility for ensuring successful resolution of conflicts must be made clear: the people who fill these roles must be skilled diplomats with the backing of the organization and trust of the staff. When change is afoot, people become fearful they will lose the control they currently have, and that the leaders of the organization will dictate new directions willy-nilly.

In addition to modeling roles, workflows, and negotiation points, you must also provide toolkits of best-known methods that participants in the system may use. A toolkit may include descriptions of workflows and best practices, arbitration guidelines, exception identification and escalation procedures, guidance for using metrics, and system terminology and principles.

One caveat: beware the allure of technology. If you discover that the most effective way for people to achieve a specific goal is to tape a note to a binder, then don’t spend thousands of dollars on a software solution that would do the same thing but require significantly greater funds and training. Always seek out the most appropriate solution.

Phase 7. Implement the model

Your next step is to choose and adapt your technological solutions in the field. In other words:

  • What techniques and technologies will satisfy the requirements of the model?
  • How will these techniques and technologies be adapted to our specific needs?
  • How do we introduce a new CM system while keeping the business running?

Every organization has its own speed limit and tolerance for change, which must be respected if you want to retain valuable staff and customers. Additionally, there are typically countless dependencies between functions, technologies, and objectives. That is why it is important to leverage previously useful processes as much as possible to ease migration from the old system to the new. Finally, be aware that, as novel technologies are introduced into the mix, unexpected processes may emerge.

Phase 8. Incorporate feedback

With your CM system in place, you must measure its performance both against the baseline performance you documented in Phase 5, and the criteria you defined in Phase 6. Doing so will provide you with the means to answer this critical question: How do we get ROI from this system?

Measuring performance against your success criteria also provides information that could lead to further changes to your system. Of course, not all feedback will be in quantitative terms. Feedback of a profound kind is sometimes difficult to anticipate with a pre-fab questionnaire. That is why it is the obligation of those overseeing the performance of this system to periodically question whether their data are valid, and to employ qualitative research methods for understanding what people really think.

Once your organization has decided to make changes based upon the feedback, remember to iterate Phases 1 through 7 of this process to ensure a consistent high-quality outcome. Do not be surprised if, over time, changes in your customer base, product area, and corporate strategy will mean that it is time to plan anew how your corporation manages its content, and why.

David Fore

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