What is Content Management?

  • 24-Feb-2010

There's a question that keeps popping up around our industry: "What is Enterprise Content Management?"

You'll find no lack of answers.  My colleague Alan argues persuasively that ECM is most useful as a term to describe the biggest platform vendor offerings. Industry association AIIM defines ECM as "...strategies, methods and tools used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and documents..."  AIIM also held a clever contest to define ECM, where the winning submission suggested it was about laundering and generally taking care of your documents as if they were your clothes.  The discussion continues, and there are no lack of definitions.

I suspect the emphasis on ECM definitions stems from a disconnect. We have this all-encompassing term -- Enterprise Content Management -- that doesn't reflect how marketplaces and real-life projects actually break out into very specific categories and disciplines, like Document Management, Web Content Management, Digital Asset Management, Information Architecture, E-discovery, Process Improvement, and so on.

I think there's actually a deeper question that's looking for an answer here. Let's strip out "enterprise" and simply ask: What is Content Management?

My definition is...

Content Management is the management of content.

Now, at this point you might be feeling ripped off, because of course that definition is a tautology. But please bear with me.

The goal in implementing content technologies and related processes is really to apply management principles to content. Unfortunately, "management" too frequently gets conflated with "control." This is a common thread through many definitions of ECM in particular: "controlling unstructured information." Yet, management is much more than control. Good management also features enablement and empowerment. Management implies rules, but also supports creativity -- often in different amounts in different contexts.

By thinking in terms of management objectives, we liberate ourselves from definitions that are too narrow, prescriptive, or technical, and instead focus on business outcomes. For example, it is fashionable now to talk about distinguishing "managed" and "unmanaged" content. I think this is a mistake. After all, the minute you decide to delete some seemingly unmanaged content -- such as a comment on your blog -- you have made a management decision. If you leave MySites turned on in your SharePoint installation, enabling individual employees to provision new team spaces whenever they see fit, you have made a management decision.

What I am really urging you to consider is a spectrum of control and enablement that is business context-specific.

There are many precedents for this. After all, we take it for granted that the enterprise will manage human resources, and that the management of those resources will encompass both control and enablement (again to varying degrees, depending on the context). Ditto for financial management.

As a practical matter, the management of content means first of all inventorying and prioritizing your existing content stores, before settling on technologies. Ask yourself in each case, what does it mean to manage this information? Don't be surprised if management means varying the way you exercise control, enablement, rules, and empowerment across different contexts.

Then explore suitable technologies. You may need Document Management systems with defined workflows (control) -- while supporting individual discretion at key points (enablement). You may also need free-form Collaboration software (enablement) -- as long as it comes with an auditable archive (control).

When you get to that point, let us know if we can help you.