It’s well known that the technologies serving enterprise content management (ECM) challenges are in the midst of a generational shift, enabled by new architectures that take full advantage of cloud, pluggability for flexibility, artificial intelligence, and more.

And it’s also a common perspective that the need for this overhaul is driven by the desire to make content easier to find, and processes more efficient, that were recognized by legacy solutions, but not fixed.

But where did these challenges originate? Some might look back to the birth of digital computing, or maybe, all the way back to the birth of modern, large corporations. Perhaps, though, we can go back much, much further – to the beginning of history.

ECM and the beginning of History

Yuval Hariri’s masterwork “Sapiens,” about the history of our species, starts the story of information management challenges by taking us back to the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia, about 5,000 years ago. Before them, our ancestors lived in small groups rarely exceeding a few dozen people. Accordingly, our brains evolved to process and remember information about the local environment around us: plants and animals, the seasons, how to ease maladies, and how to collaborate with the few dozen members of our tribe.

Sapiens Yuval Hariri

The Sumerians’ prosperity led to population growth, which led to the need to coordinate larger groups — and that’s where their information management challenges began.

Their brains (and ours) are great at processing relationships, but lousy at processing records, like which in their case were “data about people’s incomes and possessions; data about payments made; data about arrears, debts and fines; data about discounts and exemptions” – data needed to tax people in order to manage a large kingdom. Complicating matters further, they faced two other data constraints that precluded large-scale cooperation: our brains lack the capacity to keep track of so much information, and people pass away, and their knowledge with them: the Sumerians had no way of passing information along to the next.

To keep a large kingdom humming, Sumerian kings faced problems their ancestors never had to solve.

To tax hundreds of thousands of people, it was imperative to collect.
says Hariri.

That required storing and processing a different kind of information — what we might think of as the first information storage challenge.

To “release their social order from the limitations of the human brain,” the Sumerians invented writing. Now, information could exist in an unchanging form beyond the life of any one scribe or oral reteller, including detailed numerical records that would have challenged the keenest memory. This opened a path for larger and larger collaboration and organization of societies into cities, kingdoms, and empires.

Mo’ Information, Mo’ Problems in Meso(potamia)

ECM History

Eventually, these societies got larger, and the information they wanted to track got more complex, introducing new challenges.

While individuals are great at retrieving information in our own brains (regardless of hierarchies), external repositories of knowledge require a lot more work to manage effectively, as Hariri illustrates:

Imagine for a moment that it’s 1776 BC. Two Marians are quarrelling over possession of a wheat field. Jacob insists that he bought the field from Esau thirty years ago. Esau retorts that he in fact rented the field to Jacob for a term of thirty years, and that now, the term being up, he intends to reclaim it. They shout and wrangle and start pushing one another before they realize that they can resolve their dispute by going to the royal archive, where are housed the deeds and bills of sale that apply to all the kingdom’s real estate. Upon arriving at the archive they are shuttled from one official to the other. They wait through several herbal tea breaks, are told to come back tomorrow, and eventually are taken by a grumbling clerk to look for the relevant clay tablet. The clerk opens a door and leads them into a huge room lined, floor to ceiling, with thousands of clay tablets.

No wonder the clerk is sour-faced. How is he supposed to locate the deed to the disputed wheat field written thirty years ago? Even if he finds it, how will he be able to cross-check to ensure that the one from thirty years ago is the latest document relating to the field in question? If he can’t find it, does that prove that Esau never sold or rented out the field? Or just that the document got lost, or turned to mush when some rain leaked into the archive? Clearly, just imprinting a document in clay is not enough to guarantee efficient, accurate and convenient data processing. That requires methods of organization like catalogues, methods of reproduction like photocopy machines, methods of rapid and accurate retrieval like computer algorithms, and pedantic (but hopefully cheerful) librarians who know how to use these tools. What set apart Sumer, as well as pharaonic Egypt, ancient China and the Inca Empire, is that these cultures developed good techniques of archiving, cataloguing, and retrieving written records.

Hariri is telling a story almost 4,000 years old, that still feels totally familiar in our contemporary context. In part 2 of this blog, coming on Thursday, I’ll reflect on how far we have – and haven’t – come in solving these challenges.