In my first blog on the long history of content management challenges, I showed how ECM is a problem literally as old as recorded history – in fact, recording history was really the first solution to information management challenges faced by our earliest human cultures as they grew to be larger than small bands, and needed to keep information beyond what our brains could do internally. In this blog, I reflect on what this history can tell us about today.
Have Traditional ECM Solutions Really Solved this Problem?
Of course, the problem of organizing and retrieving information is a problem that continues to vex organizations today. Digital-first organizations that have more data for making decisions are pulling ahead of the rest, and are able to achieve a global scale that would have been unthinkable before the information age.
But it’s not just about having more drawers for data and information. It’s about how information is organized, and how accessible it is. Hariri draws a colorful example:
When I go with my spouse to sign on a mortgage for our new home, I am reminded of the first place we lived together, which reminds me of our honeymoon in New Orleans, which reminds me of alligators, which remind me of dragons, which remind me of The Ring of the Nibelungen, and suddenly, before I know it, there I am humming the Siegfried leitmotif to a puzzled bank clerk.
In bureaucracy, things must be kept apart. There is one drawer for home mortgages, another for marriage certificates, a third for tax registers, and a fourth for lawsuits. Otherwise, how can you find anything? Things that belong in more than one drawer, like Wagnerian music dramas (do I file them under ‘music’, ‘theatre’, or perhaps invent a new category altogether?), are a terrible headache. So one is forever adding, deleting and rearranging drawers.
This sounds exactly like the challenges of every large organization’s ECM or DAM deployments. What’s the best way to organize information? And which department gets to decide? And should systems be linked based on music, theater, or something else?
The answer to this, until very recently, was to force people to think bureaucratically. Or as Hariri writes sardonically:
As everyone from ancient times till today knows, clerks and accountants think in a non-human fashion. They think like filing cabinets. This is not their fault. If they don’t think that way their drawers will all get mixed up and they won’t be able to provide the services their government, company or organization requires.
And so, in thousands of large organizations, from Fortune 500 companies to governments, bureaucratic growth follows organizational scale as surely as night follows day, because you need not only more filing cabinets, but more clerks and accountants who know how each cabinet is organized.
Or so it seemed from the birth of modern companies, through the growth of ECM and DAM technologies in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
A More Intelligent Path Forward for Information Management
In the last few years, one of the clearest lessons of business has been the difference between those firms that operate bureaucratically, and those that act with agility and speed to outflank them. In industry after industry, organizations with the proficiency to deploy their data, information, and knowledge dynamically and flexibly are taking share, taking profits, and taking charge. Consulting firm Bain & Company has found that 80% of the market capitalization growth of the top companies has come from digital native firms.
Those that try to defeat traditional organizational boundaries have usually found that their legacy systems were built with assumptions they can’t overcome – assumptions like fixed hierarchies (Wagner can’t be in both music and drama), inflexible and limited data models (every drama has a script, but never a musical score), and many others.
What are the nimble firms doing that more bureaucratic firms aren’t? Cultural norms play an important part, of course, but technology is a big part of their success as well.
The winning companies today aren’t beholden to one top-down way of thinking. Their systems make it possible for a two-pizza team to access and leverage data from the whole organization in new ways. And what happens when your teams are small enough to sit in the same room?
It’s kind of like going back to pre-Sumerian societies. Bureaucracy isn’t needed to coordinate, and the team can think in a much more free-associative, idea-generative, innovative, and, yes – human – way. When new opportunities or constraints arise (as they always do), rather than being paralyzed by the bureaucratic notions assumed in legacy ECM and DAM systems, teams are free to connect, disconnect, relate, and recombine data and content quickly and easily to connect the dots between customer needs, markets, capabilities, in ways that a more rigid bureaucratic structure could never achieve or abide. So for example, the same pictures and videos can be organized by campaign in the field marketing team’s view, by product for the e-commerce team, by shoot day for the photostudio, and by territory for the sales team. The same assets, represented in different contexts relevant to each team. This is the power of the Nuxeo [Content Services Platform - information is freed from the confines of applications and other information silos. Content and digital assets aren’t tethered to a specific location - the barriers between knowledge workers and their information is broken down.
Civilizations that learned to store information and use it to scale their social organization found themselves with a place in the history books, creating monuments that have lasted for thousands of years. Now, it’s time for today’s enterprises to leave their mark — by solving information challenges in ways that generate cultures and systems that allow them to grow in ways never dreamed of before.