In my travels and discussions on this topic, we often get into an exploration of the interplay between social software (interactions between people) and enterprise content management (the stuff we all use).
And I've come to the viewpoint that many people are considering bypassing an important step in their evolution and proficiency.
Whether intentional or not, it deserves some exploration.
Think for a moment about all the unstructured information in your environment.
Documents. Emails. Web pages. Scanned images. Reports. Presentations. If it's not a transaction, it's content.
Now, think about how your people interact with that content.
Finding things. Driving structured and unstructured workflows. Projects and initiatives. Keeping records for later use. Publishing.
Now -- think again. How much corporate value is entwined in this stuff and how people use it?
One view is that enterprise content is the distilled intellectual capital of the organization.
And -- in my day job as an EMC person -- I have long argued that most businesses will need to think in terms of a "content backbone" that spans multiple organizations and functions.
Ideally, content can be captured anywhere, and used anywhere. Metadata defines what the content means to different parties. Sources and uses of content plug into a common highway where the rules of the road are well understood.
Typically, we see puddles of content everywhere. Dozens and dozens of isolated projects, each with their unique take on what their problem is, each with their own vertical stack. And locked in each and every one are useful documents that can have value elsewhere in the organization.
You wouldn't manage money this way. Why would you manage information this way?
People-Centric vs. Content-Centric
One of the simmering debates is that a "people-centric" model (as found in social software) is inherently better or superior to a "content-centric" model (as found in enterprise content management).
Based on my experience, I strongly disagree.
The more accurate view is that one builds on the other. More specifically, the content-centric model provides valuable support for the people-centric model, and extend the latter's usefulness and business impact.
Or, to be more alarmist, if you haven't solved the content problem, you may find that your social software has become the de-facto enterprise content management system for the company. And that's not good.
My suggestion? People thinking strategically in this arena should give this premise some thought, I'd argue.
I Live In A Content-Managed World
Full disclosure: EMC develops and sells the Documentum family of enterprise content management solutions -- arguably the most advanced stuff out there. And more disclosure: EMC is a relatively proficient user of this ECM (enterprise content management) approach.
And, as I started blogging about our work in the social productivity space, I had a presumed context where (a) everyone understood the importance of enterprise content management, and (b) had a decent foundation of ECM capabilities and processes that were widely deployed.
I'm learning that this is not always the case ;-)
Benefits Of Living In A Content Managed World
Simply put, we know where to find important, authoritative content -- and we know where to put important, authoritative content. And we don't depend on our social software for either function.
There are times when us knowledge workers need to find something authoritative, and not the latest wiki edit. We need to find (and share) information that has a higher standard than an informal blog post, or discussion thread.
And there are times where we need robust tools that support well-defined processes for producing authoritative content: workflow, revisions, authorized roles, etc. Wikis are nice, but they're not ECM.
The world of content is much, much larger than what shows up in the typical social software environment. If you think about *all* corporate content, you'll expand your frame to include emails (internal and external), scanned images and faxes, publications of all sorts, web presence, formal letters, and so on.
Not only that, but there's a grown-up side to enterprise content management: what's the retention policy? Do we need a formal audit trail for revisions? Do we need a security audit trail on who's seen what? Is this confidential information?
Not too many of the social software vendors have even thought about the question, let alone have a suitable answer. That's fine -- they do what they do well -- and that's good. But that doesn't mean that those of us who are looking out for our corporations should realize these different needs, and plan accordingly.
ECM As The Basis For Success With Social Software?
I am now realizing that one of the reasons that we at EMC are relatively successful with our internal proficiency efforts is that we had a great starting point -- we had the content domain relatively under control.
We had pretty good ideas about what sorts of things belonged in each, and how they could work together.
I shudder to think what might have happened if we hadn't been so fortunate.
I'm guessing that we would have been swamped with trying to meet unmet enterprise content management needs. We would have been buried with people wanting to store, share and manage content in a variety of ways -- and been sidetracked into an unpleasant cul-de-sac where we were trying to use social software to solve a content management problem.
And, in a large enterprise, these unmet needs could be considerable. It could have been really ugly, and resulted in a total failure.
How My Discussions Have Changed
Now, when I meet with people outside my company, and discuss social media proficiency, I'm starting to ask the question "do you have enterprise content under control?".
And, as is often the case, the answer is "no".
And I feel it's my duty to explain that skipping this important step in how you support your knowledge workers might be an important one. Although they're essentially different problems (and require different approaches), I now believe strongly that one lays the foundation for the other.
I want to make sure that they understand that our internal capabilities in enterprise content management greatly increased our odds of success. I want to make sure they understand that social productivity usually starts with sharing content of different types.
And I want to make sure they understand that if there's a great unmet need in their organziations, their social producivity software environment will be unceremoniously transformed into an informal enteprise content management system -- with very unpleasant results.
I've written before about how I see social software as a "layer" over a robust ECM foundation. But, put differently, I now have seen results where that layer isn't ideal, it's almost necessary.
I've met companies where the wiki tool is being used for legal documents, or content that has regulatory implications. Scary stuff. I've seen environments where real applications are trying to be built (e.g. workflows and important business processes) on tools that were never envisioned for this role. More scary stuff.
The Bottom Line
The title of this blog is "A Journey In Social Media".
I now realize that an important part of this journey was the implied starting point we had: a widespread capability around ECM that was an integral part of the landscape.
So, before you embark on your journey, it's worth a moment of reflection to understand whether you need to invest the time and cycles to build the same foundation we enjoyed.
Otherwise, you may find yourself in a very unpleasant situation.