The Key to Content Management

Content management and Content Management Systems (CMS) have been around for a pretty long time.   The group I work in has been trying to make it work–with mixed results–for more than a decade.  It is a really big change and old habits die hard in technical communication.  Part of the reason that it has taken so long for CM to take hold has to to with usability and complexity of the CMS products, but part of it might also be that it really requires social media to make it work.

Geoffrey Moore provides a bit of an explanation when he says, “What will enable this transformation are Systems of Engagement that will overlay and complement our deep investments in systems of record. Systems of engagement begin with a focus on communications” (p. 4).  The traditional CMS products that have been deployed over the last ten or more years are absolutely “systems of record”.  They cost a fortune and lack the simplicity and ease-of-use that we have all come to expect from the consumer products that we use–iPads Google, Xbox, and smart phones.

Rather than bending the technology to meet the needs of the people that were supposed to use it, we just spent a lot of time and money bending our people with training and detailed processes.  It didn’t work out very well.  And once our workforce started shrinking and the amount of outsourcing increased, it worked even worse, since no one wanted to spend a lot of money training people in India.   Also, bad internet connections to our remote locations made the systems a nightmare to use.  It was so slow that some people would check-out and download all their content and then work off of their laptop, which  totally defeats the point of a CMS.

Hart-Davidson points to improvements in networking technology and the internationalization of technical communication as trends that have lead to the emergence of CM (p. 129).  I think maybe those two things are not unrelated.  In “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, he points to the huge investments in the late 90’s that were made to stretch fiber-optic cables across the ocean.  This high-speed internet connection made it possible for this internationalization in the first place.

While all of this history is interesting, I think the most exciting thing for technical communicators is that while all of this is a threat to the traditional role of TC people as writers (Hard-Davidson p. 129), it has created the opportunity for us to expand into the field of Information Architecture.  As the content we used to write becomes a commodity that is broken down into chunks and stuffed into a CMS, we have the opportunity to design the information experience for our customers and assemble those chunks into new deliverables with new contexts.  Salvo and Rosinski describe this new role pretty well, “Applying a mapping metaphor to the act of designing, or creating sitemaps of documents and virtual spaces, encourages practitioners to ask complex questions about their audiences needs and their communication purposes” (p 115).

I think that social media can help act as a catalyst for this change by making it easier and more natural to use these brutally unnatural CMS’s.  If you haven’t read the article by Steven Whittemore that was referenced by Hart-Davidson, it absolutely nails all the reasons why today’s CM products are so ineffective (I used it in another paper).  Current systems meet the technical requirements to store and manage content, but they completely ignore the human requirements to find and make sense of that information.  Maybe social media can be the key that unlocks all this potential.

Posted on October 28, 2012, in Social Media, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. An interesting post, Bob. I am only familiar with CMS’s from a web site development standpoint, so this angle is new to me. I am assuming the CMS you are referring to is obscenely robust. In that it not only holds and manages client ales information, but also document and information storage? Just curious as it sounds like a beast to deal with.

    This reminds me of Stout’s D2L system we all are so familiar with. Although the recent improvements have helped greatly, it amazes me that it is still cumbersome. Another disappointment is that in my understanding we are still unable to upload and enter discussions from a mobile device. This doesn’t seem acceptable for a service Stout surely excessively well for.

  2. Likewise, we have a CMS at work that is a total waste of time and network space. We only access it because we are told to enter information about work orders into its modules, but no one goes in to find the information later. Even those who have figured out how to retrieve the information just get up and find the hardcopy versions in file folders. The purchase of the system was originally championed by an executive that is no longer at our company. It cost thousands of dollars to implement, and is no longer supported because the company went out of business. Everyone seems to be afraid to ask why we still use it when it holds so little value for us, but even if someone spoke up, entering information into this system is required by some of our formalized procedures, which require hoop-jumping to revise. We could “force” employees to use the electronic system, but to be honest, I think it would only deter them from looking things up and work would suffer. CMS’s are only as good as the people who use them and the extent to which they are compatible with the business.

    • Being put in charge of implementing a CMS has been a career limiting move where I am. Since we started down this path, there have been four managers in charge of making it work. I think they all left after trying for two years or so.

      Now I guess it is my turn and I’m at the end of year one. So far it is going great–our corporate IT group is about 6 months behind schedule and we still can’t even log into the CMS. Maybe the clock doesn’t actually start ticking for me until after people start using it.

      You make an interesting point when you say that a CMS is only as good as the people that use it, but I think that, in my experience, the CMS is never as good as the people that use it. It is hard to point to one single reason why it has never really passed the tipping point, I think it is more a death by a thousand cuts.

      Nothing really works exactly as it should and instead of investing the necessary time and money to adapt the CMS to fit the people, we ask the users to adapt to a subpar user experience. In the end users don’t rebel, they just give up and entropy finishes it off.

  3. It is exciting that technical communicators will be able to be involved in the “Information architecture.” Who better to help design the layout and accessibility of content than technical communicator’s who are truly aware of users needs, expectations,and abilities. All the changes taking place can be scary and overwhelming, but they can also present opportunities for us to help make information easily accessible and usable.

    • I totally agree. There is an opportunity right now, before the rest of the information providers figure out what is happening, for technical communicators to redefine our roles and maybe perform a bit of an information land grab. To do that, we need to understand better than anyone else what it is the audience needs and have a compelling vision for how we can deliver it.

      Right now, we give away all the information our customers need to install, operate, maintain, and optimize the products we sell for nothing. But, as we have learned, you can learn a lot from people if you can read their digital bread crumbs. Most companies just see TC as an overhead expense, but we are in a position to demonstrate how valuable it can be.

  4. Your conclusion is very interesting. Maintaining a CMS is a hassle and if the information is not retrievable it is a waste of time. I agree with you that the human factor is essential for a good working system. How can social media help in improving CM systems? Do you compare CMS with apps on social media?

    • CMSs are great at storing and managing information, but they are terrible at connecting that information to people. They claim to destroy the book-based documentation model, but just about everyone still uses them to assemble topics into books and then pump out PDFs. The authors toil in anonymity.

      But, what if we connected the experts that research and write these topics to the customers that use them? What if we could partner the computing horsepower of a CMS with the power of social-media to crowd source unique solutions? What if we could tell that no one is reading our hardware descriptions, but they are hammering the search box for troubleshooting?

      What would it mean–both for customers and writers–if we could establish a personal relationship between customers and writers? How much more valuable would we be? How hard would it be to outsource that?

      I know that is a lot of question marks, but where there is uncertainty there is opportunity. Marketing doesn’t have the technical knowledge to do this, and you can’t put engineers in front of customers. What does that leave? Us.

  5. Bob–this post could make an excellent opening to a final paper on the topic!

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