The Key to Content Management
Posted by b0bryan
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.
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