Content Management as a Practice

By Deane Barker on August 15, 2008

Four years ago, when announcing that the long sought-after title for his profession — that of “interaction architect” — had finally been found, Bruce Tognazzini started off his post with:

This is the most important column I have ever written.

Now, as much as I love hyperbole, I’m not going to go that far. But two months ago, I wrote this

I cut out of [a conference session] to grab a corner with Sett Gottlieb and have what was one of the most professionally meaningful conversations I’ve ever had in my life.

— so I need to deliver. Here goes…

At Web Content 2008, Seth Gottlieb gave a good session about open-source content management. During his introduction, he mentioned that he used to be the “Content Management Practice Director” for Optaros.

That phrase stuck with me. Content Managment Practice Director. It resonated over and over for the next 24 hours, until I finally sat down with Seth the next day to talk about it.

Seth’s lofty title at Optaros wasn’t “Development Director” or “Director of CM Integration” or something. Instead, his title evoked something I’ve always been attracted to: the idea of content management as a practice.

What I’ve learned in my years of content management is that it exists on two levels.

  1. Content management itself
  2. Specific platform integration

A lot of people jump right into the second one: platform integration. They learn Drupal. Or eZ publish. Or their company buys Red Dot and they do an integration with that.

Along the way, they’re exposed to some cool features: versioning, workflow, templating, etc. These features make sense, and they get implemented.

However, this person’s knowledge is very brittle. They don’t know content management, they know Drupal. Or eZ publish. Or Red Dot.

And how much do they really know about, say, workflow? If they’ve worked with Ektron, they know that it’s serial approval chains, nothing more. They’ve never been exposed to parallel workflow. Branching workflow. API or code exectuion steps in workflow. Workflow aliases. Ad-hoc workflow.

In the end, this person isn’t a content management practioner, they’re an Ektron integrator.

Now, this isn’t all bad. Doing integrations like this pays the bills, and a lot of people do great work and make a great living at this level (I’m one of them).

But I want to go deeper.

I’m interested in content management as a practice. I’m interested in content management as a transcendent skill. I’m interesting in learning, mastering, and teaching the eternal principles of content management, if I can be so dramatic.

Most everything in programming has patterns — ways of doing things that have proven to be pretty well-suited for a particular application. I wrote an entire post about Functional Design Patterns, in fact.

What are the patterns of content management? What are the features, skills, and theories that transcend all platforms. In the end, versioning isn’t about Drupal or eZ publish. Sure, they both have implementations of it will all their quirks and idiosyncracies, but versioning goes beyond that. It’s an eternal pattern of content management, and something that deserves to be studied and dissected far above the specific implementation level.

When I install and evaluate (read: play around with) a new CMS, I have a mental checklist in my head of what I’m looking for. The checklist looks a lot like the uber-post I made last year about just what comprises a CMS.

I love installing a new system and finding out how it does all of the things on my list. I love digging, prodding, researching, and breaking stuff until I figure out how they implemented Feature X, and how it works.

Seth summed this up in our conversation by saying (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “There are people who like to feel smart, and people who like to feel stupid. People who like to feel smart, never like to use something new because they don’t understand it. People who like to feel stupid, love using something new because it gives them a chance to learn.”

So, the question I posed to Seth, and I’ll pose to you now, is: how do you teach someone the core principles of content management? Have they been defined (my list non-withstanding)? Is there a curriculum? I once wrote a post about wanting a “Masters in Content Management” — what’s the closest thing?

At Blend, my goal has always been to develop a group of solid content management practitioners. While we have our favorite platforms, my hope is that the specific platform we’re currently integrating becomes interchangeable. I want Blend’s people to understand the core principles that transcend those platforms, and not get fixated on one specific environment.

Referring back to the anecdote I opened with, I think I feel the same…relief, as Bruce Tognazzini did when he found the title “interaction architect.” In doing so, he put an identify on an amorphous set of skils and aspirations floating around in his head.

I was just as surprised when Seth tossed out the phrase “Content Management Practice Director” and it started bouncing around in my head. It draws a circle around where I want to be, and where I want my developers to be.

The question becomes: how do we get there? I hope you stick around as I try to answer it.

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Comments

  1. I keep wanting to reply to your posts on Content Management, but never have anything to put with what you’ve got. You’ve covered everything in this and related posts.

    I’ve always found the hardest part of CMS (and other apps) development is not the technology, but it’s managing the users expectations of what the system is there to achieve.

    How do you push the CMS methodology on your users without them realising it?

    I find myself speaking with end users and managers, trying to get the point across that the system (any system) does a huge amount towards achieving day to day goals, but you have to use it and try things with it. You can only get out what you put in.

  2. We get caught up in the quagmire of “what is content management?, what is a content management system?” with our clients (and sometimes staff) on a regular basis. It’s fun to be in an emerging industry developing applications in an emerging practice area but it can be very challenging and frustrating at times. Relational database management systems went through the same evolution years ago. I think it is up to practitioners like us to define our discipline, not the CMS product vendors.

    Count me in as one who likes to feel stupid!

  3. As usual, a good post.

    Another way of putting your first point is content management as a verb (managing content) vs. a noun (a system or place).

    But the more interesting part is CM as a practice. In big-time consulting, “practice” has a very specific meaning, so you have CM Practice Lead, ERP Practice Lead, etc. etc. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make someone an expert (though Seth is!), but clearly we can all agree that Content Management is a practice that can be mastered.

    I think there’s two levels to this:

    1. True expertise that makes you an expert or steward in your firm who can lead others and help make important decisions about how content is managed and what technologies should be used

    2. A basic understanding of information management that should be part of the standard mental and experiential toolkit for any modern knowledge worker. (e.g., thinking about content deletion as much as content creation)

    I hink there’s ample need for education of both personas. AIIM, CMS Watch and others are trying to educate leaders. I think a big part of making information management an everyday skill set requires active involvement of HR leaders and other execs to say that it has to be a core competency.

  4. Unfortunately I think CM as a practice — at least as a widespread practice — is still some way off because of the immaturity of the software. You still need to know the idiosyncracies of whatever CMS you’re using, rather than being able to concentrate on its functionality, and there are far too many products and too little consensus on what purposes which ones are for. But I do believe that that day is coming, and we’ll all be able to spend less time effectively tinkering on the engines and more time driving the websites to exciting destinations. One day…

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