Controlling corporate collateral

Companies of all sizes are suffering from poor -- or worse, nonexistent -- CM (content management) practices. Increasing numbers of business lines within an enterprise must feed the content stream -- from Web sites to e-business transactions, swapped among internal sources or shared between business partners. The need for speed when accessing and disseminating this swelling amount of corporate knowledge has reached an all-time high.

A CM system eases this burden by delivering fast searches and quick data retrieval of corporate collateral, not unlike a library's card-catalog system. Further, it enables any data source, such as a Word document, PDF, or multimedia file, to be seamlessly transformed to meet delivery requirements across a variety of channels and client devices.

To borrow Java developers' popular mantra, a CM system allows data to be written once and deployed anywhere. But this advantage is not without its pitfalls.

Although seemingly clear-cut, putting a CM solution together can be an arduous and expensive undertaking. And don't be surprised when it even involves a substantial shift in corporate culture as employees must adapt to new workflow mechanisms. Take heed: Unless employee buy-in for the CM system is total across your organization, your goal of encapsulating your corporate knowledge will fail.

The rewards of a successful implementation, however, are worth all of the elbow grease. A CM system will help any company enhance the efficiency of its workflow and the availability of its resources, at the same time improving its readiness to conduct e-business.

Also, with proper planning, a CM system will streamline internal processes and allow customers and business partners to readily assimilate data. Ultimately, an increased opportunity for ROI is gained by being able to more rapidly build new partnerships.

Finding the right solution

When shouldering the burden of content management, you should consider several key elements to ensure the success of your CM strategy.

To begin, many large organizations already have well-developed EDI (electronic data interchange) applications in place, which seem like a good starting point to build a CM system. But on the contrary, most EDI programs demand a sizeable amount of reprogramming to make them available to Web-based applications.

The time and cost necessary to develop a homegrown CM solution to go with that EDI application would put you at a competitive disadvantage if your competitors quickly move toward Web-based CM systems. This is particularly true if you're looking to incorporate new vendors, customers, or application technologies into your solution.

Therefore, the best CM system for most companies is a boxed solution, such as Vignette's, that combines the structure of EDI with Internet-ready aptitude for e-business, including Web application interfaces.

Although the content management market space has matured considerably, many products remain better suited to either Web content management or business-to-business supply-chain implementations. So when reviewing prospects, shop carefully.

If you want to include your CRM (customer relationship management) call centers or ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, make certain your CM vendor's offering is up to the task. The more advanced packages save development time by including integration and development tools that can help tie your CM system to external applications.

If you're looking to integrate a CM solution with a specific application server, you should be certain your vendor offers native support and ensures scalability among platforms. Dynamic data delivery on this scale is extremely resource-intensive.

It is also usually wisest to ensure flexibility by choosing a CM system that can adroitly tackle both unstructured sources, such as Word documents, as well as structured sources, such as databases.

Other data sources include legacy systems and file systems as well as third-party data streams. A good CM solution should offer filters for specific document types, such as Quark publishing files, or input devices relevant to your needs.

When shopping for a CM vendor, you should find that most of the currently available solutions have three things in common: document management, workflow enhancement, and a diversity of presentation that allows fast lookup, transformation, and delivery of data.

The document layer

After settling on a CM application, you'll need to import and classify your existing data resources.

Using meta data, which are descriptive details that categorize the content of a document or data source, corporate collateral can be labeled and tracked with a uniform, structured framework. Ensuring the proper classification of information resources allows users to recall that data faster and to repurpose it to meet their new objectives.

In many cases, details about the documents, such as title, summary, publication and expiration dates, permissions, and priority figure into meta data classifications. For your business, this step may also require building custom document classification types that are specific to your industry or to departments within your business organization.

If your company has departments with vast amounts of content waiting in the wings, you should consider investing in a vendor, such as Documentum, whose system can automatically generate meta data classifications. This feature will not only save you a bundle in money and time, it will also reduce the risk of human error inevitably introduced by manual data entry.

Regardless of how your company's meta data is compiled, system administrators must develop input templates. These templates are used to encapsulate associated meta data and permissions whenever a user posts a new document to the CM system.

Younger versions of many CM packages required a labor-intensive process of hand-tooling template design. Current releases offer newer, wizard-driven development tools that help alleviate this administrative task and reduce development costs.

When the document management portion is completed, your CM system will deposit new and existing content, data sources, and e-commerce applications in a uniform repository. The benefits will include speedier searches and more efficient access to your company's resources.

The workflow layer

Once your company's content has been placed under the control of the CM system, the next step is to define workflow. Workflow is a primary benefit of CM systems over traditional document management and provides a significant shift in how your employees interface with your systems.

Whether initiated by a user or triggered by a predetermined event, workflow mechanisms ensure that content is properly reviewed and approved before seeing the light of day. It dictates and facilitates how content within your company is acted on and routed, both internally and externally.

A document can be assigned a predetermined routing structure. For example, your analysts may develop information for your Web site. Documents that require approval prior to posting are routed to a supervisor. Once approved, the document is routed to an editor responsible for managing Web site content or perhaps to your company's legal department for review before being posted.

Building the rules for workflow into your CM system requires a solid understanding of the existing processes within your organization. Expect to spend a considerable amount of time on proper development.

The process also demands a substantial learning curve for users as they learn a new method of contributing content. Although it represents an extra step in your employees' workload, a CM system will ensure accuracy and timeliness, inspire efficiency, and offer benefits such as audit history and status of a document at a glance.

To ensure the appropriateness of routing procedures, CM also requires establishing role-based permissions. Permissions provide an extremely important level of security by assigning privileges to users, allowing them to author, edit, and administer documents within the system as appropriate.

Without permission protocols, loose or poorly thought-out rules could allow data to be compromised. The domino effect becomes more of a snowball effect as the updated document not only corrupts the immediate data store, but is pushed out, compromised, to customers and partners in a high-speed, automated fashion.

Because the credibility of your content is at stake, all permission policies should be in place before launching your system.

The presentation layer

No doubt the desire to tame the presentation of content has been one of the most compelling forces behind CM systems.

By using presentation templates, CM allows raw data to be poured into a template and delivered to a broad range of devices without having to be reformatted. After administrators develop the template, back-end information can be transformed, rendered, and pushed out to the customer in real time. Dynamic content is nothing new, but the ability to leverage any or all of your corporate resources is now much easier through a CM system.

The format transformation of the document that makes it viewable across many channels is transparent to the user and provides consistency within your site framework. Also, administrators can quickly implement design changes to all pages of a Web site simply by altering the templates.

Most CM packages include some type of development tool to shorten the development cycle and enable easy management of site redesigns.

Another benefit comes from tailored data, allowing personalized, one-to-one delivery of relevant information. Although this typically offers advantages in business-to-consumer transactions, it also presents opportunities for b-to-b transactions as well as for your internal workforce; this lets the business roles of an employee or partner dictate his or her informational vantage point of the organization.

Template design is given to administrators, but CM is in the hands of the people who understand it best -- the staff responsible for generating content in the first place. Most vendors offer easy-to-use front ends that enable nontechnical staff to handle duties such as Web site updates. The time required to publish information is reduced, and responsibilities are distributed among more employees.

Integration caveats

Some systems prefer to hold document data in a standardized format whereas others don't transform the data until the actual request has been made. Depending on the types of request you're anticipating, the lag time could affect the overhead requirements for delivery. More sophisticated systems offer built-in caching optimization and management. Scrutinize these options to make sure they match your needs.

Application integration can present an additional can of worms depending on your existing architecture. Lacking support for a specific servlet engine may limit your options or force you to rethink your application server design.

Most CM solutions pack a variety of helpful features that can ease implementation: online permissions registration for employees, customers, and partners; workflow e-mail notification; and tools for developing personalized content delivery. To help you select a boxed solution, many vendors even have specialty versions that address the needs of a specific industry without requiring you to retool the package.

A CTO looking to implement a CM solution must gain executive-level buy-in across all divisions within the organization. This isn't a minor undertaking, but it will prove worthwhile.

CM builds efficiency and unlocks the knowledge resources buried within your company's data stores. The end result is a competitive advantage as well as fundamental building blocks to support your e-business strategy.

Avoiding the CM land mines

Follow these five tips and you'll enjoy a seamless transition to a content-managed enterprise.

  1. CTOs, don't go it alone. Executive and administrative buy-in across business lines will be crucial to adopting new cultural practices.
  2. Know your business's workflow. Assign a task force to do an in-depth study on the processes within your organization to assure they are mimicked appropriately by the content management system rules.
  3. Complete and test the setup of security, permissions, and workflow before the first employee signs on. Auto-registration features can help ease the burden of migrating users to the CM system.
  4. Provide adequate training. The importance of metadata and keyword usage must be understood at the user level. Accurate classification will be essential to recalling and leveraging your corporate knowledge.
  5. Ensure scalability. Dynamic content management systems draw a high degree of network and computational overhead. Don't let your enterprise become bottlenecked.
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