Content Managment Systems as Cities - I feel like a Mayor!

I recently realized that large enterprise content management (ECM) systems are like a city, but most ECM practices treat them as if they were a building. There’s a big difference in complexity that impacts the operation of an ECM system.

Architects can design a building to suit its intended purpose and building management can maintain it. In the same manner an ECM expert can design a system to manage digital content in support of particular business processes. Much of the ECM literature talks of the benefits of clear system architecture and good governance.

As an ECM system is deployed across an organization the breadth and number of applications grows rapidly – often into the hundreds – with many different business sponsors and champions! It becomes increasingly hard for any one person to understand all of the different ways that a system is being used, and to exert any effective control. The flexibility accorded users through collaborative, social tools further increases the heterogeneity of an ECM system.

Not all ECM application deployments meet with equal success or longevity. In many ways the applications in an ECM system resemble buildings in a city – different sizes, different ages, different investments and different degrees of success. Some buildings are abandoned and some never get off the drawing board!

No one designs cities – they are just too complex. Sure there are examples of attempts to do this – the initial design of Brasilia or the redesign of the center of Paris by Haussmann – but over time the efforts and activities of many other people determine how a city develops. In fact cities are very much an expression of human behaviour, culture and society.

Overall city management falls to the Mayor and City Council, and their most important tools are Building Regulations and Permits, Ordnances, etc. While you can’t and shouldn’t control everything in a city, you can nevertheless provide some direction and minimal standards. The architects of the many buildings need to get approval for their plans before a building is constructed, and the building operators need to comply with other standards.

When ECM was a new concept, the focus was on how to best design and operate a first application for the new system – a new ‘building’ standing in a ‘green field’ if you will. As ECM matures we need to think about how to operate large, multi-application systems. For me a better role analogy for the person with overall system responsibility is Mayor, not Architect. It’s not that we don’t need ECM Architects – in fact we need many of them – but we also need a Mayor and Council to provide a framework for oversight and long-term strategy. And we have to accept at least a degree of disorder that results from the activities of many different people that are only loosely coordinated – Mayors are necessarily politicians, unlike Architects!

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