Evolving Content Management With Design Thinking
A colleague recently asked a seemingly simple question: “Could you send me a link to that document?” This question marked a profound achievement in our organization's content management journey. I can remember when all collaboration and sharing was by email and attachments, and content management was largely a hunter-gatherer test of endurance.
While we still use email, we at least now have links pointing to the one official source rather than attachments proliferating in the wild.
However, I will note it was quicker for my colleague to ask for a link rather than making a run for it into the information vortex herself. So we still have a way to go in our journey.
A Brief History of Content Management's Evolution
I have seen what is possible in content management and the evolutionary epochs on the way.
"I can’t take this anymore, I’m going to call someone who worked on that project last year, he’ll know where it is." He knows where it is because he put a mysterious codename on the file and put it in his own file share. There is no content management, it’s everyone for themselves and if you didn’t actually create it yourself, it doesn’t exist in your reality. You have content but, apart from the scrupulous long-suffering records managers, you do not have the management.
"Look at us, we have a terabyte of data." More digital channels and productivity tools on every desk means a lot more data coming in the data door. Not only is that painful to manage and finance, but it's also probably harboring a lot of dark data — a lost valuable asset and possibly illegal or risky data. We have a terabyte of data, just don’t ask us what’s there. Let’s keep shifting it into the next platform and the next until technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI) will save us.
AI does things faster for us, but it does both the good and bad faster — we must know what we want and provide the user manual.
As technology professionals, we talk a lot about the value of data, but I don’t see what value any data has if it’s not being used and shared. It’s only potential energy until we know what’s there and put it to work. Locking it all away in a vault or dumping it in a vortex is a failure to recognize and exploit the wonderful value in our data.
Civilized Content Management
"It’s beautiful." I've spent a large part of my working life as a consultant, so I used to go into different clients’ workplaces and work extensively in their information systems. I once sat with a manager in front of his workspace and said, "I don’t know what I’m looking at." Hundreds and hundreds of folders and sub-folders, loose files, old files, files without a story populate his workspace. I have no clue what this company is about or what these files are about from looking at this. Dark ages.
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And then I experienced something different. I opened the landing page of another client’s content system and said, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” I could find anything, even though I had never seen this company’s systems before. I could tell what this company was about, what was important to them and where to find answers to my questions. Civilized content management is possible. Organizations struggling to tackle the problems of pre-historic content management would do well to borrow some lessons from product design.
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Bringing Design Thinking to the Content Management Mix
Design thinking is a process for solving problems by putting the user or consumer first. It involves observing how people interact with their environments and uses an iterative process of brainstorming and trial and error to develop (and continue to improve) solutions. Made popular in a Harvard Business Review article by Tim Brown, CEO of the design consulting firm, IDEO, design thinking is "a process of integrative thinking, a process rooted in the ability to examine and exploit opposing ideas and constraints to create solutions."
At a content management strategy kick off meeting with a client, we discussed requirements and discovery. The project lead then said, "So what you’re saying is we have to talk to users." Design thinking starts with users.
- Understand and empathize: We start by observing users and customers to deepen our understanding of their experience with a product or process. When someone in the company is keeping important data in their email or personal drive, I listen with respect — there’s always a reason why they’re doing that.
- Define the real problem: By having an impartial observer watch the interactions, they can articulate the real problem and uncover problems the person may not be aware of. We are so immersed in our own way of doing things, we see everything as normal. It’s always interesting how as a consultant, the moment you sit with them and watch, they start to say things like, "I can see now it’s weird how I do things, but I’m comfortable this way."
- Brainstorm: Design thinking means feeling safe to freely generate ideas. I like that Tim Brown’s definition of design thinking includes "opposing ideas." A lot of people hesitate to offer their ideas, worried they'll sound uninformed or seem like an outsider in front of their colleagues. Design thinking celebrates innovation and examination. My best work comes from inviting a group of my peers to throw everything at an idea and challenge it, but I was not always like this. I started actively inviting feedback after watching another team member do this with every presentation, every work he produced.
- Sandbox: Prototypes are meant to be a working but quick version of the solution, what one of my team members calls a "skeleton strategy." It’s not finished and not perfect, but it’s a real-life model that makes change and complex concepts concrete.
- Test and improve, test and improve, test and ... : Design thinking is iterative. It means continuing to work with your end users over time to continuously improve on the solution. You’re building trust and a direct working relationship with your users over time, over iterations.
Many information management conversations start with the tools. Design thinking refocuses the conversation on humans and what exactly they’re trying to achieve, what problems they’re experiencing. It’s the civilized thing to do.
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About the Author
Andrea Malick is a Research Director in the Data and Analytics practice at Info-Tech, focused on building best practices knowledge in the Enterprise Information Management domain, with corporate and consulting leadership in content management (ECM) and governance.
Andrea has been launching and leading information management and governance practices for 15 years, in multinational organizations and medium sized businesses.