Digital asset management (DAM) is one of those things that few people jump into with much enthusiasm. DAM is an extra layer of policy that no one wants to define, an ongoing expense that no one wants to pay and a training requirement for which no one has time. And let’s face it: digital asset management isn't that much fun.

It’s enough to leave people wondering whether they need DAM at all.

I wonder this every day. In fact, I recently tried to convince myself that DAM was nothing more than a luxury for organizations that thrive on needless complexity. Not that I wanted it to be so, mind you; but if I’m going to keep promoting Digital Asset Management to the world, I figure that I should occasionally renew my vows with the technology.

Envisioning a world without DAM was my first step. This provided me with the clean slate-of-mind I needed to get a better perspective on why DAM does or does not matter.

The exercise was a mind-opener because it reminded me of just how wide DAM has become and how deep DAM now goes. Those who say DAM is about finding files faster, reducing time to market or increasing digital asset ROI are hung up on the marketing speak we used to sell DAM more than a decade ago -- before we understood its real potential.

DAM Is about Content Discovery

File servers, Dropbox, Google Drive and the like are about centrally storing what you know you already have. Digital Asset Management, on the other hand, is about enabling people to discover what they don’t know they have.

It’s similar to the fundamental differences between Google search and the directory-based content structure that relegated Yahoo to also-ran status in the search wars. Google won for good reason -- there’s too much information in the world for hierarchical browsing to be effective.

Rich metadata enables users to find what they don’t know they want because metadata is a language we use to converse with our DAMs. We use metadata to ask the DAM questions and the DAM uses metadata to offer results. Sometimes we get the content we expect and sometimes we get nothing. But other times we get unexpected results that spur our most creative ideas.

Digital asset management systems are metadata machines that happen to reference files. File management tools are storage locations that offer basic tagging. Tags can help us find files faster, so long as we know what we’re looking for; but they don’t do much to encourage happy accidents. On the other hand, we have search features in DAMs to help us find images based on color palettes, find videos based on popularity and even find press releases that are embargoed for next Tuesday but not yet approved for release.

DAM Is Policy

The “m” in Digital Asset Management represents the primary difference between file-storage services and DAM systems. When is something approved? How do we define “approved”? What do we do when a license expires for content we’ve published? What should a user do when she’s discovered a typo in a document?

These considerations (and scores more) are the policies around which we wrap DAM software. They reflect the processes and rules upon which our businesses are based and protected. Conveniently sending a file to 1 million people via Dropbox is a great thing. But which file should we send? And when should we send it? File distribution has no undo, so adherence to well-defined policy is important.

The problem is that digital asset policy adherence isn’t something most organizations consider. Ask about the rules that govern the use of company vehicles and they’ll tell you. They can also tell you about vacation time accrual and what happens if you tell the delivery truck driver that you’re still waiting for him to deliver the package you want most. But ask a Fortune 500 marketing VP whether company policy permits her to download photos from the Internet for use in internal presentations, and she’ll likely ramble on for 10 minutes about her company’s commitment to protecting intellectual properties for generations to come.

In fact, she probably has a presentation she can show you.

And no matter where the photos in her presentation came from, she won’t think twice about what happens when she tosses that presentation, downloaded images and all, into the company archives.

DAM Is Organization-Wide

When we say that Digital Asset Management is an organization-wide, enterprise-class process, we really say nothing. After all, email is an organization-wide, enterprise-class process too. In fact, you could use Dropbox or Google Drive across the organization too -- so long as things stay simple. But when Marketing has different rules than Legal, and Marketing-Asia has different rules than Marketing-Europe, the notion of a centralized file server or file-sharing platform loses its appeal.

Take for example an advertisement that’s approved for use in the U.S. but not in any other English-speaking territories. If you asked most people how to handle this, they’d explain folder structures that include subfolders named for each office. U.S. marketing would know exactly where to find their ad layout, while the Australian and U.K. teams could easily find theirs too.

This beautifully simple process can work pretty well when ads are always different in each region. But what if the same ad should be used in the U.K. and Australia? Will you put copies of the same file into the Australia and U.K. folders? If a typo is found before press time, will you remember to update both copies? It shouldn’t be too tough: just remember that the same ad is used in the U.K. and Australia, but not in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand. (You probably have that written down somewhere on a sticky note.)

This “remember” thing is an example of what a policy-adherent DAM could sort out for you. You might remember which files need to be updated, but you’re going to be in Hawaii the week before next month’s ad goes out. The typo won’t be your fault, but the fallout will become your responsibility.

A better approach would be a single layout. Fix the typo and forget about which office is using what version. A serious DAM could even notify those affected by the change.

A common mistake people make when evaluating the value of DAM is to project their personal file management habits onto a system that will be used by others. Your way might be the best way, but no one else knows your way. At some point, things become so complex that you can no longer reasonably hope for the understanding of tens of thousands of employees, freelancers and partners.

DAM Is Platform-Neutral

The great thing about Google Drive is that it’s platform neutral. You know, it works the same on Macs as it does on PCs and Linux. Well, okay, it’s not actually available for Linux. But there are hacks to make it work -- sort of. Anyway, it’s the same for Android and iOS users. Well, okay, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s the same enough for marketing purposes.

If you want real platform neutrality, you need SkyDrive or iCloud. Wait, that’s not right either. Can you run iCloud on a PC? You can definitely run SkyDrive on a Mac, but not on an older Mac. And I think you can run iCloud on a PC, but I’m not sure if you’ll be able to access that directly from Office, like you can with SkyDrive. But you know, that doesn't work so great anyway.

Have I made my point?

Cross-platform user experience parity is never a core concern for OS vendors. Sure, they make token gestures toward supporting/luring the customers of the competition, but there is no single option that works the same everywhere. Dropbox does an admirable job of playing nice across borders, but then you have those cranky IT departments who just say no.

What this means for you, the person in charge of digital asset logistics, is that you have a lot of research and training to do. Everyone will expect explicit instructions as to how to access content on their device and OS. And all those overnight updates are going to put you into an endless loop of testing. Constant updates and improvements are welcomed in a B2C environment, but when it comes to keeping things humming at an enterprise, there is much to be said for consistency and predictability.

Platform agnosticism is in the DNA of quality DAM software. The user experience should be the same, no matter what the platform. This reduces training requirements, and it makes policy adherence easier in BYOD environments.

DAM Is Processing

Converting a 500MB Photoshop file into something you can use on a website is pretty easy. Unless, of course, you have no idea how to do this, or you lack the software required to get the job done.

Asset processing and conversion is something most DAMs can do. We take this for granted because it’s been a common DAM feature for so long. But without this basic feature, people would still be clogging email servers and wondering why those .eps files aren't rendering on the Web. Worse, Photoshop licenses are no minor investment, even without the cost of training factored in.

DAMs have done a god job of abstracting processing from purpose. “Download for Web” is all someone needs to know now. In many cases, a DAM can pay for itself by doing nothing more than file processing.

DAM Is an Integration Hub

Another nice thing about DAM software is that it can become a digital asset hub. This means that your PIM, CMS and CRM could be accessing the same digital asset repository. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to upload completed works into a single location that is available from everywhere?

Granted, this Holy Grail of omnipresent DAM doesn't really exist today. But if integration is in your future, you’re much more likely to get the attention and support of your DAM vendor than you are Google, Apple or Microsoft.

When it comes to realizing what many characterize as the exploding need for DAM, there’s no more obvious path than through integration. And I don’t mean being able to access other systems from your DAM. The potential I see is from within those marketing automation, CMS and other systems that have file management features that are laughable at best. As the users of those systems become more demanding with regard to their asset management requirements, those vendors are going to come shopping for DAM solution buy-outs or partnerships.

DAM Is (Almost) as It Should Be

In summary, when I envision a world without DAM, I can’t help but want to invent it. If DAM were something that Apple, Google or some Silicon Valley startup introduced for the first time today, it wouldn't be long before we considered it the next “killer app.” The problem is that the DAM industry has done such a terrible job of defining and nurturing itself, that we’re here now, more than two decades since the launch of the first commercial DAM software, still wondering whether there’s a point.

Editor's Note: Never dull, David often speaks (and writes) his mind on DAM. Read more in DAM Beauty and Usability