Digital Asset Management, Future Proofing Your Digital Assets
When it comes to supporting the current needs of digital content management, many organizations are considering whether it makes sense to substitute a one-size-fits-all enterprise solution for the various disconnected “best of breed” tools currently in use.

In recent years, nearly everything has become a digital asset. Audio and video assets that used to be recorded, produced and archived on tape now need to be immediately available in a fluid digital form, searchable and with clear metadata describing origin, rights, versions and usage. Paper documents and files have been replaced by digital formats, including everything from payroll to publishing. Branded assets, artwork, print or online layout designs and photographic materials are all digital.  

While the lines are blurring between pure digital asset management (DAM), media asset management (MAM), library asset management (LAM), enterprise content management (ECM), web content management systems (WCMS) and other content management functions (round up the usual acronyms!), these distinctions are less important than the overall need for digital content owners to share, publish, repurpose and control their digital content.

These systems have a number of specialized functions. They accomplish storage and archiving of assets, as well as findability of those assets. They also manage workflow, sharing of assets across departments and with partners, distribution to audience platforms, rights management, version management, localization support (for global organizations) and user permissions.

Over the past decade, we have also seen the maturing and consolidation of number of enterprise content systems, which incorporate much needed functionality previously found only in specialized systems into single platform solutions. I have worked with several clients who wrestled with the apparent chaos of supporting numerous disparate systems, while at the same time needing a unified view of assets, data, workflows and resources.

Can One Size Fit All?

For both IT and content managers, the monolithic unified system can be quite attractive -- the very idea that everything could be on one enterprise platform, providing transparency and sharability for organizational assets, is almost irresistible. However, the pain of disconnected systems is in many cases matched by the pain (and risk!) of migrating data and business-critical workflows to a new monolithic system.

Famously, earlier this year it was announced that the BBC was forced to pull the plug on a monolithic content management system after nearly ten years work and £100m expenses -- but there are plenty of other examples of expensive, over-budget and under-delivered (or undelivered) failures of the “grand systems project.”

At the same time, there has been a parallel movement in the area of marketing and strategic communications for brands to consolidate their efforts and to tell a more coherent story across their initiatives. As audiences and customers have been empowered by social media and Web 2.0/3.0 platforms to easily access and share information from many different sources, brands find that they are losing control of their story. Previous approaches to brand storytelling, which were often short and single-dimensional, are no longer sufficient. A more sophisticated audience and customer base is now able to muster rich content across an increasingly flat and accessible information-scape.

In order to support the need for more coherent and complex messaging, while also controlling costs, organizations are increasingly looking to integrated technology systems that can support collaboration and cross-platform content creation, and distribution. This need goes beyond merely repurposing content, because success depends upon the quality of the products and the user experience. Creating quality content and truly sharable assets often requires that creative teams have the right tools, as well as integrated platforms, in order to produce a quality product that can engage the more sophisticated and information-savvy consumer.

According to Caitlin Burns of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a transmedia producer, the overall success and effectiveness of any organization’s digital storytelling initiative depends on the credibility of that story and how it’s presented. “Successful communication and campaign approaches need to take a more arts and crafts approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.”

So we see that the interests of content owners, IT managers and the specialists who create and use the assets all share the need for a unified platform. But if the monolithic one-size-fits-all system is not the panacea, what’s the alternative?

An API Solution from NPR

Prior to his current position as VP of Digital Media at NPR, Zach Brand experienced the challenges of various monolithic systems projects. They seemed to take longer and be more expensive than they should have been, while often being a disappointment to the users of those systems. Perhaps, more importantly, they did not make the content and data they contained re-usable.

At NPR, he took the approach of using the application interface (API) of existing systems, modifying where necessary, to allow existing systems to “talk to” one another, sharing content and data. While this has been an on-going process, addressing one or two systems at a time, the benefits have been quicker wins, lower risk and tangible results that keep the end users happy because they don’t have to compromise on content or workflow features, or change systems in most cases (occasionally a system that is not API accessible must be replaced with a compatible best-of-breed or open source solution).

The result at NPR has been the gradual build-out of systems that support cross platform distribution, content sharing and reuse, and effective digital asset management. The API approach has also resulted in serendipitous opportunities for content reuse and distribution, including new opportunities for apps and content use among NPR’s content and station partners. As Zach points out,

I think it is about future proofing your digital assets/content/data. Look at the devices and platforms that have emerged over the last decade, and then think about how the system you build will adapt to the needs of the next 5-10 years.”

Of course, rolling your own APIs does not solve all interoperability challenges, especially when assets live in large enterprise repositories that require very specialized technical skills. Fortunately, there are other ways to allow legacy systems to talk to each other. For example, a previous client, a large global pharmaceutical company, took the approach of using a powerful search engine to connect to a number of legacy systems. Users could find and access assets through an intranet presentation layer. No need to migrate the data; and users are blissfully unaware of the actual content repository system!

However, there are certainly times when it becomes apparent that an integration of existing systems would require as much effort as implementing a new system and migrating the data. I have even been involved with projects where a decision was made not to fully migrate legacy content, but to start fresh with the most recent content and migrate older assets incrementally, as needed. In fact, this option should be considered more often than it usually is. Not all assets are evergreen, or reusable. Usually the decision to go with a new system is driven by the inability of old systems to support reusable assets.

In all cases, one should insure against future needs by considering both the flexibility of the solution and the impact on quality outputs. Assets themselves can be better future-proofed by consistent usage of metadata and controlled vocabularies -- indeed, the metadata is often the hinge that interoperability and asset accessibility relies upon.

But the future is here; and future success depends on ensuring that systems users have the tools they need to work collaboratively in a rapidly evolving communications environment. In this environment we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so systems need to be flexible and content owners need to keep an athletic posture.

Title image courtesy of Rustle (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on digital asset management here.