We are entering a period of profound change for the creation and consumption of information and content in the enterprise. While it has been clear for many years that content is the core of the information society, we are only on the verge of reaching the promise of the information-powered enterprise.

It is through content that we engage, converse, and represent ideas. In business, the management of content is how we traditionally drove employee productivity (by streamlining knowledge creation and sharing) and ensured business integrity (audit, approval, compliance and brand integrity).

As we move into 2012, however, we have three forces that will push information and content management into new realms, new use cases and a form of usage undreamed of just a few years ago.

What Are the 3 Forces?

This should be no surprise, but cloud computing, the rise of mobile computing and the adoption (not arrival) of social in the enterprise are drastically reshaping our relationship to content.

First -- cloud computing has given rise to the most diverse, distributed and global workforce in human history. The cloud eliminates many barriers to creating a virtual workforce, and ushers in entirely new demands on the IT department. As IT departments push more compute power to the cloud, the ratio of on-site vs. virtual employees is turned on its head even more.

Mobile Devices and Access -- if the cloud gives access to content, systems and compute power from anywhere in the world, the rise of mobile only amplifies the effect. Information workers are using mobile devices to access information on the go, from any location, regardless of the content type. In fact, mobile devices have only increased engagement with a variety of content types, amplifying not just the need for access, but changing the mix of content types that the average information worker interacts with.

Social Networking -- put simply, social networking has dramatically altered the means by which information workers communicate. What used to be a conference call is now a Yammer room, or a status update with a thread of comments, or a MMS with a shot of a whiteboard brainstorm. The average businessperson communicates in entirely different ways than just a few years ago, and that communication produces more user-generated digital content than ever before.

But it’s not these three factors alone that are changing information and content management. It’s their combined effect that is reshaping the content-driven information economy.

These three factors are forcing organizations to merge content with context.

They are driving an explosion in metadata that makes it possible to not only more effectively consume or share content, but to do so with a 360-degree view of the context behind the ideas, decisions and goals of any given piece of content.

Context Reveals the Past, Present and Future

So what does context mean for the future of content management? Well it means the core competency of content management, namely the management of metadata (the information that defines the context of content) is now the key technology to the exploitation of the opportunities these forces have unleashed.

Context has three important effects on people and enterprises.

1. Explaining the Past

Perhaps the best example of illuminating the past is the classic case of version control, editing documents and reaching a “final.” If there’s a social stream outlining the conversation, decisions and opinions that shaped a document, you can follow the thought process and immediately take your editing pass with a full understanding of what transpired between ideation and the current version of a piece of content.

Context about the past gives business people a sense of cause and effect -- it surfaces the “why” behind an idea, concept or strategy. And when merging that context with the content itself, business people are aligned in their thinking and understanding of a task or goal.

We often struggle when collaborating on content to figure out why a certain section was revised in a particular way, or perhaps don’t quite understand why a section we recommended was ultimately not included. Social networking provides the necessary stream of discussion that you can refer to to help you understand the issue that came up (cause) and the action that was taken to address it (effect).

Does this sound like a trivial documenting editing problem?

Just consider the impact this simple problem has when you scale it across a 1,000-person organization in 9 countries, or 6 departments working from 3 different offices.

2. Streamlining the Present

It’s fascinating to think that, even today, information workers struggle to find the information they need to do their jobs. The continued use of the traditional file system hierarchy has led to an incredible amount of inefficiency in the workplace. Just finding the content you need is hard enough. let alone understanding the thinking behind the ideas within.

Tomorrow, metadata and context will eliminate that problem. Tags and search capabilities within document repositories and collaboration systems are just one example of how we can create new efficiencies by leveraging metadata and social capabilities in our content management systems.

I would also argue that understanding the past context of a given piece of content is an enormous boost to productivity that eliminates the need for excess meetings, phone calls and constant coordination about logistical minutia. Or in a more extreme use case -- location-aware mobile devices make it possible to display documents into the appropriate language depending on who is accessing it and from where, before they even open it.

Global teams will no longer have to be bogged down by an intermediate step of language translation in order to merely refer to a document, let alone contribute to edits and revisions. Again -- because mobile, social and cloud demand, and create, a clear sense of context for individuals and groups of users alike.

3. Illuminating the Future

Perhaps the most fascinating effect of context on information workers is the way in which it can illuminate the future and create a high-resolution view of what needs to happen next.

For years businesses have battled mightily to automate business processes…but what about business decisions?

Information without the relevant context makes it impossible to identify the next steps that need to happen. We’ve all experienced this in meetings -- the group can agree on big ideas, but struggles to agree on what actions need to be taken.

As the workforce goes mobile, becomes virtual and is distributed across the globe, this “meeting dilemma” only becomes more challenging to groups and teams. However, the rise of context-aware systems in 2012 will provide a powerful and necessary tool to fight the inertia of groups.

Imagine a rebranding project for a large international corporation. There are dozens of employees involved, multiple contractors and branding firms, countless meetings, and the content that’s generated ranges from documents, images, video files and audio files. It’s content overload in its purest form.

As decisions on designs and taglines are made, the underlying content management platform can capture comments and notes and tags and make them available to everyone on the team. Everyone involved in the project can be aware of the progress in areas of the project that aren’t necessarily their purview. They have the context -- and they can see the high-level view of the direction of the project. They can anticipate their next steps as they pertain to the overall goals and deadlines of the project.

At this point it becomes very clear to the entire project team what needs to happen next, what decisions need to be made and what actions have to be taken. You are, quite literally, able to see a mile-high view of the project and its constituent parts, and drill down only where necessary.

Context Is Clarity and Vision

If there’s one information management trend that will take hold in 2012, it will certainly be the rise of context-aware content and information management systems.

The information economy has never suffered from a shortage of ideas, it has only suffered from an abundance of them. Today our ideas take the form of tweets, or comments, or tags, or videos. They’re incredibly valuable only if we are able to leverage them in a way that helps people do great work.

And that’s what it comes down to -- the rise of context in information management will empower information workers to be more efficient, to focus on big thinking instead of logistics and organization. Context helps get the technology out of the way of the people and ideas in your business.

Perhaps even more exciting -- the first enterprises to capitalize on this shift will gain an incredible operational advantage over their competitors, one that not only makes them more efficient, but gives them the ability to dedicate more time and brain power to innovation.

I can assure you there isn’t a CEO on the planet that doesn’t think about that on a daily basis.

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