2014-10-October-Broken-Pay-Phone.jpgThe engineers of the 20th century knew a thing or two about building from the ground up. They often only had one shot to get it right. Consider the first vehicles to land on the moon. They either worked or they didn’t. Once launched, there wasn’t a way to turn them around and fix them.

In a time of geopolitical acceleration with the whole world watching, last century’s engineers had to accelerate while avoiding setbacks, re-implementation and silo one-off efforts. The emphasis was on quality and reusability. Build it once and build it well. And then reuse it, again and again and again.

The Apollo missions didn’t reinvent the wheel. They built upon the investments of previous campaigns and reused much of the technology and learning. From the Apollo Guidance Computer to the Saturn V rocket, prior investments were leveraged to increase the capability of the next mission.

The result was momentum. With each new mission, the team was able to accelerate, building on the successes of the previous one. It made it possible for them to lower risk and deliver on time. They started from the ground up -- and leveraged the improvements, bug fixes, technical implementations and lessons learned with every new release.

Separate Content from Presentation

The idea of creating something once and getting multiplicative value from it through consistent reuse is not a new one. Engineers have been doing it for a very long time. Adept and forward thinking teams have built systems of record that serve multiple purposes, enabling a single source of truth of an organization. These systems can be leveraged to adapt to new channels, new applications and new mediums as they come, allowing these companies to future proof their data.

In her talk, Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content, Karen McGrane describes the example of TV Guide in the 1980s at a time when the company realized that they were not actually in the magazine business. They understood they were in the content business. The magazine was just one way to present that content. But there were many others -- some that they knew about and still more that they couldn’t yet anticipate.

And so they asked their editors to begin using mainframe green screen applications to enter content. It was a tedious transition. The editors were used to using publishing software (like Quark or InDesign) where the content and formatting were both in the same place. But now they were asked to just enter raw data, absent of any formatting information. The formatting would be applied later so that the same raw data could be reused across multiple magazines or products.

TV Guide defined itself as a content company and invested in the reuse of its content. In doing so, they began to build up momentum. They separated content from presentation and put themselves in the position of being able to leverage that content across multiple products and delivery channels. They had no way of foreseeing a future where TIVO, satellite television guides, iPhone applications and many other electronic mediums would leverage their content. But they made sure they were in the right position to adapt and service those opportunities when they did eventually come along.

Stop Building Web Content

The CMS industry is about to be shaken up by many of the same forces that toppled the magazine publishers. The problem is web content. Web content is a mixture of content and web presentation elements like HTML, images, CSS and other display assets. It’s good for the browser. But it makes no sense in a world where nobody uses a browser anymore.

Web content is just like a Quark or InDesign file. It makes it impossible for your business to reuse content across a new generation of non-browser and non-screen devices. The “responsive design” trick simply doesn’t work here. There is no way to responsively adjust your web presentation to work on a wearable device, a natural language processing application or a Google Glass in-context, heads-up display. Or to deliver your content on-the-fly to decoupled endpoints that follow your customer as they move throughout the day, from one device to the next.

Web content mixes presentation and content for display in a browser and locks you into a single delivery channel. And unfortunately, it’s a channel that’s about to expire.

You can see it in the numbers. A few years ago, marketing teams were allocating 80 percent of their spend on web and 20 percent on mobile. Today, it’s the other way around. Most organizations today try to solve for mobile first. And even in that, they generally do a lousy job since many “mobile first” initiatives are just web initiatives disguised to run on a smaller screen.

In fact, it really isn’t about mobile. It’s about how to get your organization’s value-added content in front of your customers with as little friction as possible. This means putting it onto the devices and applications that their customers interact with naturally. It might be an iWatch, a kiosk at the airport, an interactive advertising display or any number of technologies that you can’t yet anticipate.

It’s about building content today that can be reused tomorrow. Create things that lend to your company’s momentum and put you in the driver’s seat for tomorrow’s technology decisions.

Decouple the Presentation Tier

Your CMS has no business running your website.

That may have made sense twenty years ago, but it makes no sense today. The growth of the cloud, elastic scaling groups, CDN, static caching and a diverse number of app server runtimes (such as Node.js) mean that the best-of-breed tools for building high power, scalable front-ends should be run separate from your CMS.

The job of your content management system should be just that -- to manage content. It should provide content modeling and services, a robust security model and a genuinely productive content workflow for your content workers. They should be able to create content and approve it with a few simple clicks. That’s it.

In doing so, your content workers may be unaware of how the final content will look once published. It might be used in one or more web sites. It might be converted using text-to-speech. It might end up being retrieved by a third-party for use in a custom iPhone mobile app that’s not built by your company. It may even be printed or end up in a product catalog somewhere. And that’s just things that we can guess at. What technology is coming around the bend? In five years? In 10?

Therefore, the actual presentation of content is distinct from the management of the raw content data. By no means should a website be the assumed channel. There are lots of channels -- many of which are coming in the future and which you cannot anticipate.

Unfortunately, most CMS systems out there are oriented toward web content. Drupal, Joomla and Wordpress, among others, have built their products entirely to cater to that market. They’re glorified website builders. They let you build lots of web content. But no one wants that.

In some cases, content workers may want the ability to preview their changes before committing them. Virtualized Content APIs and retrieval make this possible without sacrificing the decoupled architecture.

The CMS world didn’t grow up with a lot of engineering discipline. As evidenced by the emphasis on web content, CMS systems have largely been reactive to the web as opposed to forward thinking. And that’s OK. However, going forward, the right path to choose is one that enables your business to move faster by realizing multiplicative value from a single effort.

Building momentum in your business and future-proofing your position means buying into a CMS infrastructure that takes your content seriously. There is no room for web content on the road ahead.

Putting it Into Context

There are 7.2 billion people out there. Some of them are your customers. An each of them hold in their hand more computing power than the entire Apollo 11 Guidance Computer mainframe. Not just a little more. A lot more. We’re talking millions of times more storage. And thousands of times the speed.

And that’s just -- one -- of your customers.

They’re active. They’re producing content. You used to be the one who produced content and pushed it at them, remember? Not anymore. Now they find what they want and they pull it.

So you have to be there. You have to meet your customers where they are. The onus is on you to source content from the places where your customers go -- the websites, the apps and the interactive endpoints. Ingest from APIs, curate and understand so as to best amplify the value of the content that you produce and send back out into the world.

That’s the world we’re heading into. Content is part of it. But content gathered together and organized to derive meaning in contextual. And context is what is essential.

One way to think of context is as the building of relationships between different discrete pieces of content or bits of information. Some of it is metadata -- such as when something happened or who did such a thing. But some of it is also derived from heuristic calculations that serve to weigh the importance of certain relationships over others.

When activities happen in the outside world, your content platform should adjust the weighted relationships within the content graph to optimize for better and faster future decisions about your customer’s needs.

With a growing number of people, activities and external systems to integrate with, your content platform must offer support for lots of different content formats. It must support dynamic content schemas (sic: “schemata”). A schema describes the structure of content. And given the combinatorial possibilities, your content platform needs to be able to adapt to all sorts of content structures on the fly -- without IT intervention, without coding and without server restarts.

Dynamic content modeling is of the utmost importance here as it allows you to gather this data and arrange it into a meaningful dictionary. A dictionary lets you define content types, properties, constraints, validation logic and implicit behavior. Inheritance and crosscutting concerns are important, as is the ability to wire in custom web hook callbacks to trigger your custom business logic. All of this has to be easy and on the fly – no IT duty cycle.

The ideal content structure here has proven to be JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). JSON is a simple data-only representation of your content that works brilliantly over the wire and is compatible with web and mobile devices. It’s simple and powerful. So much so that it has become the foundation for many APIs, services and modern database engines including MongoDB, Couchbase and Cassandra. It’s also the backbone of every major content API in existence including those offered by Google, Netflix, Salesforce and many others.

Take a Content First approach to content management -- one that makes it possible for your business to increase momentum by future proofing your content investments. Don’t repeat the same work twice.

Title image by Kathy Drasky (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license