The signs are unmistakable: denial, frustration, bargaining, acceptance. We aren’t talking about the latest self help book or Kübler-Ross. These are some of the many phases organizations go through in their steps towards Digital Asset Management consciousness.

David Diamond inspired this article in a comment he made on a piece I wrote on DAM News.

Below are three stages, but in truth there are many more. However, these should give most readers planning DAM initiatives some pointers to help formulate their strategies.

'We need something to organize all this stuff'

This is the first level of understanding about why Digital Asset Management is important. The realization usually occurs when essential digital media cannot be found quickly enough to meet business or operational objectives. In some cases, this might manifest itself by proxy, for example, requests from colleagues to locate a particular file and the person who knows where to find it is away that day. Alternatively, employees responsible for certain types of digital files finding their regular work constantly disrupted to service these demands.

One method to limit these effects (usually as a precursor to a DAM system) is to manually prepare a page on an intranet with links to the most popular items. Inquiries can then be directed to that instead. That might be effective for a while, but the range of digital media requested is likely to increase at an unsustainable pace. A static list is adequate for popular items like logos etc., but it can become unwieldy for more specialist assets that are heavily in-demand over a shorter period, such as preparing for a big pitch or product launch. 

This is the point when the need for Digital Asset Management becomes apparent.

'It’s more complicated than we first thought'

Superficially, the Digital Asset Management problem is an easy one to solve. Digital files get identified, then ingested into a system where users enter keywords and download what they were looking for. This description masks a wide range of complex subsidiary decisions and organizational issues that make the task far harder to accomplish.

It's like saying that to run a successful business, all you need to do is create in-demand products and sell them to as many people as possible for more than it cost you to produce them. While accurate, this doesn't give you many clues about how to go about doing that yourself. It's more of an ambition than a model you can practically apply.

Most DAM initiatives — for at least an initial period — see the problem get bigger and harder to solve as the scale of the task becomes apparent. Unexpected sources of digital assets emerge from the woodwork. This is the point when some wonder how anyone managed before and in all likelihood, they probably didn't. It took too long to find certain assets (especially obscure ones), or they were lost, or recreated, or re-purchased or a less suitable alternative was substituted. The net result was that people wasted expensive time, incurred unnecessary expenditures on replacement costs, or used less suitable options for no good reason other than that the preferred item could not be found in time.

As well as more conventional storage media like USB sticks, DVDs, hard drives, files on network shares, etc., legacy and existing systems pose an issue, including systems individual departments purchased themselves. Some of these may not be very old at all and in more than a few organizations I have worked with, multiple concurrent DAM initiatives were taking place without any having knowledge of the others' existence. DAM has existed for over 20 years and similar systems with different names go even further back (in addition to manual methods like spreadsheets or even paper-based techniques like card indexes). This means you will need to decide whether to continue to maintain these systems, migrate the data, or integrate — or possibly a hybrid approach?

Digital assets currently held on storage media with no obvious cataloging data will require similar judgments. Should you migrate the files, delete them or put them into some form of offline storage and defer the decision? Each of these options involves costs in terms of the time/budget to implement retention, versus the potential loss to the business if data is deleted or placed into some kind of hard to access offline storage or archival facility. It's possible to offset the risks of each decision, but this can make the task more complex and will require time to think through the implications and consult with stakeholders.

Internal politics are unavoidable when prioritizing whose needs to address first. In many commercial organizations, marketing departments drive the demand for DAM, which you'd expect would simplify the task. But even within a single organizational unit, special interest groups exist who think their need is greater than everyone else's. Few individuals in organizations just want to manage digital assets, they have other priorities and (as they see it) a pressing need for a system that will deal with them. DAM initiatives can thus get hijacked by whoever argues their case best (or who has the biggest clout). Prioritizing one group over another skews the functional requirements which might lead to others commissioning their own solution, creating future integration challenges.

As should be apparent, planning DAM initiatives is not entirely straightforward for both political and operational reasons. Remain clear-headed and aim for a DAM service platform or infrastructure that can eventually provide the basis for other more specialized requirements. This often means not everyone will get everything they asked for (or at least they might need to wait longer than they hoped). 

There are a variety of ways to manage complexity in DAM planning. Start with an auditing process and a proper risk management plan, where the impact of each decision gets recorded and evaluated. Do this before starting the software purchasing process, since it will reveal useful information that will help narrow down the selection of suitable service providers. A further crucial stage of DAM-consciousness — after acknowledging the complexity of the task — is that it isn't all about what DAM software you choose (far from it).

'Someone or something will have to catalog everything'

The vast majority of the time-consuming work in Digital Asset Management occurs in cataloging. But all too often, it is undervalued as a process and remains largely invisible to many. Most businesses invest in DAM initiatives to organize their assets and isolate specific ones required for a given task. This means searching for (and having a positive expectation of finding) material with terms that are widely recognized in the context in which the DAM will be used. 

To achieve that requires metadata that's relevant to the needs of prospective asset users. While managers grasp the need for cataloging, they often fail to understand the level of quality required to generate effective search results. 

Many people regard the process of applying metadata to assets in binary terms — assets are either cataloged or they are not. They assume that once assets have descriptive terms (e.g., tags, captions, etc.) associated with them, they will automatically be findable. It doesn't require a great deal of analysis of the search and text indexing methods employed by DAM solutions to realize that there is a qualitative dimension to asset cataloging which greatly impacts whether searches will yield reasonable results. 

In other words, adding cataloging data to assets is not enough. It needs to be relevant and unambiguous to keep end users from mistrusting the results that are served to them. Even with fairly simplistic DAM solutions, the software will not usually affect findability as much as the metadata applied to each asset record. Findability directly relates to the level of DAM adoption and, therefore, a direct association with ROI. So on top understanding cataloging's importance, managers responsible for DAM initiatives need to precisely define quality objectives (and measure them) so that users can find assets without excessive cost to the business.

There Is No Ending

You will go through many other important stages of DAM understanding before the exercise will be successful. We've barely touched on user adoption or change management and not even mentioned interoperability or scalability (among many other topics worthy of discussion).

The one remaining stage of Digital Asset Management consciousness to mention is this: understand that it is a process without end. You may have gone through all of the stages mentioned above to implement your DAM. The bad news is you will need to repeat the exercise all over again — and keep doing it. The good news (if you had the foresight to record the knowledge acquired from previous exercises) is that it gets easier with each subsequent iteration. 

At the risk of sounding like a cliché from a self-help guidebook, I'll say this: rather than regarding reviews of your DAM initiative as a chore to endure, view the process as an opportunity to optimize and continuously improve your organization's Digital Asset Management provision. As well as holding all your assets, your DAM should be treated as a resource with value in its own right. This is possibly the most important realization when it comes to devising a successful long-term Digital Asset Management strategy.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  vasilennka