computers out in the trash

I'm preparing for a talk on the future of information management and the role SharePoint plays in it. And it occurred to me that, had I been writing my presentation 10 (or even five) years ago, it would have been very different. 

Ten years ago, the presentation would have included a much stronger focus on “the one repository to rule them all,” i.e., having a single, authoritative repository to store all critical business content. It would have included a lot more talk about how information should be managed in the best of all possible worlds, i.e., in a self-contained ECM platform that provides workflow automation, integrated with line of business systems. And I would have set all of this within a comprehensive and overarching metadata framework (possibly more than one) that covered every possible permutation of classification use cases to definitively and fully classify every last content object managed in the repository.

That was then. 

This idealized vision of information management reigned until somewhere around 2005. Then the essential premises behind this approach began to weaken (although plenty of folks continued to espouse its tenets). By 2010, few people remained who were unquestioningly devoted to it. Most of us were busy looking for the next way to conceptualize the domain.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Today's vision for information management is 180 degrees away from where it was 10 to 15 years ago. No longer do we assume “one repository to rule them all.” In fact, in most cases, a range of systems is assumed, and the job of information management is to broker the people and process interactions between and among them. The gold standard isn't a self-contained application that automates a process from start to finish — enabling efficient handoffs between applications is expected. And trying to effect a total classification of every content object with a comprehensive metadata framework is almost laughable given what we now know about system limitations and user behavior when confronted with data entry screens. We’re lucky if we even get a small set of core metadata to facilitate basic search and retrieval.

But regardless of how this shift play out — and depending on the organization, it can play out very differently — one thing’s for sure: technology matters way less than it did 10 or 15 years ago. The rampant consolidation and standardization among information management tech vendors plays a big part in this. 

More and more, it’s what an organization does with whatever technology it has that makes the difference.

So, are you a large financial services or insurance organization? Odds are, you’re an IBM P8 shop (or will be shortly). Are you in heavy industry, especially energy? Odds are, you’re an OpenText shop (or will be shortly). Are you a Fortune 1000 firm? Odds are, you’ll have SharePoint for collaboration and dynamic desktop management with a more robust, “real” ECM system (IBM, Documentum or OpenText) in the background. 

And no matter what technology you have, the level of functional parity all the solutions have achieved means that it’s highly likely that your software sales rep’s skills and abilities will have a greater effect on your firm than whatever technology they happen to be selling.

Given all that, what makes a real difference in the success or failure of information management programs these days has more to do with how folks design, organize and operationalize the technology they have in place. For my money, specific technology has never been less relevant for information management than it is today. Just about every firm has at least one (if not multiple) solutions in every category and has been struggling to get value for many years. 

You will never find the silver bullet product. Instead, address the glaring, ever present people/process issues that, unless you solve them, will prevent you from leveraging technology properly.

Back to Basics

We all know that every firm is somewhat different in what they need from a people/process perspective to be successful with information management. But this short list covers what any firm should undertake in order to address the most important people/process information management challenges:

  • Data map – What do we have, where is it, who has ownership of it?
  • Unified compliance framework – What are the compliance requirements we’re subject to across the enterprise; how do we address them with policies, procedures and other controls; what are the gaps and overlaps in how we address them?
  • Defensible disposition protocol – What are the conditions under which we can purge data in accordance with legal, record keeping and operational requirements?
  • Information lifecycle definition – How do we want employees handling information from cradle to grave and on what systems/platforms?
  • Information architecture – How should our content be organized to facilitate optimal findability and more effective and efficient management?

Achieving results in these areas is much more important and will have greater benefits than selecting the “right” technology or trying to deploy it with the “right” solution architecture. More often than not, the focus on selecting and configuring the technology yields far fewer benefits than getting the people/process, blocking and tackling right.

The Final Word

There will always be those people who feel that the right technology makes all the difference — and I don’t entirely disagree. Good technology can contribute substantially to the success of an organization … if it’s used properly. But for me, I’d rather have C+ technology deployed in an A+ fashion than A+ technology deployed in a C+ fashion.

I've seen organizations using low fi, outdated or homegrown tools doing quite fine with their information management, thank you very much. And I've also seen organizations using (or trying to use) the latest and greatest tools struggling to not only get value, but simply to get them up and running. 

What has your experience been? Have you primarily addressed the technology for managing information or have you tackled the people/process tasks like those discussed above? Whatever your path, have you made progress or are you struggling? Do you agree that technology is less important than people/process factors for successful information management? Why or why not? Jump in, and let’s get the conversation started.

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