Whatever buzzword you use — Information Management, Enterprise Content Management, Document Management, Records Management, Records and Information Management, Information Lifecycle Management — it's clear that most organizations aren't getting the value they expected (or paid for) from their efforts. 

And yet the more I work with firms, the more I realize that success, at least the first wave of it, is beyond simple. Companies think it's about automating knowledge worker processes or advanced case management, or predictive analytics or big data, or about bringing the power and capabilities of consumer social media to the enterprise. 

It's none of these. Instead it comes down to helping users find their core documents and cleaning up the junk that makes that difficult.

Easier said than done, right? And while every firm is different and requires a different approach to moving the information management needle, we can make some generalizations about what a keep it simple, first wave of success looks like, how to get there, and what typically holds firms back from doing so.

How Do You Define Information Management Success?

For me, information management success comes down to two words: improved findability. 

Yes, automation of document-centric processes eventually comes in to play, as well as other things like enabling more robust document collaboration, structured authoring and publishing, etc. But at its heart, information management has to make it easier for end users to find documents.

And the easiest, most fundamental way to improve findability is to provide a better bucket: a repository that allows documents to be tagged with metadata and enforces check in and check out, version control and other basic document management controls. 

Workflow, social collaboration and other typical information management bells and whistles — while great in theory — add little value to end users if they can’t find the documents they need. The surest path to success is to focus on delivering a better bucket and leaving more advanced capabilities for a future phase (if your end users even require them). 

Improving Findability

So how do you deliver a better bucket? First, pick the right bucket. 

Think about the bucket you're replacing or improving. If you already deploy an enterprise content management system, like a FileNet, OpenText or Documentum, you typically have everything you need to build a better bucket. The focus then is on how to improve findability through simpler, more effective metadata and (often) the stripping away of features and functionality that users don't need.

If your shared drives or email serve as your primary document management system, then SharePoint might provide a better bucket. SharePoint offers lower overhead in terms of development, has a familiar interface (Windows), and offers the core document management capabilities required to improve findability, without much of the advanced functionality that can get in the way.

Once you have your bucket, you need to define your metadata, because the tags you put on your documents will contribute in large part to their findability. There's no one size fits all metadata list, but in general, your approach to metadata should be “just enough, no more, no less” (a.k.a. the Goldilocks’ Principle). 

Too little metadata, and you won't have the fields you need to find documents; too much, and it overburdens the system and end users, leading to defection and poor metadata quality … and ultimately — you guessed it — poor findability. 

In my experience, 8–10 fields per function or process area of metadata suffice on a global level and from 3–5 fields at a local.

Once your metadata is set, you need to move documents into the new and improved bucket. Your job is fairly easy if this means only day forward: just get folks to use the system for their documents. Including legacy documents as well complicates matters, as you’ll need to clean up any documents — removing junk and outdated files and classifying valuable files — before moving them over.

Information Management Roadblocks 

Sound easy? A number of roadblocks make the path to success difficult and risky.

Lack of ownership of and consensus about information management cause the most significant roadblocks. 

One option is that there’s one owner, but the ownership is informal and comes with little authority to make decisions. This is sometimes called responsibility without authority — and it sucks. 

Another option is that many people believe they own information management and therefore should drive the decisions. IT builds out a collaboration platform, for example, while at the same time, multiple business units procure collaboration capabilities through SaaS providers, while Legal considers matter management software that provides collaboration capabilities out-of-the-box, and on top of it all, Sales turns on Chatter for Salesforce. 

And there's always the complete lack of ownership of information management. No one claims responsibility, and so the decisions required either don't happen or happen by default (by choosing not to decide, you still have made a choice).

Organizational culture provides a close second in the roadblocks pageant. No matter how crappy their current document management option is, they’re used to it, and so even if you build a better bucket, it’s a different bucket, and different is hard for folks. Expect resistance to change.

Bad relationships between IT and the wider organization offers yet another roadblock. Not only can this prevent IT from being able to deliver a better bucket, but the memory of failed past projects (“we had SharePoint, and it was terrible,” etc.) can exacerbate the resistance to change naturally found at organizations. 

No matter which of these roadblocks (or others) you might face, it results in a much harder time delivering that better bucket. Don’t underestimate the value in defining the roadblocks you face and creating a plan to address them.

Just Remember: Achievable Goals

Because this is a blog post, I’ve made successful information management much simpler than it really is. But most of the time we make it much harder. 

If you focus on delivering a better bucket that allows users to find their documents more effectively, you’ll find that success comes much more readily than if you try to deliver information management on Mars — with all the latest bells and whistles the vendors have cooked up in their labs. Try it and see what happens.

Title image by Jose Martin