paper airplane over a city
By placing the focus back on the user experience, content services might just succeed where traditional content management failed PHOTO: StockSnap

I recently dove into building a content services platform. The project is refreshing because it allows me to combine a number of recent technical advancements into a single effort. 

The content services approach to solving the enterprise content management (ECM) challenge holds promise. Think of content services as the ECM world's equivalent of web content management’s headless CMS. Content services separates the information governance-riddled back end from the content delivery, providing application developers with APIs which allow them to renew their focus on the user experience.

The hope is we have enough lessons learned in the rearview mirror that we can make significant strides in implementing a functioning, reliable, content services platform.

Of course, it's never that easy.

The technology is being its predictable, frustrating self. For every hurdle cleared, another one pops up. That is to be expected, and eventually we will get to the end. The challenge, as always, is modeling the business. Serving one application is easy. Two applications that work together, pretty simple. But 10 to 20 applications, each with a different mindset on how they view client data? That’s complicated.

And fun.

Gotta Know the Business

The first thing you have to ask is, “What problem are you trying to solve?” If you are simply trying to centralize all your content, you have missed the point. The goal is to build a unified view for all content related to key business entities.

In the hotel business, this may be looking at the digital content for your Hilton Garden Inns, your hotels in Arlington, Va., or pictures taken at events held by your largest national clients. In the government, this could be a record of all submitted forms and documents and issued items.

These big-picture views have to be modeled while leaving the slices that represent specific applications intact. The events team members at a Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington will only want pictures from events at their location. The Hilton marketing department will more likely want to analyze pictures and contracts across all locales to determine what demographics to target next.

In many ways, it's like modeling a data warehouse. The difference is that the information is live and the storage requirements are larger.

Talk to the Innovators

Implementing a platform starts by creating a list of business initiatives that will capitalize on the services being offered. Two types of efforts will be on that list: One group is made up of existing programs that are hoping to build new user experiences without making changes to the underlying information infrastructure. The other are the new, innovative applications.

When people interact with government agencies in person at an office, they fill out forms and the forms get submitted after the supporting documentation has been verified. When they interact with agencies online, some people might begin a process but have to come back to finish later because they need to find, say, copies of their birth certificates or college transcripts.

In the in-person scenario, when the citizen submits a completed form, the transaction is immediately given a number. The online scenario poses a number of challenges, including:

  1. How do you track people who haven’t officially begun a process?
  2. How can a person leave the site and return to complete the transaction?
  3. How do you identify, and link, people who submit multiple requests?
  4. How do the answers to these questions work with legacy information structures?

People developing innovative systems begin by creating the answers to the first three questions. The challenge for them is building that unified model that answers the fourth question for all of the different applications in a transparent manner.

Plan, But Don’t Build it All

Understanding the needs of the broader organization takes a lot of planning. Keep in mind that I haven’t even talked about APIs yet. It is important not to dive in too deep from the get go, because you'll end up with a big project on your hands and it will take months to build anything. That is one of the mistakes people made with traditional enterprise content management (ECM) mindsets.

What is important is a conceptual understanding. We are building a logical model of the first few applications on our road map. More importantly, we have determined an approach to handle new applications that have a unique view of the world.

The joy of it all is that, thanks to cloud technology, we don’t have to architect the entire system. We have a scaling model and, as new applications come on board, we expand storage, server nodes and database capacity. The latter is traditionally the biggest challenge, but the Amazon Relational Database Service has us covered.

Always Be Moving

The key is being agile and working with a team made up of people who trust one another. As changes pop up, adjust and keep moving forward. The model and APIs aren’t built out all the way because we know things will change. We have built what we need to meet the initial requirements and are adjusting as we go.

This is definitely repeatable. This is definitely scalable, up or down. When I think about why we didn’t do this a decade ago, the answer is simple: The technology always got in the way, and nobody understood the need to focus on the user experience.

Now that we aren’t letting the content management platform get in the way, I think we may finally lick this content problem.