Content management: It's not all it's cracked up to be

Forget everything you've read about content management. So far, the focus has been on getting information in front of people--but not the right information. So what's the key to effective CM? An understanding of how CM should serve knowledge management.

By George Ball

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems you're bombarded with multiple articles about content management. But if you ask me, they are not all they're cracked up to be, because almost all of them start from the wrong place: an erroneous assumption about why you should spend time and money on content management.
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According to research by IDC, knowledge workers spend up to 50 percent of their time looking for information, leaving them with what time is left to make use of this information.

In the current economic climate, companies are requiring everyone to do more with less; reducing the time it takes for workers to gain access to answers is now even more mission-critical. But content management, as it currently manifests itself, doesn't help to alleviate this problem one bit, because its focus is typically only on getting more information in front of people, and not necessarily the right information.

I'll discuss what content is—both from a content management perspective and from a knowledge management (KM) viewpoint—and I'll tell you why you must look at content as it relates to KM to reap the true business benefit from your organization's information.

What is content?
Maybe we need to back up a bit and examine what content is. The broadest possible definition (and the one used by most Web-meisters and content managers) includes just about any digital representation of information—text, graphics, pictures, data, source code, HTML pages, XML pages, etc.—typically anything that is just shy of being a formal "document."

Documents include books, reports, papers, records, contracts, applications, claim forms, invoices, etc. If they are electronically "managed" at all, it is usually in a manner quite different from content management.

Content management, in a nutshell, is an electronic publishing process; it is about eliminating online publishing bottlenecks and optimizing the reuse of media. Content management has very little to do with determining the quality or efficacy of a piece of media or the information presented.

Knowledge management (and document management), on the other hand, is more about determining the quality and efficacy of larger, more formal pieces of content—content that is a combination of media and typically has a more concrete business purpose than does plain information. Document management addresses the production and maintenance of those pieces of content that are large and complex combinations of data and information (i.e., documents).

Now let me give you the knowledge management viewpoint on content. Content is much more than data or information; it is knowledge that has been codified—an investment has been made to make it explicit—so that it can be more easily distributed and reused for a specific business purpose by a targeted audience.

This knowledge can take many forms, including all of those mentioned above, and the investment may be large or small, but it's not worth much unless people are actively doing something with it in the pursuit of one or more business objectives (whereas many documents are just maintained for historical, audit, or regulatory purposes).

The knowledge "food chain"

Take a look at Figure A above. Data is the digital representation of facts, and information is data with sufficient context (which are just more facts) to make it potentially useful. Knowledge is information with enough intelligence—e.g., its relationship to other pieces of information is understood—to make it insightful and actionable. Content then becomes knowledge that has been codified and packaged (made explicit) so that it is easily delivered wherever and whenever it is needed.

So from a KM perspective, the real question for content managers is not "What content do I have?" but "What content do I need?" You can then work your way back down the food chain to develop that content as efficiently as possible, in a way that will be cost effective to maintain and distribute.

Only then should you worry about the specific media you will have to organize, catalog, warehouse, package, and present for the purpose of content delivery, and the tools you'll need to do so.

Most businesses need to be good at both content management and knowledge management. Most businesses probably already have some content management going on (for their external Web site, intranet, etc.) but aren't doing any formal knowledge management.

In fact, most of the content being managed is either for external use (i.e., for customers) or is for general internal consumption. In either case, the content is typically not linked directly to the execution of a business process, except maybe in the case of online product catalogs.

But once you commit to doing real knowledge management—delivering content that has a direct impact on the execution of all of your key business processes—don't let the content managers continue to dictate the rules of engagement for the functions that are involved in both processes, because KM is now the higher-order business process, even though content is the output of that process and is at the top of the knowledge food chain.

Bottom line: If you want your content management to be all it's cracked up to be, it must serve the higher purpose of knowledge management. Otherwise, you're just moving a lot of ones and zeros through the ether at very high speed, with very little business value to show for it.

George Ball is the subject matter expert for the knowledge management department on

This article was originally published on gantthead on July 18, 2001.

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Related downloads:
"Content Management and Knowledge Management Presentation" "Knowledge Management and Intranet User Development Strategy" "A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Important KM Models and Frameworks" Related content: Knowledge Management Department "Take Control: Show Content Who's Boss" by Geoff Choo "Behind the Web Site: Effectively Managing Content" by Geoff Choo Items in bold are available only to gantthead premium members.


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