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Do Content People Make Good E2.0 People?

I was asked a question over dinner the other day – “So how did you get into this social media and E2.0 stuff.”  First of all I was a little surprised I was asked the question at all. I am a content guy. I don’t remember exactly what I said in response. I just strung a few random things about right place and right time together and tried to change the subject. The fact is I have no idea. It just sorta happened.

The question got me thinking, where were all of the E2.0 visionaries two years ago. As new technologies emerge so do experts. And pundits. And analysts. And critics. Seemingly out of thin air.They didn’t just disembark from the mother ship at the same time. (or maybe they did) They were all doing something else before.

Note: For the sake of the discussion – we will simply define E2.o as the application of social media features and design to enterprise business software and processes – there are other dimensions but those are not the focus here.


In technology we are often forced to reinvent ourselves as the language, tools or techniques we have profited from fall out of favor. I’ve noticed that there is no small number of ECM professionals rushing to update their profiles with “social media”  and E2.0 references. A certain amount of this is just good advertising but approaching the question from the point of view of  the consumer – if I were in the market for good advice in E2.0 exactly what kind of background would serve my interests best?

A history in ECM might seem to bring the sort of skills and thinking social media needs to be successful in the enterprise but I am not convinced. Put simply – ECM people have control issues. I had an argument several years ago with a colleague that Facebook and MySpace were really just content management applications.  I said these are simple file sharing apps with a minimal  user managed security model and basic content editing features. The kind of thing we’d been doing in Lotus, Documentum and Open Text for years.

I was mercilessly abused for the idea. How does this support business processes? How can business rules be enforced? Where is audit trail? Where is the reporting? Where are the controls?  I wasn’t necessarily arguing we should replace tech pubs systems with this type of approach. But I wasn’t ruling it out forever either.

Back To The Future

Fast forward several years and I realize that a variation on that last question – “where are the controls ” was really the point. The issue isn’t where. It is who. Who is in control? Is it IT, legal , risk management, corporate compliance, marketing, etc.

While the technical requirements for the majority of features in social media applications are fundamentally identical to ECM, the motivations and more importantly the benefits are not.  What do ECM people do – they “manage” content. I do not believe E2.0 is about managing the enterprise. It is about facilitating connections and the benefits derived from the connectivity rather than from any managed asset or process.

As professional ECM practitioners we bristle at the thought of pointless content. All content has value. Every ECM cost justification I have read for the last fifteen years has tried to attach a monetary value on documents – and the cost of loosing them. For the vast majority of documents produced in most companies today I would argue the actual value of it is exactly $0.

It is self-servingly ingrained in us that all documents have value and are potentially reusable. Add to that every file has the potential for becoming a record. Someone some day may need the agenda for the planning meeting from Fred’s retirement party because he might use it as evidence in his age discrimination suit. Therefore you must keep everything until our carefully crafted (and expensive to manage) file plan determines it to be a liability.

The equally self-serving argument of Google to save everything forever and just use search to filter out the useless is just as problematic because it does not consider that the former argument is actually valid even if impractical or unlikely in many circumstances.

The reality is that all content costs something to produce but that often its value is in the act of creation not retention. Sometimes the real value of creating a document is what you learned and shared with a colleague while creating it. That connection ultimately has tremendous potential. This is potential that E2.0 and social media features can unlock but I doubt is is something that can ever truly be “managed.” (see a why people dread collaboration )

All the world’s a stage

A managed social interaction is a little more than a theatrical performance and while art may imitate life it does not create it. In E2.0 applications the user not the business has to have control over or at least the ability to prioritize connections. Consequently the approach does not necessarily begin with a business case or even a quantifiable need. It begins with a desire of one user to connect to another for reasons the business can rarely if ever predict.

This is not to say that managing content does not have value and I am not advocating content anarchy. Simply that the ways in which we enforce the business rules required to maintain corporate integrity and history do not necessarily have to propogate to every interaction between people – even when content is involved.

Those with ECM backgrounds need to recognize the value of the connection over the content if they want to grow to be good E2.0 people.  It isn’t easy to arrive at a healthy balance of mature corporate governance and rich personal interaction but it is possible. Many have been very successful redefining their careers into just such an E2.0 mindset. From a technical perspective content expertise is cearly valuable but realize that backgrounds in other disciplines may have an advantage.

So what do you think? Despite the fact that someone may claim to be a “thought leader” in social media they didn’t have that job five (or even 2) years ago. What background would best serve a customer seeking E2.0 advice?

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