People critical for managing content

by Simon St. Laurent

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Jeff Veen has captured a painful bit of experience that too many enthusiastic managers, captivated by technology, often fail to see: "Turns out, after all the budget and time we spent, we really didn't need a content management system at all. We just needed some editors."

The urge to minimize human intervention has been a key driver in a lot of technology. In my experience, in a slightly different field, a lot of the worst aspects of XML technology and practice today derive from a studied effort to automate as much as possible, removing humans from the loop wherever it seems it might work. XML is treated as just a data format, something for computers to process, and the notions that humans might actually benefit from touching their data directly or creating their own custom structures are repressed. Enthusiasm for using markup and data structures to solve local (rather than utterly standardized) problems is seen as a problem, not as a solution.

At the content management level, similar problems come into play, whatever the underlying format of the data. Technology forces a choice between clarity (standardized workflows with predictable behavior) and flexibilty (open workflows with lots of options), losing the kinds of changeable interactions that are possible when humans talk directly. It's hard to build excitement about pouring information into a computer for it to be reprocessed somewhere else in the company. By replacing expensive humans with supposedly cheaper computers, these systems tend to create new costs.

Veen's core suggestion makes sense:

Content management is not a technology problem. If you're having trouble managing the content on your Web site, it's because you have an editorial process problem. Your public-facing Web site is a publication. Treat it like one.

Solve publishing problems with people whose job it is to create great content, not technology that hopes to extract content from people along the way. Get an active group of people who care about the problem, not a filtering system that hopes to extract and maybe polish content from people whose focus is likely elsewhere. Expect technology to serve as a useful adjunct to a successful project, not as the heart of the project itself.

(Thanks to Dorothea Salo for posting on this.)

How much do people matter?