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Why ECM Strategies Are Not Good Enough For Modern Digital Asset Management And What ECM Interests Should Be Doing About It

by Ralph Windsor on October 24, 2013

This month, CMSWire have been running various articles on whether there is still a need for DAM. The subject title is no doubt deliberately provocative and intended to get participating authors to think about the DAM in a bit more detail and challenge a few of the common assumptions held both within and outside the sector.

There have been a few interesting articles, one from Tuesday by DAMMY award winner, David Diamond that we will to cover in more detail another day, but on Monday, there was also this by Laurence Hart, Content Management Strategist at Alfresco: Are Content Management Systems Good Enough for Digital Asset Management?

I have read a number of Laurence’s other articles, follow his @piewords Twitter feed and can generally go along with a lot of what he says. I am not so sure about his opinion on DAM, however and I think his article summarises many of the reasons why the ECM market has missed a trick with DAM – and continues to do so.

So what exactly is wrong? If there is one characteristic, it is probably his somewhat blasé assessment of DAM user’s requirements which permeates the article and seems reminiscent of what ECM vendors were saying about DAM a decade ago.  I an not sure if that is the intention (probably is not) but that is how it comes across to me. Laurence seems to acknowledge this for WCM, but not DAM:

A decade ago, the industry was vigorously pursuing the Holy Grail of enterprise content management (ECM). The basic premise: one content repository to serve as the home for all content within an organization. We now know this approach doesn’t work for web content management (WCM) systems because they have very specialized requirements and need to evolve quickly to keep up with technology…These characteristics don’t apply to most digital asset management (DAM) needs, yet people are still struggling with their DAM requirements.” [Read More]

Laurence is right on the first point and wrong on the second. People are still struggling with DAM requirements, especially those trying (and failing) to get their ECM suites to handle DAM with any degree of success.

Anyone who has a practical, implementation oriented role in the delivery of DAM initiatives for larger organisations (whether on the client or vendor side) finds out after just a few sessions with users that to ensure DAM solutions don’t end up being wasteful failures, you have to deal with some highly specialised requirements and you cannot generalise from one organisation to another about what exactly they might be.

As I have described previously (in my own CMSWire piece in this series) there are multiple tiers of stakeholders in DAM and they all need to be kept on-side to make it work. If you don’t provide tools to allow asset suppliers to deal ever-increasing ingestion needs, they just won’t provide any digital assets for anyone to download. If the system isn’t easy enough for the casual users to turn up, get what they want and go, then it will be a well-stocked ghost town; if doesn’t integrate with other applications then the DAM becomes an uninhabited island that people will swiftly migrate away from (if they ever turned up at all).

Further on, Laurence says this:

When trying to decide whether to go with a pure play DAM system versus a content management system (CMS) platform, ask yourself if rich media like video, audio and image files is your business or just part of doing business.” [Read More]

and also:

There are two types of organizations that use rich media: those whose core businesses involve collecting, developing and delivering rich media, like news channels, entertainment companies and advertising agencies, and then there is everyone else.” [Read More]

With all respect to Laurence, this perspective is out of date. What he has failed to acknowledge is the role digital capture and origination devices have played in the growth of DAM. Where before you needed to hire in freelance photographers, video production companies and a whole gamut of creative media pros to generate content, now people can do it themselves with all manner of cheap and readily available commodity devices. Granted, the results are often less than perfect but they are frequently deemed good enough for at least internal use in presentations, company magazines, internal comms programmes etc.

Those who have spent a modest amount of time learning to get better quality results out of digital still or video cameras can generate stock footage which is of near commercial quality (or even as good as in some cases). This has in turn had a dramatic effect on the supply to the stock media industry with a corresponding collapse in the price of media assets. Ten years ago you might have paid around $50 for average royalty free stock images, now it’s more like pence (and even a decade ago photographers were complaining about rapidly declining revenues and the demise of the premium rights protected image market).

Cheap and easy to originate media assets means that organisations have more of them in circulation then they ever did before. The volumes they have to contend with are heading north at an exponential rate – which is where the demand for DAM stems from. The implication is that the line between traditional media organisations and other corporations has become blurred. When I liaise with clients who want to implement DAM, what a lot of them appear to want to do is effectively in-source their stock media library. Rather than constantly losing stuff they have already commissioned, originated themselves or bought in, they want to keep it in a centralised library and cross-reference it with the rest of their business operations (whether marketing or otherwise). That sounds quite a lot like how a more conventional media business might have traditionally operated – probably because it is becoming increasingly exactly like that for many organisations.

Laurence follows up with this:

When you look at the average DAM system out there, it is loaded with features. Alfresco wouldn’t use most of those features, regardless of how cool they are. They aren’t required to get the job done. In addition, by using an external system, there is just one more application that has to be managed and learned by staff.” [Read More]

He is correct that most DAM users don’t end up using most of the features of the products they have bought, however, in nearly all cases, there are probably a small subset of specialist capabilities which they absolutely do depend on and this points at one of several reasons why the DAM market is now so structurally inefficient. DAM vendors have tens or even hundreds of these special cases and they have to maintain all of them along with conventional common core functionality as well, usually within a single codebase.

You could argue that these suggest the need for specialist applications, but this is the point which is missed in the article. The nature of the way that the market for DAM systems has developed over time illustrates why vendors ended up filling out their products with a lot of features that do not get used by everyone but are still needed by a sufficient number to justify continuing to offer and support them.

Ten years ago, my employer was still actively involved in the DAM system trade and at that time we had our own product (which was subsequently sold off).  We did good business providing Digital Asset Management solutions for various specialist interests within various large corporations and a lot of the demand came from the failure of ECM solutions to address the needs of a group of users whose knowledge of their organisation’s media assets subsequently acquired far greater importance than they were originally given credit for.

Someone (usually the IT department) had typically invested a small fortune in a large-scale ECM solution that was designed to solve all content management problems once and for all. As well as licensing fees, a big portion of the (not inconsiderable) costs were professional services fees to have a bunch of engineers come in and just get it all working. A lot of the finer points about whether it really answered anyone’s needs or not were set aside as long as ‘the basics’ were covered. At the time, Digital Asset Management was considered by many ECM stakeholders to be the preserve of photo or video librarians and therefore some obscure niche that might make a bit of noise, but was essentially irrelevant to the ‘bigger picture’.

These same end users started calling DAM vendors (such as my employer). We found we could earn a reasonable living providing solutions that properly answered the specialist needs of this type of client – which their wider ECM strategy had failed to do. Because they were usually big companies with well known brand names, we bent over backwards to make sure we delivered products that would fill the void left for them by ECM solutions. If that meant highly embroidered functionality which precisely modelled all their esoteric business processes and internal politics, so be it. I talk to a lot of other DAM vendors as part of the consulting work my firm is involved in now, and nearly all of them who were operating at around at the same time did exactly the same and for an identical set of reasons.

This blind-spot in the ECM market’s strategic world view has combined with the aforementioned tsunami of digital content and left DAM stakeholders looking to grab hold of any kind of solution (suitable or otherwise) to get themselves to higher ground. So where previously, rich media might have been some niche preserve that was semi-detached from the marketing communications department, now it is integral and used extensively in practically every aspect of the business. Metaphorically speaking, corporations are up to their necks in digital assets and swimming around for any solution on offer.

The last point from Laurence’s article shows the fundamental difference in our two perspectives:

If our collective experience in this industry has taught us anything, it is that no single answer applies to everyone. When choosing a direction, don’t focus on the flash. Focus on what you actually need and make sure it is usable.” [Read More]

I actually agree with the first half of his analysis, especially the title ‘No One Answer’ (assuming that isn’t an instruction). Where we diverge, is that I don’t think the problem of excess complexity is achieved by over-rationalising user requirements, this suggests a re-hash of the same decade-old ECM strategy that wound up generating a demand for more flexible and dedicated Digital Asset Management solutions in the first place. This is like asking users to sew shirt buttons with knitting needles and then wondering why they’re all going out and buying sewing kits.

The answer to this problem is more specialisation and improved interoperability. Rather than DAM vendors being required to build these great artifices of software engineering complexity, what should be happening is more modular architectures that support precise targeting of specific user requirements, possibly (even probably) by combining one or more solutions rather than single sourcing from a sole vendor.

Many of the ECM platforms I have seen appear to have a confused attitude towards Digital Asset Management. On the one hand, they know that users need it and are asking for solutions, on the other they appear disinclined to get themselves embroiled into the work involved in answering those same needs for fear of the excessive amount of detail which a more specialist DAM vendor is prepared to engage with.

Managing expectations might be useful as a temporary strategy to get through the initial stages of an implementation exercise, but ultimately, if you keep playing that card, people just assume you can’t deliver and look for alternatives. That is what has happened with ECM and DAM and the ECM interests associated with DAM need to re-evaluate their role rather than trying to tell users they don’t need comprehensive DAM solutions.

Where ECM should be positioned in DAM is providing the interoperability and communications infrastructure to enable DAM vendors to build facilities upon so they can leave a lot of the more rudimentary wheel re-invention tasks and concentrate on innovative solutions that directly address user’s needs for increased sophistication and flexibility from their DAM solutions. This does imply a certain degree of lost control on the part of the ECM operators, but my expectation is many might now trade that off for the potential to own an underlying platform that can support these rapidly fragmenting and diversifying range of end user needs.

Earlier this month, I discussed moves initiated by OASIS to develop a simplified CMIS standard which could be rapidly implemented in DAM that could connect with Linked Data, asset registries (such as PLUS) and embedded metadata. I am aware that Alfresco are closely involved with CMIS (indeed, Ray Gauss who works for them was on the call made some very cogent points which I fully agree with). Rather than offering prospective users the ‘not made here’ excuse that IT people have become infamous for, it might be a good time for ECM people to re-evaluate their strategies to what they regard as niche solutions like DAM and explore the potential for a value chain oriented model that directly answers end user’s needs instead.

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