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Attributes of Effective DAM Consultants – Experience

This feature article was written by Ralph Windsor, DAM News editor and Project Director of DAM consultants, Daydream.

Recently, a client asked me to help them establish their own in-house DAM consulting operation to advise staff who were planning DAM initiatives.  My firm is involved in a number of knowledge transfer projects and they make good sense for those organisations who expect to be carrying out an increasing amount of Digital Asset Management activities in the future.  The process of developing the learning materials gave me the inspiration to write a series of educational articles for DAM News on the topic of what makes an effective Digital Asset Management consultant.

All of the factors I will discuss are equally relevant to organisations who may wish to hire an external consultant rather than necessarily build up their own internal expert resource.  Similarly, even if your primary business is selling systems rather than consulting, DAM technology is a ‘considered purchase’ sales process which still requires a consulting-oriented approach where a deep understanding of customer problems is of paramount importance.  As such, DAM vendors may also find this series of potential benefit.

Experience

The first (and I would argue, most important) attribute of a successful DAM consultant is experience.  Without having had prior direct exposure to the issues associated with DAM initiatives by being involved in them over an extended period, it is difficult to see how someone can offer advice to anyone else.  This might seems like an obvious point, however, I do encounter some consultants who don’t appear to have much tangible experience and whose knowledge is based on what they have read in books, articles etc.  This is analogous to learning to swim by reading a textbook; you might know roughly what to expect when you get into the water, but the reality will feel quite a lot different at the point you have to get your feet wet.

The range of their experience and how the consultant has acquired it are also important.  Digital Asset Management projects are multi-disciplinary in-nature and require a diverse range of skills; the nature of the consulting work involved is far more varied than many might imagine.  DAM consultants need experience across four major areas:

  • Technical experience
  • Implementation experience
  • Operational experience
  • Strategic experience

There is a certain amount of crossover between the above distinctions, however, I will endeavour to provide an outline of each of them below.

Technical Experience

Having technical experience of the issues associated with DAM means more than just knowing the capabilities of a given system (i.e. feature lists etc) but what techniques have been used to assemble and integrate the underlying components.  This is essential to understand why one platform is possibly superior to another.  There are some transferable skills from related fields like Web Content Management, however, more demanding topics like scalable media processing infrastructure or implementing metadata models using different types of database (and the implications of each) require the consultant to have experienced these issues themselves, first-hand in a specifically DAM-related context.

There are a number of reasons why proven experience in this area is important, here are a few of them:

  • To properly assess a vendor’s claim about the capabilities of their solution during selection exercises.
  • To understand the implications of technical decisions on the DAM platform’s security, scalability, performance and interoperability in the context of the vendor’s delivery model (cloud, hybrid, multi-tenant etc).
  • To help the vendor identify and resolve technical problems or limitations so the client can achieve their objectives.
  • Assist clients and system vendors with integration issues (this activity is often as much about politics as it is technical issues)
  • Investigate a more efficient systems architecture which could help the client to reduce their cost or risk.

Many DAM consultants who specialise in technical subjects have worked as product managers for vendors, but there are a number of DAM integrators or IT personnel from the client-side who also operate in this field.  At a minimum, experience of troubleshooting complex issues with a DAM that has been deployed is necessary to support a credible consulting offer.

Implementation Experience

Implementation experience refers to having taken a product platform through the analysis, configuration and rollout stages in a typical DAM initiative.  It also encompasses adoption and change management as well as all the other activities necessary to transform an idea into a working solution.  Systems are what DAM users buy, solutions are what they end up with, good or bad.  Consultants require experience of what that journey might entail to ensure the solution that is delivered is the best one possible.  These kind of implementation considerations are typical:

  • Assessing vendor delivery models and the risks/benefits of using in-house personnel vs professional services channel partners.
  • Reviewing specifications of configuration choices and identifying what the implications will be.
  • Integration planning: dealing with both technical and political challenges associated with getting DAM solutions to interface data (whether metadata or asset essences) with a related solution in-use by the business.
  • Documentation of configuration decisions and defining user acceptance criteria.
  • Devising risk management strategies, schedules of risks and mitigation techniques
  • Quality management: defining acceptable levels of quality across the solution and what metrics will be used to assess these.
  • Adoption: how to get users to take up the DAM.  This is possibly the most difficult problem in any DAM implementation project.  Consultants need to know how to help their clients solve it or the investment in DAM will not yield any benefits.
  • Developing change management plan and liaising with the vendor and client to generate training and internal communications materials.

The above list is far from comprehensive.  DAM implementation requires the management of a large quantity of information and those responsible for it must be able to identify what is important (and when).  DAM consultants need a thorough grounding in project management principles and preferably at least knowledge of one or more formal project management methodologies.  The risk management element of implementation, in particular can make or break DAM implementation projects.

Operational Experience

DAM operations, or more simply, using a DAM to manage digital assets is overlooked by too many consultants.  I do not believe it is possible to properly advise clients, however, unless you have been actively involved with managing a catalogue of digital assets, including handling many of the issues associated with this activity, for example:

  • Devising cataloguing procedures and quality metrics for ensuring they are relevant.
  • Managing metadata and keeping taxonomies updated and reflecting the needs of users.
  • Training new and existing users.
  • Batch loading assets, data cleansing and dealing with data manipulation and transformation.
  • Enforcing quality standards and chasing up those who want to use the DAM like a dumping ground (or not use it all).
  • Applying brand and/or higher level policy decisions to a collection of assets (e.g. ensuring that there is nothing showing old logos or practices that contravene health and safety regulations).
  • Liaising with vendor support and account management personnel.
  • Lobbying vendors or identifying workarounds for missing or incomplete functionality.

Dealing with the daily onslaught of snags and square pegs that need to fit round holes is a fact of life for most human digital asset managers, the flow of problems is relentless in-nature.  This is an aspect of DAM activity where there tends to be fewer volunteers for than there are for most of the others.  The nature of the task is more intellectually demanding than is often understood and it can frequently be repetitive, so perceived as dull. This is the summation of the process, however and where most of the value in an organisation’s digital assets will be created (or destroyed if the task is not handled with care and skill).

In some organisations, the term ‘DAM champion’ gets used to represent this role.  That is reasonable, but the underlying reason why this person is a ‘champion’ is because they will be doing the majority of the hard work of making a DAM deliver its ROI.  Vendors are keen to highlight the ROI of their solutions, but the reality is that it is DAM operations, i.e. using the DAM which is what delivers the ROI (or not if no one actually uses it).  Unless you have had experience of managing digital asset libraries and constantly optimising their value to an organisation, your ability to understand the nature of the issues properly will be impaired and so will the advice you can offer to clients, as a result.

Strategic Experience

As some more cynical readers might expect, many consultants are more eager to strategize about DAM because it is often viewed as an easier and more interesting type of activity than the earlier points.  Offering good DAM strategic advice, however, is far more demanding and risky than many imagine due to the exponential nature of Digital Asset Management where the effect of even small changes are magnified over a longer period of time.

To offer one example: devising a metadata cataloguing strategy that necessitates adding an extra step to a process might require a far greater amount of staff time and therefore, cost the business a substantial amount of money.  On the other hand, leaving the stage out could expose the organisation to potential litigation risks as a result of assets not being checked properly and that might be even more costly.  Which is right?  There is no absolute right or wrong answer, however, there certainly are positive and negative consequences that result.  DAM consultants who have experience of these kind of strategic decisions are better placed to apply the knowledge acquired as a result to similar scenarios.

Another strategic decision might be whether to deploy an enterprise DAM or federate this out to a looser interconnected collection of departmental solutions.  The former allows enterprise-wide DAM standards to be applied, but risks being not sufficiently relevant to a large section of the users, who do not adopt the DAM as a result.  The latter enables each group of users to adapt their individual DAMs more precisely to user needs which encourages greater adoption, but there may also be duplicated cost, incompatibility issues and confusion about which DAM to use for what task.  Again, there is no definitive right or wrong answer about which route to take and the role of the consultant is to lay out the full implications of either option and highlight as many of the implications as possible to help their clients make informed decisions.

Consultants who claim DAM strategy as one of their offerings need to have experienced these kind of complex strategic trade-offs.  To an extent (and this might be viewed as a controversial attribute by some) it is only having made some strategic DAM mistakes in the past and then having had to remain in-place to resolve them that can genuinely give you the kind of experience that allows you to advise other people on how to avoid them.  A lot of the DAM strategy I hear offered by inexperienced consultants is based on consensus (i.e. saying what you think everyone will agree with) or secondhand expertise.  Not having your own opinion is risky for consultants because everyone else can (and often will) change their minds later about a prior decision if there is a problem, so you need to be able to both rationalise your recommendations and support them with evidence from multiple sources.

Which factor is most important?

As many readers might imagine, there isn’t a single answer as to which of the previously described areas of experience is the one which consultants should possess above all others.  Arguably, the operational aspect (i.e. direct experience of using DAMs) is probably the most critical since it takes the longest to acquire and all the consequences of the strategic, technical or implementation decisions will gradually reveal themselves when the DAM solution gets used in a real world scenario.

Ironically (as is often the case in DAM) it tends to be the lowest valued also.  I know a number of people who had operational roles with job titles like ‘archivist’ ‘digital asset manager’ etc who have switched to technical positions because these are better paid and perceived as more difficult to fill (even though the reality is usually the opposite).  Taken as a whole, however, you need to have across the board experience in all the four key areas discussed to present yourself as a credible DAM consultant, especially if you plan to charge clients hard cash for your services.

DAM consulting sounds hard, do I really need to have all this experience?

It sounds hard because it really is.  DAM consulting is learning-intensive, demands continuous personal development and constantly honing your skillset across a wide range of disciplines.  Anyone looking for a low-stress and easy money professional niche who thinks Digital Asset Management consulting might be a possible option should think again (certainly if they plan to do this over the longer term).

For those who haven’t changed their career plans after reading this article, getting into a situation where you can acquire the necessary experience to fill these gaps is not always straightforward.  To partly offset this issue, one approach is to partner up with other people who can offer complementary skills.  With consulting, this is easier to achieve than some more hands-on activities like software development where you might not find out you can’t work with a third party until both of you have invested a lot of time, effort and money first.

In more established consulting businesses, different staff can fulfil certain specialist roles, however, my own opinion is that everyone should be required to understand what everyone else does.  There shouldn’t be scenarios where consultants are using excuses like ‘this isn’t something I know much about’ etc as a lead-up to passing the buck to someone else.  As a side-point, I would also make the same observation about DAM vendors, those firms where everyone knows more about the challenges that are faced by their colleagues with different roles to play tend to produce more cohesive products that are superior to those of their competitors.

Fundamentally, I believe there is no substitute for getting the experience yourself (even if you have to improvise or get creative to do so).  DAM consultants need a proper grasp of all aspects of delivering and running effective digital asset operations.  They can only obtain that via both personal experience of facing many different kinds of Digital Asset Management related problems and then having to successfully solve them.

In the next article I will describe why it is essential to use a DAM consultant who is prepared to get involved with projects at any stage from project to service delivery (and all points in-between).  In the meantime, if you have opinions about the points I have raised in this piece, feel free to comment below.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Annella Mendoza September 2, 2018 at 12:22 am

All true! Also would like to add the DAM community of users the consultant is part of. It’s important for the consultant to recognize how these users perceive the DAM (i.e. repository, content hub, etc). The consultant likely knows more and should take the lead in presenting maximized use of the DAM. Thank you for this article, Ralph.

Jennifer Tyner September 5, 2018 at 3:08 pm

Another great read from Ralph! Depending on how many assets your organization has, you may have a DAM team consisting of more than 1-2 people who collectively possess all of these skills. It can be very difficult to find just one individual who possesses them all. Those of us in DAM who have been called “data entry specialists” should share this article!

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