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Re-Visiting Pure and Applied Digital Asset Management

Last month, Scott Smith wrote an article A DAM Industry: “What Should We Call This Damn Industry?”  where he argues the term ‘Digital Asset Management’ should be ‘retired’ and replaced with something else:

Digital asset management (Content) has never been a good term. It offers more confusion than clarity.  I found myself using  it less and less when discussing content management solutions, focusing more on what my employers and clients hoped to accomplish…A few years ago, an impassioned DAM  discussion, that began on a Linkedin group, spilled out into the streets (actually a public-facing web site). Professions offered compelling reasons  to drop, and to keep,  the damn “DAM.” [Read More]

Much of Scott’s article is reprising a debate that we had on DAM News several years ago in 2017 (and is the public facing website mentioned in the quote above).  The definition of Digital Asset Management he refers to was, coincidentally, also written by myself in 2006.  The origin of the DAM glossary at damglossary.org, including the term ‘Digital Asset Management’, can be found in this article and was a response to a CMSWire piece by Henrik de Gyor in 2013 about DAM glossaries.

This is what I wrote back in 2013:

Many have contemplated replacing the term Digital Asset Management with something else, especially with the unfortunate three letter acronym it carries around (which seems to be an on-going joke that successive generations never get bored of). Even with all the disadvantages I have described, I still think it’s the best description because the asset reference makes it clear that the process and objective of DAM is to add value to raw materials like digital files (or binary data if you want to get even more fundamental). Digital Asset Management is all about making media more useful and valuable to a wider cross section of end users – so the term still makes sense to me as that is the shared objective of everyone involved in the DAM market” [Read More]

DAM, You Are So Funny

I find the topic of jokes about the acronym ‘DAM’ to be quite boring now and I frankly don’t care if people still find them worthy of comment.  I have observed that the duration someone finds the word ‘DAM’ entertaining can be inversely proportional to the value they may bring to a discussion about Digital Asset Management.  It is, at best, a minor distraction in the same way that a foreign language word might have a more vulgar meaning in your own dialect.

While at secondary school, I had a metalwork teacher who once introduced the class to ‘the bastard file‘.  He instructed all of us to laugh about it for the next minute and then to not do so ever again.  This tactic actually worked.  To this day, I still do not find hearing about bastard files a source of mirth and amusement.  So how about everyone reading this laughs about the fact the term ‘DAM’ can be phonetically confused with ‘damn’ for a minute and then doesn’t ever do it again?

Selling Stuff vs Semantic Accuracy

In the same way the discussion about the three letter acronym has occupied way too much time and attention, I am reaching the same conclusion about the debate over whether we should all switch to ‘content management’.  Until someone provides me with a plausible reason why ‘Digital Asset Management’ is not a semantically accurate description of the activity we are involved in, I am not going to cease using it.

To date, no one has.  The reason is because the argument is predicated on whether you practice Digital Asset Management or have to sell it to someone.  I will acknowledge that some people can find themselves in both roles (and occasionally simultaneously) but all the arguments against or in favour changing the description are based on whether your interest is semantic or marketing-related.  I note in other scientific disciplines (and I thought technology like enterprise software was supposed to be one) this issue doesn’t come up.  The analytically correct term is used and it’s simply a given that an explanation is provided if one is required.

The principal proponent of moving away from ‘Digital Asset Management’ to ‘Content Management’ was David Diamond (who isn’t involved in DAM any longer).  I agree with vast majority of what David says and find he has extensive knowledge of Digital Asset Management, but I don’t concur with him over this issue.  It’s the same with Scott Smith.  I’ve read a lot of his articles and comments on LinkedIn and he makes great points, but that also won’t convince me to change my view.

All of the arguments in favour of changing the term are based on the fact it is complex to market, i.e. sell to people.  I get called into DAM initiatives to get at the truth and give my clients an unvarnished and accurate assessment of where they are and what they have to do.  Thus far, no one has come up with a plausible reason why ‘digital assets’ are a semantically invalid description of the activity we collectively undertake, so I will emphatically continue to use it.

Similarly, I don’t care that financial institutions are now using the same description, that is simply them coming to the same realisation that the metadata experts involved in Content DAM already have had some 25-30 years previously.  Arguably a lot of that expertise was also acquired from fields like preservation and archival.

There is a similar debate going in the cryptographic digital assets world as to whether they should be called ‘currencies’ (which is also semantically inaccurate as well).  The fact is, the universe of digital assets is expanding, a trend I discussed over four years ago.  The term also now gets used in an estate planning context to refer to a person’s ownership of digital entities like social media accounts, domain names etc.  In addition, it is also applied when referring to the value of digital media channels like websites and is gradually becoming more popular than terms like ‘web properties’ for the same reason.  It is a more accurate and versatile description.

I am not going to re-run the discussion over this subject again.  Anyone who has an hour or two to spare can review the 2017 article and make their own minds up.

Why Digital Assets are Assets

As should be obvious, the action in Digital Asset Management is in the assets.  The ‘digital’ part is nearly (but not quite) superfluous and as I have mentioned in previous articles, one definition of ‘management’ is a problem you can’t fully solve.  This begs the question, why are they called assets?

I have seen a few articles on this subject, some of which I agree with, others I am less sure of.  To understand why digital assets are referred to as they are, it is necessary to be aware of the history of this field.  As readers who have a longer-term background in DAM might be aware, at one time, the task of managing digital assets used to quite frequently get handled by the accounting or finance division of an organisation.  There are many reasons why this is the case, but whether the current cohort of DAM industry stakeholders like it or not, the activity is conceptually quite closely related to financial management, even if the assets being managed are quite a lot different to money and financial assets.  A typical marketing DAM can be reasonably compared to an accounting system for your digital assets (or ‘content’ if you prefer).  All the activities like recording usage, allocating them to nominal categories, controlling who does or does not get access to them and running analysis reports etc are remarkably similar, certainly from a management perspective.

In accounting terms, ‘asset’ implies something has a re-use value and is not a consumable.  For valuation purposes, the depreciation of an asset is used to determine its cost to the business, not the net expenditure incurred to purchase it.  As such, re-use of assets is the fundamental raison d’être for Digital Asset Management.  You can’t re-use something you can’t find, which is why search and therefore metadata are essential to digital assets (and the management thereof).

In the mid-1990s, around the same time ‘Digital Asset Management’ was acquiring legitimacy as a term (at an exceptionally glacial pace, it must be said) there was an alternative way to refer to what are called assets and that was ‘resources’.  This was more popular in Europe  than the US, from what I gather.  Certainly, if you worked in a British or Irish multimedia studio at some point in the 1990s, you probably heard the term ‘resources’ used quite a lot.  It essentially referred to the same thing: images, videos, text (documents), audio files etc that were to be used in a production and were held in some kind of database and referenced using identifiers and/or a naming convention.

Some readers will be aware that there is a DAM called ResourceSpace.  Last year while doing some research for another article, I contacted Dan Huby (who was the original developer of that software) to ask him where the name originated.  I suggested that it might have some relationship with use of the word which I was once familiar with:

ResourceSpace I think might have come from the UX guy, who was a multimedia producer (Macromedia Director etc.) in the 90s, so you’re right and the word “resource” might have come from that angle. But it also sat with me as the right word for a particularly useful digital file.”

The general distinction between resources and assets is that the former is what you start with, the latter is what results from one process or another which adds value to create an asset.  Given what actually occurs inside a DAM like ResourceSpace (or indeed the multitude of others available) another name would have been AssetSpace (and I note there are DAMs with names like ‘Asset Bank’).  Note: this is not a criticism of ResourceSpace nor an endorsement of any other DAM, these are simply names people who develop software decided to come up with to brand their applications.  The discussion here is based on what is more accurate description of the wider activity that is taking place not vendor’s branding choices and their reasons behind them.

The description of assets that many of the advocates of the term ‘content management’ are keen on (as it applied to what is currently described as managing digital assets) is probably more like ‘resources’.  Most of the marketing use-cases for DAM are based on the notion that a photo will get used in some other production, like a web page, brochure or email campaign.  Many content DAM users still think in terms of the resource or essence within the digital asset – its intrinsic value.

The significance of asset vs the resource is the value that is added.  How does that happen?  In nearly every case you can think of, it comes down to metadata.  Digital assets are assets because they have metadata – which is what appreciates their value.  Even though digital assets might be viewed as no more than resources to be used within another context, to get the most from them (especially from a re-use perspective) you need to see them as assets.  If you fail to do so the asset’s usefulness (i.e. value) diminishes.  With some, you might not care either way, but others could be far higher priority.  There is the additional complication that some assets will apparently have very limited value initially but then subsequent events might make them become more important to the organisation which raises their value.

Re-Visiting Pure and Applied DAM

A few years ago, in an article discussing the wider role that digital assets may have, I suggested that the discipline of managing digital assets might need to split into two distinct branches.  In that piece, I referred to the as ‘Applied’ and ‘Enterprise’ DAM, although I noted that ‘Enterprise’ might be substituted for ‘Pure’.  Given that the word ‘Enterprise’ is so widely used (or more likely abused) by vendors, ‘pure’ would probably be a better option:

Applied Digital Asset Management is what has characterised the early and current period of DAM.  It is concerned with how to make best use of digital assets for some specific task, e.g. marketing collateral management, customer relationships, digital preservation, image processing, document management, invoicing, metadata management, data mining etc….Enterprise Digital Asset Management is focussed on more fundamental issues like infrastructures for moving digital assets across value chains, interoperability and metadata models to represent extrinsic value. An alternative term (which non-commercial entities might prefer) could be ‘Pure Digital Asset Management’.” [Read More]

In the context of the debate with Scott Smith and David Diamond, Applied Digital Asset Management is what they might want to call ‘Content Management’.  I have suggested ‘Content Digital Asset Management’ as an alternative, which is both accurate and reflects the use-case of this particular form of Applied Digital Asset Management, but there still seems to be a preference to refer to things as Content Management anyway, even though it has its own issues such as confusion over Web Content Management and Enterprise Content Management.  This is a problem for others to solve, however.

I am still likely to be involved in Content DAM implementations (or whatever people want to call them) and it will probably form a sizeable part of the work I do in the short-medium term.  In the future, however, I see Pure Digital Asset Management as having far greater potential, in particular its relationship with Digital Transformation.  The perspective of many (but not all) of those involved in Content DAM  is quite narrow-minded and lacking in both ideas and vision – this is one of the key reasons why innovation in that field has stalled.  By contrast, to implement successful Digital Transformation programmes requires a far deeper analysis of more fundamental issues which will have a more profound impact on organisations and that necessitates some more open-minded thinking.  Digital Assets (in the wider sense) are the products of Digital Transformation, they are about quantifying, measuring and appreciating the value generated by digital activities.  Their volume, range and scope will increase and I am not the only person to grasp this (even within Content Digital Asset Management, itself).

After writing the 2016 article about the expansion of the scope of Digital Asset Management (which I have quoted from above) a number of people from a range of other fields where digital assets are now being talked about more widely contacted me to say the piece resonated with them.  They were quite confused, however, at the narrow perspective of some in the Content DAM sphere.   In particular they found the revulsion at the idea that digital assets might be more than just content somewhat surprising with comments like ‘don’t they realise all these things are digital assets?’  I can’t disagree.  Other sectors who are now understanding that they are creating and managing digital assets seem less perturbed by the idea that there are different types and these can all coexist with each other (even if not within the same solution).

To bring this article to a conclusion, there is a choice to be made for stakeholders in the Digital Asset Management sector.  On the one hand, you can consider it to be an exclusively applied field, namely that it relates entirely to ‘content’ (images, video, documents etc).  On the other you can take my perspective that it can be both utilised for specific use-cases and also viewed as discipline in its own right which has universal application especially for Digital Transformation, i.e. ‘Pure DAM’.

When it comes to technology, people tend to hate having to make choices (and arguably the latter option indicated above does not require you to).  In terms of what you call the field we are all involved in right now, however, fairly soon you will probably be obliged to make some decisions about which side of this debate you wish to align yourself with.  Probably even more important than that choice, however, is the reasons you took for doing so and whether or not you can continue to rationalise them over the longer term.  I am confident I can, are you?


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Scott Smith March 10, 2020 at 7:57 pm

Ralph, thanks for the response. Strong points, as always.

I’d mentioned in my blog post that I never really thought DAM was a good term. Though I think I became an official content acronym curmudgeon over a decade ago.

In 2009, I wrote a post, “The Digital Liability” in which, I expressed my weariness over the energy spent trying to fit an organizations’ processes into a bucket such as DAM, or ECM.

I held that all content platforms (every damn one of them) was providing digital asset management services. My conclusion:

“In short, if your content can’t be found, used, transformed, or shared then it is a digital liability.”

I revisited that line shortly thereafter. It started to gnaw at me.

While I still believed that “digital asset management” could be extended to other types of content management systems, it could also be applied to other things as well.

For example, wouldn’t something like Apache Subversion, be a DAM platform? Source code is digital, and an asset; and Subversion is managing them, sooo…

Without mention of “content” in the the term, DAM didn’t seem like it was an appropriate description for management of content files. It was this realization that quickened my breakup with DAM.

In any case, the labels are a small matter. It’s more important that an any organization have a good handle on its content strategy goals and to be aware no single acronym will solve all their problems.

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