Why Resilience and Flexibility are Critical Factors for Successful Enterprise Digital Asset Management

This feature article was contributed by Ralph Windsor, DAM News Editor and Project Director of DAM Consultants, Daydream.

One of the recent phenomena I have encountered when dealing with my Digital Asset Management consulting clients is what might be termed ‘the revolving door’ DAM implementation.  This scenario is where an incumbent DAM will get replaced and subsequently, the new system will also get dropped after a short period of time and the process of finding yet another DAM must be commenced.

This is somewhat different to what used to occur with enterprise DAM software a decade or so ago.  The typical lifetime for DAM solutions would have historically been of the order of around seven to eight years (even longer for public sector or cultural/heritage users).

To a limited extent, the increasing preference for Cloud-hosted enterprise solutions has made DAM migrations a little easier than was the case for on-premise deployments.  With that said, there is still the whole process of issuing RFPs, meeting vendors, conducting demonstrations, procurement due diligence and data export/import to contend with.  DAM migrations are non-trivial undertakings and not tasks organisations want to be facing on a frequent basis.  Where DAMs get replaced within three years, either there has been some major organisational upheaval (e.g. the business has been acquired) or the DAM itself must have been severely lacking.

In this article, I want to examine why these situations arise and what DAM users can do to avoid them either happening in the first place, or again if they now realise they have chosen the wrong system to base their DAM initiative around.

The reasons for the Revolving Door phenomena

There are many different reasons why DAM users can end up in a situation where they need to replace a DAM they only just recently purchased; here are a few:

  • Form over function
  • Bad advice
  • Conflicting stakeholder requirements
  • Poor adoption and change management advice

Below I consider each of these reasons and how they contribute to incorrect decisions about how to select a suitable DAM.

Form Over Function

This problem can best be summarised as buyers purchasing what they think is marketing communications rather than a technology which enables it.  The distinction is often lost because many of the purchasing authorities have an incomplete understanding of the Digital Asset Management subject and/or they are poorly advised (which I will cover in the next point).

Managers with a background in marketing communications might be inclined to evaluate products based on what they know rather than what they need.  As such, a product that has a very impressive looking User Interface (UI) will get chosen over and above a system that is more flexible and resilient because it doesn’t look as attractive.  Many marketing professionals are actually aware of this risk but will sometimes privately concede they still were heavily swayed by the aesthetics of one DAM over and above another.

Marketing end-users currently represent the largest market for DAM systems.  Further, it is very important that what they present to internal colleagues (and external partners) has to closely adhere to the brand guidelines of the business or they will lack credibility when they seek to enforce compliance with these standards.  With all that noted, however, it must be acknowledged that what is being purchased is engineering/technology.  If the platform lacks functionality, scalability, resilience and flexibility, it will probably fail and the whole exercise will have to be carried out again, incurring more cost and potential reputational damage to the purchasing authorities.

Bad Advice

Many DAM purchasing authorities understand that they might not have all the necessary expertise required to select a DAM system and will look around for others who can potentially assist.  The mistake that often gets made here is to call in those with an IT or Digital Marketing background rather than experience specifically in DAM.

Prior to the use of Cloud-hosted DAMs, it was still essential to closely involve in-house IT departments because the chosen product would get deployed internally and the IT department had to be assured that what was proposed would be suitable, safe and compliant with internal best-practice.  In some more sensitive industries like defence, healthcare, government and finance this can still be the case.

For other verticals, however, this has now become less critical because the vendor assumes responsibility for managing the infrastructure (usually using services provided by a larger provider like Amazon, Microsoft, Google etc.)  IT expertise is still needed, but this is more to check that what is being purchased is credible and meets certain minimum standards in terms of information security, data protection and service availability.

Another trap that DAM purchasers can fall into is assuming that because DAM systems are used within a digital marketing technology context that experts from this field are best suited to advise them on it.  This is very much like the previous point, DAM systems can help enable digital marketing, but they are not digital marketing themselves.

Some of the expertise that ideally needs to be sought relates to the information architecture of a DAM implementation, especially as it applies to metadata and the ability (or lack thereof) to effectively represent the key concepts and entities that the business is concerned with.  The difficulty of achieving this is frequently underestimated.   Many prospective DAM users start off thinking they have simple requirements.  What they usually learn as they go through the process of choosing and implementing a DAM is their needs are more complex and intricate than they expected.

For example, one highly complex area that affects many DAM users is usage rights for media.  An example scenario would be celebrity endorsements of a given product and media like photography.  Usage could be permitted in one territory, but not in another, or subject to different embargo periods.  Another example is safety regulations.  Imagery could show employees from one region not wearing safety clothing that is mandatory in another.  If these photos are used in communications materials, they can cause reputational damage or potentially even initiate legal investigations in some cases.

To draw these issues out, the business needs to be certain that any replacement DAM can correctly represent all the required metadata for assets and can do it at-scale without the process of cataloguing assets becoming onerous for end users.  Those with metadata and information architecture skills are usually well placed to assess the capabilities of a prospective DAM and devise more demanding tests when evaluating vendor products.  In all likelihood, they will also need to be accompanied with in-house subject matter experts.

As should be clear, it is less the minutiae of how systems operate in terms of IT and more about whether the candidate products are flexible enough to handle all the nuances of the organisation and the metadata it may rely on.  Further, not only do they need to be able to handle current needs, but also they must be resilient enough to meet future ones, ideally with minimal re-configuration.

Conflicting Stakeholder Requirements

A situation that can lead to a DAM needing to be replaced is where one section of the users are far more vocal than all the others.  Where this occurs, a DAM initiative may end up getting ‘hijacked’ and the requirements being skewed heavily towards one use-case which does not answer the needs for the majority of the users.  If the DAM that is selected lacks flexibility to handle a wider than expected scope (or it is intended for a different use-case entirely) then it is unlikely to get widely adopted by the majority of users.

To avoid ‘Revolving Door’ implementations that result from stakeholder politics, a two-pronged approach is required.  Firstly, the managers responsible for the DAM need to carefully assess the needs of all of the identified users (and preferably before demos of products are carried out).  Secondly, once a detailed and in-depth analysis (ideally which has also been fully documented) has been generated, the focus should be on DAM products which can support as many of the diverse needs of the business as possible.  As described in the preceding section, this task is non-trivial and DAM requirements appear superficially simple and easy to implement when assessed with a ‘helicopter view’.

While not getting caught up in details can be important for many business decisions, Digital Asset Management is not one of them.  Vendors who assert that the subject of Digital Asset Management is ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ either lack an in-depth understanding of the nature of it, or market products which do not possess the required flexibility and resilience for real-world enterprise DAM implementations.

Poor adoption and change management strategy

Adoption is the currency of DAM ROI.  If DAM systems are not being used, it does not matter how technically sophisticated they are, a satisfactory ROI will not be achieved.

DAM adoption is a wide-ranging subject and there is not enough space here to cover it more comprehensively, however, the fact a DAM is not being used should intuitively suggest that it is more likely to need to get replaced and therefore potentially be one of the reasons behind the ‘revolving door’ trend taking place in DAM currently.

These days, nearly all vendors operating in the enterprise DAM market understand that not only do their applications need to be user-friendly but they need to help their clients implement Change Management programmes.

The dual challenge is both understanding that a problem exists and having a product which is flexible enough to allow something to be done about it.  In the first case, that means comprehensive auditing and reporting facilities which can provide some tangible data (collected in the system itself) to generate clues about what has gone wrong.  Data alone is not going to tell you everything and these quantitative studies need to be reality-checked with actual feedback from human beings also (and ideally vice-versa for any user-reported issues).

Sometimes user adoption problems are easy to resolve and can be dealt with using internal communications or some minor tweaks to worfklows.  More often, they are a combination of both unclear guidance to users and a lack of flexibility to be able to adapt the system to how the organisation operates.

In enterprise deployments, it is unrealistic to expect the organisation to change modes of working to adapt to suit the limitations of a niche solution such as Digital Asset Management.  Instead, the platform itself needs to have the necessary flexibility to adapt to the needs of the users.  Where products lack this, they are likely to quickly get found out and have to be replaced sooner than anyone expected.  This is particularly distressing for the stakeholders, especially if they have only just purchased the product.

Resilience and Flexibility: The Keys to a Sustainable Long-Term DAM Initiative

Having analysed a few of the different issues that can cause DAMs to fail to last the course, I want to end this article by considering two important criteria for sustainable long-term DAM initiatives: resilience and flexibility.

As it applies to DAM software, resilience means how well products can handle large scale usage, very high volumes of digital asset throughput.   It refers to scalability in the sense that the solution needs to be able to deal with a lot of digital media and distribute digital assets widely across the entire Digital Asset Supply Chain.

This is only one aspect of what it means to say a DAM has resilience, however.  It also implies that it can deal with change in a graceful manner rather than breaking when there is an unexpected variation in either scale or required functionality.  Resilience and flexibility are two sides of the same coin.  Flexibility and having many different configuration options enables a DAM to be resilient because it can deal with far wider range of user requirements than an alternative less capable DAM.

It is also true that as much as the DAM solution itself must be resilient and flexible, these two attributes apply equally to the wider strategy employed by the users of a DAM solution.  If they have not given due consideration and forethought to developing a resilient approach to how DAM will be established inside their organisation then it does not matter how versatile and robust the product platform is, the DAM initiative is still likely to fail.

For successful DAM, a partnership of equals is required to avoid the ‘revolving door’ outcome I have previously described.  The product platform has to be capable of dealing with nearly everything thrown at it in terms of scale and configuration complexity.  The stakeholders must have credible, well-informed and carefully considered objectives in order to brief their chosen DAM implementation partner.  When everyone has all these attributes, the likelihood of a successful DAM initiative increases by several orders of magnitude – and along with it, the ROI which can ultimately be attained.

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