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Does The Beginning Of Business Object Management Signal The End Of DAM And ECM?

by Ralph Windsor on May 18, 2018

ECM and DAM commentator, Magan Arthur has recently written an article which he has titled: The End of Digital Content Management and the Need for Business Object Management.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, however, I do concur with a great deal of what he says.  It is a very well written piece and he makes some plausible arguments that resonate with many themes we have discussed on DAM News (and elsewhere).  This quote is a case in point:

The issue with Digital Content Management is not the lack of technology solutions on the market but a lack of investment, innovation and vision both by the vendors/investors and by the businesses that need to manage their ever increasing volume and complexity of digital content. With dozens of competitors in a space that is over two decades old we have reached saturation. Almost every company has one or multiple systems to manage content. Basic content management has become a commodity with vendors offering only slight differences in functionality and limited innovation with new releases. The continued fragmentation of the market, with no clearly established market leader results in stagnating or negative revenue growth.” [Read More]

Magan offers three catalysts for what limited innovation has occurred, including SaaS (i.e. Cloud delivery), AI and commodity integration (out of the box connectors) to upstream/downstream Digital Asset Management tools like Adobe Creative Suite, WCM, PIM etc. In the case of AI, he correctly (in my opinion) points out that the current offerings do little to help with more demanding information architecture and metadata challenges than businesses face.  The unwelcome truth about most current real-world AI initiatives is they are still more like bespoke consulting projects and most vendors have done not much more than plug into one of the visual recognition APIs available.   This sentence in particular is a concise summary of the situation with DAM/ECM innovation:

I think it is fair to say that over the last decade we have seen, at best, incremental improvements and very limited organic revenue growth for the vendors even though we all understand that specifically rich media is multiplying at an enormous rate.” [Read More]

Despite being in a growth market where there are external pressures driving demand, there are very few billion dollar plus revenue DAM or ECM firms.  OpenText, one of the few who are (and who Magan cites in his piece) have done so via inorganic means, i.e. buying up potential competitors.

As discussed before on DAM News, the current DAM software market is structurally inefficient and therefore does not scale.  This is why despite huge demand, no one has yet been able to properly address user’s needs (nor make decent money in the process).  The DAM software market has given up trying to scale and has resigned itself to a consulting/agency model.  This is why there are hundreds of firms (if not thousands)  limited innovation, homogeneous solutions  and acquisition being used as a growth strategy of last resort.

Magan continues by examining the concept of Content Services which is discussed by Gartner analyst, Michael Woodbridge.  I have read the article and Michael makes some good points, but I tend to agree with Magan, that this is more re-branding than re-thinking; there is more to Content Services than is suggested.  I have talked about services and Service Oriented Architectures (and more recently microservices) for a number of years on DAM News and elsewhere.  Having a de-centralised collection of core services that vendors (and eventually users) can loosely couple together will, as far as I am concerned, become the only viable commercial model in DAM/Content Management eventually.  As Magan says in his article, the current monolithic method of implementing DAM solutions (or balls of mud to use another phrase) is ultimately likely to be the ruin of large swathes of the current ECM/DAM market.

Magan makes reference to file sharing applications like Box, Dropbox etc and references Ramon Forster’s article, which I have discussed before.  The instinct behind this is a good one and the idea that numerous vendors reproduce core services which someone else has already built (and scaled, from both business and technical perspectives) offers some compelling advantages.   For the reasons discussed in my response to Ramon’s piece, however, creating a dependency on a third party commercial interest who own the middle-upper tiers of a vendor’s application stack represents a significant risk.  Those who build their operations around these platforms will either need to find multiple providers to mitigate this issue (with the additional cost and maintenance overhead which that method implies) or they face becoming ‘mezzanine vendors’ who are the mercy of the freeholders who own the building upon which they have built their base.   I have outlined an alternative approach to this problem using digital asset services exchanges.  Whether these acquire momentum or vendors take the easier (but commercially riskier) method remains to be seen.

From my own perspective, the most interesting part of Magan’s article was the section on content objects.  In particular, this quote:

While Content Services may bring down the cost of basic content management even more, the real value in any business comes from managing objects that are relevant to and directly impacting the given organization’s bottom line. Ideally the business objects are managed intuitively to the end user and the up or downstream systems alike. Think of an insurance claim, a marketing campaign, a learning object like a lesson or class, a maintenance instruction manual and record, or a product record.” [Read More]

The description of what Magan outlines has a number of similarities with my own definition of digital assets.  I would argue that ‘digital asset’ is more of a more appropriate term than ‘object’.  ‘Objects’ is a word software interests are familiar with, whereas ‘assets’ have an implicit association with value (which is what most business operations seek to generate, whether for profit or not).  I have used object-oriented concepts to explain how I view digital assets and why they are a lot more than the pieces of content like images, videos etc that most people think of when they talk about ‘digital assets’.  Setting aside the semantics, the conceptualisation is one I absolutely agree with.  Whether you want to call them ‘objects’ or ‘assets’, the paradigm in which the process (and metadata) is self-contained (or ‘encapsulated’) and closely aligned to the context where they will be used is a powerful one.  The failure of many current solutions to identify the contextual element, i.e. concentrate too much on the ‘what’ at the expense of the ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ is one of the key reasons why DAM solutions have yet to innovate sufficiently (and reach their true potential in the process).

I am less sure about some of the firms Magan offers as examples of those who are innovating right now.  I suspect the true range of innovators is shallower (but wider) than many might imagine.  He cites Coredna, Nuxeo and Bynder as examples.  I know very little about Coredna, but I am aware of Nuxeo and Bynder.  The Nuxeo solution is interesting and the service-oriented approach they are taking is one I like.  I’m not entirely sure about the execution currently, however (which I think they still need to work on) and there are a number of competitors thinking along the same lines (albeit with less money to spend).  I have read the article referred to in Magan’s piece previously (as well as those by Uri Kogan) and they do illustrate that they have the raw materials required in terms of imagination and vision to deliver on their promise.

Bynder are an intriguing case.  I am on record as saying I think their business strategy of investing in buying up the competition, rather than innovating is ill-advised and I contend this is closer to the OpenText template which Magan has criticised.  I also do not think their ‘end-end marketing solution’ is that innovative and I note they went through a brief period of referring to themselves as MRM (Marketing Resource Management) a few years ago before switching back to DAM again.  There are a lot of DAM vendors who have tried the same tactic in the past, generally with mixed results.  This approach is expanding the scope of what you offer in the hope that a wider cross section of prospective users will be interested in your wares.  I would argue that it is more of a product marketing strategy than innovating, per sé.

Having critiqued the negative aspects of Bynder’s strategies, however, it would be remiss to not also point out that their core DAM has vastly improved over the last few years from when I first saw it in 2014.  Further, I believe that many of the staff (certainly those I have talked to) are very competent at what they do.  I have liaised with Emily Kolvitz for the W3C Digital Asset Management Industry Business Ontology Community Group and read quite a few of her articles on CMS Wire and it’s apparent she knows the Digital Asset Management subject to an expert level.  In addition, I deal with some of their sales personnel for various selection exercises and they do a good job of presenting the product and dealing with hard-to-please consultant types such as myself who insist on asking them difficult questions.   On the strategic side, their marketplace idea (while not exactly original) is a good one and shows some creative thought processes are going on, it’s just a shame their management and/or investors don’t have the confidence to back up the vision with a decent investment into innovation as opposed to acquisition.

Irrespective of my own opinion about the vendors Magan has referred to, this is a great article which those who care about DAM (or ECM) would do well to study in  some depth.  I read a lot of comment from some people in DAM and it is clear they rely on secondhand opinion and insight that someone else has come up with (and which they probably do not fully understand).  That is certainly not the case here, however.  Magan demonstrates both his substantial expertise and considerable creative vision about all topics relating to Content Management and Digital Asset Management.  I highly recommend you read through what he has written.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Josh Wand May 19, 2018 at 5:23 am

Whatever you want to call it– “Digital Assets”, “Content”, “Business Entities”, “Business Objects” … to an enterprise data architect it’s all just master data [1] (the pattern, not the analyst category).

Tied together via whatever enterprise integration pattern you want, the best business apps are the ones that let the user execute her daily work, with all the information she needs (from whichever source), at her fingertips, without jumping back and forth between multiple systems.

In organizations big enough to have their own internal-tool-focused engineering teams, they call these “line-of-business apps”. Custom-built to serve specific business processes and needs, they may be split along organizational or functional lines, but they share a common domain model and can display contextual related data where it’s needed, as well as triggering functions and processes that cross system or business boundaries.

The problem with vendor products in all these categories (DAM, CMS, MDM, PIM, etc) is that they either try to shoehorn other systems’ domain models onto their own (e.g. “metadata-only assets” in DAMs to represent products), or try to make a universal data representation system, going meta-meta-meta and eventually becoming Turing-complete programming environments, at which point you may as well hire actual developers to get the job done faster and without the contortions necessary to operate in the system’s proprietary and hobbled tools.

What are DAM/CMS vendors to do? Generic systems will never be able to be all things to all people. I say: do one thing well (DAM is for storing/classifying/processing audiovisual content; MRM is for planning and executing campaigns; CMS is for authoring and publishing mostly-textual content), but be flexible at the edges to be able to display data or invoke functions from other systems. Or, alternatively, build your system so that it can be embedded in context or invoked as a service from a more business-specific tool that aggregates data and functions into a single interface.

[1] For a great deep dive into the different patterns of MDM, I highly recommend this book: https://www.amazon.com/Enterprise-Master-Data-Management-Information/dp/0132366258

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