Collaboration Be DAM’d

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

What we think we know about digital asset management and collaboration by teams using rich media assets constantly changes.

Only a few years ago, you could predict that most—if not all—of the users and contributors to a project would be employees of a particular company and that those employees would be connected via a high-speed local area network. There might have been a few outside contractors or consultants but they either worked on-premises or weren't well integrated into the process.

Today, everything is different—due to modern work habits, the economic downturn, and the increased use of outsourced service providers to manage and contribute broadly to projects. For example, more knowledge workers, artists, and even project managers work from home and need the same functionality over their broadband connection as they used to enjoy on the business local area network (LAN). Also, many talented media and content professionals work as independent consultants (many not by choice but rather due to layoffs), and they're very often involved with projects on a case-by-case basis. And don't forget outsourcing, including the newest trend toward offshoring parts of a project to India, China, or other countries that offer a broad talent pool at lower costs. If offshoring, working with contractors, and supporting telecommuters is going to succeed, the given collaboration systems—be they big budget or homegrown—must accommodate their needs.

Take one of the simplest ways of sharing digital assets, a network file server, set up with access control lists and dedicated directories (also called folders) for individual project teams. That simply won't fly when you're bringing in contractors and outsourced developers, says Chris Cummings, VP of marketing at Interwoven Inc., whose eponymous content management system is strongly focused on collaboration. "You can talk to people about shared folders, but there's little or no security that lives within those systems," he says.

Even connecting those disparate workers via a secure extranet won't make a shared-file approach succeed, he says, explaining that while such a system would be difficult to maintain, the complexities of setting up access control lists for the file server, as well as granting permissions to even get onto the network, would be daunting to project workers, and wouldn't be an IT priority. Furthermore, a shared-file system, at best, only offers access to files. It doesn't provide project management, workflow, role-based controls, version control, and other features that team members truly need in order to maximize productivity and creativity. So, while sharing may be caring, sharing isn't collaboration.

Hit the Email on the Head
What's a better way to collaborate? It depends on who you ask. Interwoven's content management (CM) system offers a strong focus on emailed collaboration. Other systems also include email as part of the workflow, but use a different user-interface metaphor, such as Web portals or browser-based to-do lists. Realistically, all approaches combine the Web, email, and content repositories that can be accessed either locally using a high-speed LAN or over the Internet.

A common thread among many providers is the use of email for discussion and planning, but not for exchanging actual digital assets. "It wouldn't be nice to email a file that's a couple of gigabytes in size," according to Gabriele DiPiazza, Hewlett-Packard's worldwide director for rich media solutions. "So, we provide a Web-based interface that users can retrieve assets with. They can also communicate through email systems that are integrated with our asset management systems, or through external systems," such as a company's own email or groupware server."

With HP's solutions, email discussions are quite distinct from the data within the digital asset management (DAM) system. That's not the case with Interwoven, where Cummings explains that all communication is managed and archived within the CM system. "The number one tool for collaboration is email," he says, adding that it's important to ensure that message threads are treated as vital corporate assets, along with the digital media files themselves, especially in cases where there's a business or legal reason to understand the history of assets, as well as what people say about them. "Details of many transactions, such as negotiations or feedback, are defined in email, and those details should be captured," he explains.

Not all companies eschew document and media-file distribution via email. Chris Warner, a senior manager at Artesia Technologies, says that of his customers, especially in the publishing industry and in corporate advertising and marketing, "most have been emailing gigabytes of files." When email technology can't handle the assets, they use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or perform "a big digital dump" and ship out a CD or DVD, at an enterprise cost of between $50 and $100 each time, he estimates.

But while companies have found email, FTP, or disc-based distribution of digital assets to be easy to incorporate into workflow, Warner points out that these solutions are slow, can require frequent human interaction, and often can't be conducted on a self-service basis. And, while a contractor or partner can grab a file from an FTP site, it does not provide a very collaborative or interactive environment. Even so, Artesia's solution, called TEAMS, allows for email-based distribution of links to assets as part of its workflow or self-service functionality, in addition of offering Web-based downloads of assets via a browser interface. TEAMS includes the Web-based client, a middleware layer that offers business logic for transactions and workflow, and an asset repository.

The Artesia solution also allows for two different types of email collaboration exchanges beyond simple retrieval of assets by consumers. One type, which Warner calls comments, are threaded messages that pertain to particular projects and their respective collections of related assets. Those comments are stored in the asset repository with an association to those assets. The system also allows email communication specific to individual assets; those messages aren't stored.

The Artesia solution also allows for two different types of email collaboration exchanges beyond simple retrieval of assets by consumers. One type, which Warner calls comments, are threaded messages that pertain to particular projects and their respective collections of related assets. Those comments are stored in the asset repository with an association to those assets. The system also allows email communication specific to individual assets; those messages aren't stored.

Why the different types? Warner offers the scenario of an art director overseeing a photo shoot, which results in 25 different proofs. Email discussions with the project team about the relative merits of individual pictures wouldn't be a strategic asset worth saving. However, comments about the collection of photos—such as that the final image selected would be picture number 14, and that's going to be the only one that is licensed from the photographer—would be saved in the project file.

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