Objective Lesson

I have been involved in the selection of content management products for the past 20 years. More specifically, I have helped larger organizations (public and private) in their efforts to manage large volumes of content—be it content that is exposed and used on the internet, intranet, or extranet or via dedicated document management and record management systems. While I would like to think that my career has not been one of abject failure, many of the projects I have been involved in have failed or fallen short of expectations. That’s quite an admission! However, I could equally argue that most of the projects I have been involved in have been successes by some measures—coming in on time, on budget, etc.

Though this may seem like a contradiction, the fact is that measuring success in such projects is as much a matter of guesswork and perspective than of anything terribly scientific or rigorous. The truth is most content management projects just sort of happen. They start out with lots of enthusiasm (and budget), go live at some point, then go into an active phase, and eventually are replaced by an improved way of working. We have all been there before: The new CMS or ECM system is going to resolve all of our issues, so we bring the best and brightest together to work on getting the system set up, and then one day it is up and running—by which time everyone has lost interest.

In all my work with clients, I always try to start out by asking them a simple question: “What is the purpose of your project?” It’s a simple question, yet many people find it surprisingly difficult to answer. Let’s take a look at two common responses:

To have a better website.” This is a particularly frustrating response, as it is terribly common yet could doom a project to failure. Think about it for a moment. If you have an external website, for example, what is its primary purpose? Does it provide information on your company, support transactions, or function as a marketing tool for customer support? Or is it a central source of corporate information? In all likelihood, it is a combination of these, and, therein, the problem begins. A project that hopes to make everyone happy is not likely to succeed.

Sometimes, when I ask clients what the purpose of their website is, they are honest and say, “I don’t really know.” External-facing sites in particular seem to suffer from this lack of a specific purpose. Yet I would go so far as to say that if you identify a specific goal for your website, your chances of building a better one increase exponentially. For example, your website’s primary purpose may be to provide customer support; in addition, you may want to support some limited online commerce.

The key things are to understand the primary purpose of the website and to structure things according to those priorities. Alternately, you might argue that the primary purpose of your project is to provide a web platform for the business, one which different divisions can use to meet their specific needs. It doesn’t really matter what the primary purpose is, only that there is one.

My point here is that a project that has a primary purpose, a specific goal to meet, has a decent chance of success. Whereas a project that tries to meet a broad range of vague and, at times, conflicting requirements is likely to disappoint.

People generally have very specific tasks that they undertake in a working day; tools and processes that help them with one or more of these tasks can be beneficial and work well. However, more broadly based systems that hope to centralize information often get deployed—then ignored.

Focus your project in on a specific goal or task, get buy-in from key stakeholders, openly state secondary goals as secondary, and then execute. Pretty basic, eh? Yet in the real world, CMS projects start out with good intentions and quickly try to become everything to everyone. Eventually, they make the light of day and disappoint everyone. My work and that of my colleagues is focused entirely on helping clients succeed. Overall, I think we do a pretty decent job, particularly in helping buyers select the right products and in managing their ongoing technical and vendor relationships. But we can only ask the fundamental question, “What is the purpose of your project?” You must answer that for yourself, and if you can’t answer that question, then you may have a problem that no amount of technology can help you solve.