April 13, 2004

Why Content Management (& KM) Fails

Jeffrey Veen at Adaptive Path discusses why content management endeavors fail.

With respect to web site content, many organizations complain that their sites are "woefully out of date, growing out of control, and generally a complete mess. Almost unanimously, these companies have chosen to solve the problem by handing it to their IT departments." However, the business units don't want to ask for IT help for every little change, so they turn to content management. According to Veen, Jupiter Research found that ď[o]f just under 100 companies Ö only 27 percent of companies surveyed planned to continue using their Web content management systems as they do now.Ē

So Veen asks: "So why do these CMS projects almost always fail?" The answer is not surprising, and it reminds me of an old Pogo comic strip: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Content management and knowledge management are people-driven systems, not technology-driven. Technology can aid us, but we can't just slap a new program on the system and expect people will change their long-ingrained work patterns.

Veen explains:

"People Problems

Iíve spoken to a number of Web teams that have used a CMS with varying levels of success. One problem I heard repeatedly was that the project worked fine, but nobody used the software once it was available. I call this the Stupid User Argument, and itís a favorite of IT departments. The techies did their jobs, after all: They diligently gathered requirements, scoped out the solution, carefully selected a vendor, and managed the project to a mostly on-time and on-budget conclusion.

So how come nobody actually uses these systems once theyíre in place? The answer is easy: People donít like to change the way they work, particularly knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers spend years building strategies to accomplish their jobs, practices that likely date back to study skills acquired during their education. So changing those processes ó no matter how valid the provided technical solution ó is nearly impossible. Users will rebel, even after substantial training.

To have any chance of success, a content management project must follow the same user-centered design practices as any other project. Task analysis, rapid prototyping, usability testing ó all of these methods are crucial to a CMS rollout. Itís foolhardy to unveil a mammoth, nine-month project to an unsuspecting user community and expect adoption.

But there is a larger issue at play. Even the most thoughtful projects may be misguided. Over and over Iíve heard the same complaint about these projects, ďTurns out, after all the budget and time we spent, we really didnít need a content management system at all. We just needed some editors.Ē

Unfortunately content and knowledge management systems are often perceived as silver bullets, and just as likely to be delegated to the IT department to implement. The problem is that however good a job the IT department does, they aren't the ones who will be primarily using, driving, and consuming it. As much as busy knowledge workers don't have the time to spend on it, unless they actively and agreeably participate early on, my opinion is that they're probably better off not even attempting it in the first place. The resulting system needs to be baked into and utilizes their normal work habits or they just won't use it. For this discussion, I'm equating content management as a subset of knowledge management.

I'm not sure I agree with Veen's solution to send a team of reporters out into the field to write about everything and submit it back to the "editorial staff" for publishing. A number of law firms I know just don't have the human resources to pull it off. Besides, have you ever tried to read very specialized knowledge after it's been digested by a reporter? Sure, it's easy to read, but you can lose a lot in the translation. Frankly, I'd rather the have the person with the knowledge pass it on directly so I know it's valid and accurate, and therefore reliable.

The real trick is trying to make that process as easy and productive for the knowledge owners to use, or they'll feel they're being penalized with additional work -- without the associated incentives and rewards. Perhaps another way would be to adapt Veen's editorial approach to the established partner-associate mentoring process. As the associate handles a research project, the partner acts as editor in providing direction and suggestions, then reviewing and approving the final work. The next step is making the publication and sharing system attractive to use, so the contributors don't need to take much time to submit previously and currently generated work in other formats. Or even make the system semi-automatic in that it actively culls regularly-entered information into the normally used systems (think document management for example). This can be triggered by specific practice areas, categories, document types, authors, etc., and then the information is sent into a temporary holding bin for a gatekeeper to approve. Obviously, not everything thrown into the system will be useful.

There's no easy answers here, but at least it's one way to approach the people problem. Delegating and automating some of the negatively perceived "contribution" tasks while maintaining the high integrity sources of knowledge can be effective. The trick is finding just the right balance for the existing culture and work habits, and then continually fine-tuning it. Otherwise, if it's off by a sufficient annoyance factor, the whole system is going tip off center one way or the other and end up in the "hardly ever used" pile. In turn this means you've just invested a lot of time and money into something that gave a minimal return at best.

All of which is why I'm heavily inclined to say that the firms who don't get this shouldn't even attempt it. A possible exception here is that firms often have riches in niches -- segments for which it makes sense to to use such a system, but with the expectation that only a limited population will derive any meaningful benefit. With the right approach, that can work.

Topic(s):   Law Practice Management
Posted by Jeff Beard