Facing the Hard Facts about Information Management

A version of this post appeared on CMSWire.

Following my last post on this topic, someone lamented that it didn’t seem to matter too much whether you stayed on shared drives or moved to an enterprise file synch-and-share (EFSS) product like Box or Dropbox, that SharePoint seemed to be universally hated, and that no one was moving to enterprise software solutions like OpenText, Documentum, or FileNet.

He closed with, “makes you wonder where the whole document management space is headed.”

It’s a fair question, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer, which is why I decided to write this post. And I wanted to open it out a bit so it’s about more than simply document management, because in many important ways, document management and information management are headed to the same place in the next 5 to 10 years.

The Roots of the Issue

The easiest way to talk about where information management is headed is to talk about where it’s been. Why? Because looked at in one way, it’s going pretty much 180 degrees away from where we thought (hoped?) it would for most of its existence.

Maybe not from the very beginning of managing electronic documents, in the 1970s and 1980s, but from relatively early on, the goal was to have all documents in the same system: a “single source of truth.” And this single source of truth was to be functionality heavy, providing robust document management capabilities to end users, along with workflow or tight integration with line-of-business systems (or, ideally, both).

But this dream didn’t materialize for the vast majority of organizations. In part, because the technology hasn’t been up to the task (and it still isn’t); in part, because significant cultural and change management issues need to be overcome; and in yet another part, because of the sheer difficulty of executing such an ambitious, enterprise-wide platform. (Global ERP rollouts, anyone?)

However, the primary reason this dream failed to materialize is because it was not only incredibly difficult (impossible?) to achieve, but also entirely the wrong thing to be aiming for in the first place.

Clutter Everywhere

Let me explain what I mean by way of an analogy.

I have four kids aged eight and under. As you can imagine, our house is a wreck most of the time: sectional couch torn apart to make a fort all over the floor, Barbies in various states of undress scattered everywhere, trains and cars and Legos dumped in piles, crushed snack food on cushions and the floor…and that’s just upstairs, which is supposed to be our “adult” space.

In the basement, there’s a large playroom that typically looks like some deeper level of Dante’s Inferno, where condemned parents are sent to be drowned in a sea of disorganized toys, games, puzzles, and dress-up clothes, overseen by a Furby Boom that has no “off” switch and spews a constant litany of gibberish at full volume.

If I attempt to deal with the mess my kids make by 1) trying to get them not to make a mess or 2) by trying to keep things clean real time, as they mess things up, I’ll not only fail, but I’ll go certifiably insane in the process.

My only chance is to work within the reality that they will always be making a mess, and to create organizational schemes and coping mechanisms that allow us to have a functioning household—despite the mess.

Information management is the same.

Users will never care about taxonomy or information organization.

They won’t ever get excited to use a heavily structured system that monitors their every move and constrains how they work, and they won’t ever do anything that they perceive as an add-on to the work they get paid to do.

So unless we stop being information managers who talk about information management and keep trying to get everyone to care about it as much as we do, we’ll always be met with less than success, if not outright failure.

Looking Ahead

Given the reality of how employees have always approached and will always approach information management, it’s no surprise that the one-system-to-rule-them-all, heavyweight, top-down approach hasn’t worked.

So when I think about the future of information management and look ahead, I tend to see things going in the opposite direction in the effort to manage information better.

There will never be, nor could there ever be, one system to rule them all in terms of managing information. Information management is a means to an end, not an end in itself; and if it’s going to allow end users to achieve their business ends, it can’t ever be one-size-fits-all. And given the wide divergence of end-user goals and needs at even a small organization (let alone medium and large global ones), I can say with certainty that we will never see wide adoption of a single solution approach to information management.

Given that there will never be a single solution, all of us (tech vendors, end users, service providers) are going to have to get smarter at managing information effectively in the midst of system chaos. We’ll have to abandon theoretical best practices, architectural nice-to-haves, and all sorts of other “oughts,” in favor of hard-nosed, reality-based discussions of how to actually get stuff done given the way things are, not the way they “should” be.

In the absence of a single solution, vertical, localized solutions will become more prominent, as they have been for the last few years now. We’re going to see an ever-narrower focus on discreet business activities and problems to be solved with information management tools. And not just more functional solutions (i.e. for departments), but process-oriented (i.e. for business activities that cross functions).

We’ll begin to see a clearer separation of managing information during its useful lifespan and managing information that’s reached the end of its life (disposition or archive). Right now, very few organizations do a good job of separating these two very different activities, with less-than-optimal results. Some 5 to 10 years from now, I think we’ll see more organizations differentiating between the two lifecycle stages, which will allow support of a wide variety of local, vertical approaches for work in progress and then rein in the chaos for long-term archival with a more limited set of solutions.

Infrastructure, platform, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) will become the way nearly every business leverages technology. It might take 5 years, but I don’t think it’ll be more than 10. For proof, just look at the development of the power grid. At one point, every manufacturing plant had its own source of power, because there were too many real and perceived challenges with using power “in the cloud”. But at a certain point, the public grid overcame the majority of those challenges and we got more comfortable accepting the challenges it couldn’t. XaaS will go the same route in the not too distant future.

Basically, information management (and document management with it) is moving toward a future where we embrace system chaos and learn to work within it to achieve our business goals, which will include vertical, process-oriented solutions, a cleaner break between managing information as work in progress versus archival, and an near-total reliance on XaaS modes of technology delivery.

And in my opinion, the sooner we come to terms with all this, the sooner we can begin making significant progress with information management, rather than lamenting how bad things are and struggling to reach the same, tired old set of best practices we’ve been hearing about for 20 years now and will never, ever reach.

Rich Medina
Joe Shepley
I’m VP and Practice Lead, focusing on developing Doculabs’ InfoSec practice and its applications in a wide range of industries.