Content Management as a Practice

By Deane Barker

Four years ago, when announcing that the long sought-after title for his profession – that of “interaction architect” – had finally been found, Bruce Tognazzini started off his post with:

This is the most important column I have ever written.

Now, as much as I love hyperbole, I’m not going to go that far. But two months ago, I wrote this

I cut out of [a conference session] to grab a corner with Seth Gottlieb and have what was one of the most professionally meaningful conversations I’ve ever had in my life.

– so I need to deliver. Here goes…

At Web Content 2008, Seth Gottlieb gave a good session about open-source content management. During his introduction, he mentioned that he used to be the “Content Management Practice Director” for Optaros.

That phrase stuck with me. Content Management Practice Director. It resonated over and over for the next 24 hours, until I finally sat down with Seth the next day to talk about it.

Seth’s lofty title at Optaros wasn’t “Development Director” or “Director of CM Integration” or something. Instead, his title evoked something I’ve always been attracted to: the idea of content management as a practice.

What I’ve learned in my years of content management is that it exists on two levels.

  1. Content management itself

  2. Specific platform integration

A lot of people jump right into the second one: platform integration. They learn Drupal. Or eZ publish. Or their company buys Red Dot and they do an integration with that.

Along the way, they’re exposed to some cool features: versioning, workflow, templating, etc. These features make sense, and they get implemented.

However, this person’s knowledge is very brittle. They don’t know content management, they know Drupal. Or eZ publish. Or Red Dot.

And how much do they really know about, say, workflow? If they’ve worked with Ektron, they know that it’s serial approval chains, nothing more. They’ve never been exposed to parallel workflow. Branching workflow. API or code execution steps in workflow. Workflow aliases. Ad-hoc workflow.

In the end, this person isn’t a content management practitioner, they’re an Ektron integrator.

Now, this isn’t all bad. Doing integrations like this pays the bills, and a lot of people do great work and make a great living at this level (I’m one of them).

But I want to go deeper.

I’m interested in content management as a practice. I’m interested in content management as a transcendent skill. I’m interesting in learning, mastering, and teaching the eternal principles of content management, if I can be so dramatic.

Most everything in programming has patterns – ways of doing things that have proven to be pretty well-suited for a particular application. I wrote an entire post about Functional Design Patterns, in fact.

What are the patterns of content management? What are the features, skills, and theories that transcend all platforms. In the end, versioning isn’t about Drupal or eZ publish. Sure, they both have implementations of it will all their quirks and idiosyncrasies, but versioning goes beyond that. It’s an eternal pattern of content management, and something that deserves to be studied and dissected far above the specific implementation level.

When I install and evaluate (read: play around with) a new CMS, I have a mental checklist in my head of what I’m looking for. The checklist looks a lot like the uber-post I made last year about just what comprises a CMS.

I love installing a new system and finding out how it does all of the things on my list. I love digging, prodding, researching, and breaking stuff until I figure out how they implemented Feature X, and how it works.

Seth summed this up in our conversation by saying (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “There are people who like to feel smart, and people who like to feel stupid. People who like to feel smart, never like to use something new because they don’t understand it. People who like to feel stupid, love using something new because it gives them a chance to learn.”

So, the question I posed to Seth, and I’ll pose to you now, is: how do you teach someone the core principles of content management? Have they been defined (my list non-withstanding)? Is there a curriculum? I once wrote a post about wanting a “Masters in Content Management” – what’s the closest thing?

At Blend, my goal has always been to develop a group of solid content management practitioners. While we have our favorite platforms, my hope is that the specific platform we’re currently integrating becomes interchangeable. I want Blend’s people to understand the core principles that transcend those platforms, and not get fixated on one specific environment.

Referring back to the anecdote I opened with, I think I feel the same…relief, as Bruce Tognazzini did when he found the title “interaction architect.” In doing so, he put an identify on an amorphous set of skills and aspirations floating around in his head.

I was just as surprised when Seth tossed out the phrase “Content Management Practice Director” and it started bouncing around in my head. It draws a circle around where I want to be, and where I want my developers to be.

The question becomes: how do we get there? I hope you stick around as I try to answer it.

This is item #182 in a sequence of 356 items.

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