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Content Services: Connecting Information and Profitability

The management of enterprise content will fail unless it is intimately linked to business strategy. Learn why content is a vital part of all organizations, and why you must manage content within the context of your business objectives.
This chapter is from the book

For the last two weeks I have been using the intranet at Harvard Business School every day. You probably would not realize how much school has changed. The computer in my dorm room is on all day, so I can see my personal daily and weekly schedule online, linked to all my course assignments and scheduling information. By assignments, I mean HTML pages with questions, reading materials, company Web sites, links to stock and analytical information, plus video clips of interviews and case studies, all served dynamically from a database. Instructor emails update students the evening prior to class, and all students share class notes via email.

—Alden Globe, email to a friend from Harvard Business School, July 1999

Harvard Business School (HBS) spends about 10 percent of its revenue on the school's intranet, which students use for course preparation, research, class calendars, messaging, and more. The system serves up 5,000 video sessions per day showing clips related to HBS case studies, and electronic documents are now the official versions of record. Once, during a presentation, a student asked Dean Kim Clark to talk about return on the HBS intranet investment. Without hesitation he answered, "We needed to make this investment or face going out of business. The return is infinite; it's a question of the continuing relevance of this institution."

Dean Clark's understanding of his intranet differs from that of many senior-level managers in large- and medium-sized organizations. For most, intranets and their content are mere utilities—nice-to-have tools that make it a little more convenient to share information throughout the organization. We doubt that, if asked, they could name the most frequently accessed documents; they certainly wouldn't be able to name the content that should be there but isn't; and they typically aren't frequent intranet users. The reasons are many, but the difference between Dean Clark's strategic view and others' less-than-strategic view has to do with the role content plays in the respective enterprises.

As an academic institution, HBS is all about the production and circulation of information and knowledge, which is largely what academic institutions do. Their business is creating knowledge and passing it on to students and other constituencies, and thus the ability to catalog that information and make it easy to access is an essential competency that ensures the "continuing relevance of this institution," as Dean Clark says.

Organizations like HBS are pioneering new ways of combining content and technology. For them, content isn't merely incidental to the operations of the enterprise but is rather a key asset that must be managed at least as well as other businesses manage land, labor, money, and capital equipment. These organizations have adopted new technologies along with disciplines formerly considered beyond the scope of business management. Library sciences, taxonomy development, and corporate journalism have emerged as necessary skills to help content-centric enterprises gain better control over their content.

But what organization doesn't have content that plays a vital role in its operations? All companies produce content—documents, spreadsheets, videos, charts, graphs, and so forth—some of it absolutely essential and some incidental. Accordingly, every business can learn important lessons from the content-centric companies. Finding the important content and managing it as a corporate asset can drive significant efficiencies throughout any operation.

Content as Asset

The experience that customers, employees, investors, and partners have of your company comes largely from the content on your intranet, extranet, and public Web site. Knowing what content is truly valuable is the starting point for deciding what technology you need. On thing is certain: Buying a search engine and a corporate portal doesn't automatically give your intranet and extranet users a MyYahoo!-style experience.

The fallacy here is that the technology creates the solution. Companies don't realize that the technology driving MyYahoo! is only a small fraction of its power. The real muscle is the 3,000 people behind the scenes ensuring that you have quality content to personalize, browse, and search. They maintain a taxonomy—entertainment, financial news, tech news, and the like—that is relentlessly adhered to by authors and publishers. Anything published must fit into these categories so that you can subscribe to it and search through archives. If MyYahoo! were simply a technology operation, it would have failed long ago.

The lesson here is straightforward: The management of enterprise content will fail unless it is intimately linked to business strategy. Without this connection, you won't have the sustained involvement and sponsorship necessary to make these initiatives successful and you won't be able to measure their results.

Let's take HBS as an instructive example. When Dean Clark talks about the intranet as an essential asset that ensures "the continuing relevance of this institution," he can't mean the technology alone—if the intranet delivered the wrong course schedules, the wrong assignments, and the wrong case studies, it would be useless. Rather, he means the combined power of quality content and intranet technology. In this sense, technology is the easy part. Adapting formerly paper-based processes to it is the real challenge, and it can be successful only insofar as it is a key part of the organization's strategic direction. At issue for Dean Clark is improving and extending the quality of the most important process to the institution: the creation and transfer of knowledge between instructors and students. This transfer occurs most intensely in the classroom itself, but efficiency in the classroom comes from the preparation that takes place before the students arrive there. For that reason, the intranet is designed to improve the classroom experience by improving the students' ability to prepare for it, and this purpose drives its organization. Course assignments and case studies are easy to find; the student's individual schedule is personalized and served up automatically. Students handle administrative tasks online, which minimizes the need to stand in lines that take away from time spent learning.

The Content of Relationships

Another important issue in this example is how content influences nearly all facets of a student's relationship to HBS. The PC is on in his dorm room all day because it is the primary device for managing this relationship. The student experiences HBS in large part as streaming content—between him and his peers, his instructors, research archives, and administrators.

For example, collaboration occurs via email in many instances, such as sharing class notes and preparing presentation materials, and even when the collaboration is face to face it usually involves an official HBS case study. Students, in other words, don't collaborate absent of context. Rather, they have assignments, often consisting of HTML pages and links to Web sites and video clips, that serve as the basis for interaction with instructors. All of this is managed by HBS to make the classroom experience more productive.

Even on the administrative side, course schedules and other paperwork necessary to a student at HBS are handled online. Why spend time at the registrar's office if you can handle these administrative tasks from your desktop PC? The effect is more time spent on education and less on bureaucracy.

The HBS example illustrates some very important points about managing content:

  • Enterprise content mediates most relationships between people and organizations. Even when the interaction is face to face, some form of content is driving or supporting it.

  • Content is valuable in relation to strategy. HBS's purpose is to facilitate knowledge transfer among its students and professors. The intranet serves that purpose by minimizing administrative time and maximizing the students' ability to prepare for classes.

  • The quality of the content significantly enriches the students' (and the instructors') academic experience.

HBS's intranet is a good example of an asset-based approach to enterprise content management. It is essential to an organizational strategy that maps directly to the central purpose of the institution: the creation and transfer of knowledge.

Understanding how content can facilitate business strategy is the starting point for treating it as an asset. Content can include structured data in data warehouses, unstructured data (documents and presentations), and tacit knowledge (as defined in the Preface) in the heads of experts. It also includes methods for searching, delivering, and publishing this information. Giving consistent access to content to your key audiences is essential to managing your brand because it affects the experience these groups have with your company. In that light, it should be easy to see that the return on investment (ROI) of enterprise content management is tied to the success factors of your department, workgroup, division, and enterprise.

Creating Relationships through Content

Say an employee has devised a process change that leads to a 30 percent reduction in product defects. It is a fairly complex change, so he writes up a white paper and sends it to his colleagues across the globe. All agree that a workgroup for creating and sharing information would be a good idea. While the employee and his colleagues have never met face to face, this workgroup interaction yields several ways to reduce defects by another 15 percent.

Or say a group of healthcare customers for a complex software system has formed an independent users group. They hold annual meetings in Atlanta, but most of their interaction is via a Web site where they share tips and tricks for getting more out of the software they have purchased. This interaction has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in support costs across all the participating companies.

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