Monday, November 2, 2009

Improved Content Management and Communications Solutions Coming to Educause 2009

An HMO’s radio advertisement captured my attention this morning, most likely because it didn’t appear to be about healthcare. Instead, this provider touted the benefits of their new electronic medical records and the advantage this change provided trees…and patients. While this may seem like a minor advance, I suspect that anyone who has struggled to complete medical forms for what seems like the hundredth time would be elated to have a portable EMR. These seemingly small improvements can fundamentally change the dynamics of industries like medical care and education as well.

When the leaders of our nation’s colleges and universities arrive in Denver for this year’s Educause conference there will be plenty of discussion about how to better employ technology to enhance the learning process. I’m hoping there will be can equal focus on improving the efficiency of these institutions as well. During the past decade we’ve witnessed dramatic improvements in the classroom through the introduction of web technologies. Now may be the ideal time to leverage the know-how and infrastructure many institutions have developed to get these same campuses functioning more like businesses.

Content management technologies could be a good starting place for colleges to build on proven teaching practices. Today, virtually every campus uses a learning management system to manage and share content between faculty and students. In fact, these systems are often extended to serve a variety of other groups and functions across campuses. The technology and skills required to use these systems are practically identical to those needed to manage business information. As a result, many campuses could be better prepared to move their business processes to the web than they actually recognize.

So, if migrating to web enabled content services can be relatively easy for academic institutions then why are so many still trapped in inefficient business processes? One argument is that unlike many commercial organizations, colleges and universities haven’t been forced to modernize practices as quickly. Instead, they’ve focused on upgrading facilities and services, which has been more appealing to faculty and students anyway. Unfortunately, declining enrollments, reduced tax revenues and an inability to increase tuitions indefinitely is changing the economics of “do nothing” when it comes to the business side of education.

While the presence of technology alone isn’t likely to jump start business improvements, I believe there are some missing components withholding business process improvements on campus in general. One important item is a common ECM tool set. This could be addressed with a shared web user interface to access course content or business information. Recognizing that most content is still developed on the desktop, the ideal solution would also need to provide seamless access from within administrative, research and teaching applications. Shared access to a common content repository could also pave the way towards storage virtualization, helping improve content discovery and re-use as well.

Of course, just making content easier to access and share probably won’t be a catalyst by itself. High value, measurable projects need to be identified and assigned champions to ensure they succeed. Most importantly, security issues have to be addressed. After all, worries about content security and control have often been the reason that vital information has been locked away to begin with.

Common user interfaces and collaboration methods don’t have to mean uncontrolled access. Unique web services and storage “pools” combined with advanced identification technologies can ensure that business and class content don’t mix. Role-based authentication methods can even present different information based on the task an employee or student is performing. This can help ensure that information is only accessed by those who need it, and only when they’re supposed to.

As institutions have grown more complex and diverse process inefficiencies have increased. The combination of unrelenting economic pressures and the potential promise of improved web technologies may actually create the environment for change beyond the classroom in 2010. Possibly, Educause 2009 can be real starting point for practical discussions about extending the benefits of the web into administrative processes where measurable ROI can be achieved.

I suspect that a key ingredient for measurable success will be the degree to which technology vendors embrace “openness” or, a general willingness to support open standards and offer easy to use API’s to connect various solutions together. This could accelerate the transfer of knowledge and technology across the institution permitting schools to truly leverage their computing investments. It could also promote the use of shared resources from electricity to storage resulting in further cost savings and environmental benefits.

Open, customizable platforms also facilitate the migration of content and communications to new devices. Just look at the mobile ecosystem that has grown up around the iPhone for proof. (Granted, it’s an Apple-managed environment, but that was probably necessary to get things starts quickly). This can create a compelling environment for technology developers of all sizes. Those who embrace it vigorously will likely see their investments multiply.

I’m confident we’ll see signs of improved systems interoperability at Edcause this year and I’m even more excited to learn how developers are planning to leverage this opportunity both within the academic and vendor communities. Most of all, I’m looking forward to learning more about how clients are planning to get the most from their own content, communications and mobile technologies. Please drop by the Blackboard or Xythos booths this week and let me know how you’re doing it!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Business Continuity, Communications and Content Management

The panic surrounding H1N1 outbreaks appears to have diminished somewhat, but threats related to widespread pandemics and other natural disasters persist. Government and institutional leaders remain challenged to prepare and respond to these kinds of issues as communities grow more diverse and mobile. Public notices and published emergency response plans may no longer be adequate to protect today’s populations.

Mobile technologies offer freedom and flexibility for community members, but they can also complicate communications during emergencies. Community leaders can’t rely on household or employment contact data to reach everyone on time. On college campuses mobile communications are just as likely to take place via the web as they are over voice networks, especially with the growing popularity of smart phones that offer rich web collaboration. It would appear that the business community and general public won’t be far behind on this trend either.

Citizens and communities, students and schools, employees and businesses all need an easier way identify each other and communicate, particularly in the case of an emergency. Multimodal communications services can help address part of this challenge by delivering important notifications in whatever format people best respond to (voice, text, email or web). However, maintaining accurate contact records remains an issue.

It would seem that a common, trusted identity management authority delivered as a web service might help here, but the question is who can we all trust? Google, a government authority, some other organization? (Remember Microsoft Passport?)

Even when mass communications can be delivered accurately and on time, critical issues remain unanswered. How can important details be delivered effectively? What information should be shared with which members of the community? Are there better ways to guide critical resources to where they are needed most? A common web site can probably serve a community’s general information requirements, but it may not be nimble or specific enough to guide individual groups during critical situations.

While it may be impossible to anticipate all potential threats to a community or the possible response scenarios, there are processes and services that can help. Just as the web has become more collaborative and bi-directional for consumers (think Facebook) content management technologies have become simpler and more flexible for organizations to use. These web services based solutions can make developing and maintaining web sites for unique groups or communities almost as easy as writing an email. This could enable leaders to provide much more specific guidance to various groups and more easily prepare multiple scenario response options.

The combination of a mobile device enabled public joined with flexible mass communications and content management services could result in a new era better prepared to respond to natural disasters. Although there remain significant obstacles to achieving this outcome, individuals collaborating for the common good of their communities may help overcome the trust issues that inhibit contact and communication. Improved directory services and closer integration between communications and content management technologies will also improve the probability for success.

No combination of technology can eliminate the mayhem that a pandemic or natural disaster can produce. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to leverage technology improvements to help minimize potential damage and suffering. Now may be an ideal time to explore what benefits mass communications and content management technologies can provide so that you can better prepare for both your communities future and your own. I suspect that the possibility that these technologies will interoperate more effectively together in the future is a good one.

If you’re curious to take a a look at what this might become test drive the latest Blackboard Connect service and Xythos on Demand. These are both SaaS solutions that almost beg for some kind of mashup kind of integration. A smartphone focused solution, particularly the kind that can leverage geo-positioning data such as the iPhone does might represent the most intriguing combination. I hope we’ll have more to say about that at Blackboard soon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

BbWorld 2009, Learning & Content Management and Mass Communications

Yes, that’s a lot to discuss, but it was enthusiastically during last week’s annual Blackboard World conference hosted on the shores of the Potomac in our nation’s capital. Perhaps even more important was the fact that many of the 1,600+ attendees we’re also seeking ways to better leverage the combination of content management, communications and teaching and learning technologies in ways they may never have considered before. Whether this included third party software partners, open source projects from the academic community or new Blackboard services, everyone seemed to be redefining their expectations about learning platforms.

Before I share more observations from Blackboard World, I should inform readers of changes in my own charter at the company because I expect it will impact the focus of the Just Sharing blog as the year progresses. During the last month, I’ve become engaged with our company’s mass notification business, Backboard Connect, in order to assist with marketing its SaaS solutions and better integrating them with other parts of the overall Blackboard business. While enterprise content management (ECM) and mass notification may not appear to be obviously complimentary, I’m already beginning to see synergies and I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn about that in the coming months.

We’ve discussed the inter-relationships between learning and content management in this blog before. I suspect this topic is going to receive even more attention the rest of the year, if the conversations I heard at Blackboard World 2009 are any indication. Institutions are demanding more flexible solutions for managing course content as it becomes more complex and rich. It would only seem natural for them to look to the ECM marketplace to provide guidance and technology. As an integral component of the Blackboard Learn platform, Xythos has an important role to play delivering enhanced ECM functionality within the teaching and learning process and beyond the classroom as well.

Transitioning from a stand-alone ECM focused role within the company to one intended to leverage knowledge and technology across the businesses has occupied almost all of my time lately, so please accept my apologies for the recent lapse in updates to this blog. I’ll aim to publish at least a couple substantive articles each month going forward. Given the continued transition towards content enabled vertical applications within the ECM market it would seem like a natural evolution for Just Sharing to dig deeper into learning content and content distribution management in the education and government markets overall.

As I said, discussions at Blackboard World this year really seemed to highlight key changes taking place regarding how institutions consider the role of content and the different ways they would like to manage and use it. For example, I heard about more plans to virtualize content storage than ever before. Of course, this was typically followed by complaints that it’s still not easy enough for typical users to get content into to virtual repositories. (Maybe they should try Xythos Drive? We’ll explore more about better enabling content contribution via Java applets and web clients for Blackboard in the next few weeks).

Other attendees discussed their desire to link content repositories within the LMS and ECM environments to help minimize work duplication and redundant data storage. I didn’t hear as much concern about content security and compliance as I would have expected, but perhaps that was just an assumed benefit associated with data centralization? A few attendees even spoke to me about deploying common content repositories shared between distributed campuses. Clearly, the desire to reduce complexity and costs hasn’t dissipated.

It was also evident that technology and business managers were thinking about content and learning management beyond the PC. Excitement about Blackboard’s new Mobile Edu initiative was rampant and questions about integrating course delivery, deploying content and managing mass communications via handheld devices were non-stop. I concluded that if technology vendors want to succeed in the world of mobile applications there may be no better market test than higher education and perhaps parts of K-12 too. Where else can you find such a mobile customer base almost guaranteed to be using all the latest web gadgets?

Once again, BbWorld served to re-set expectations about the role of technology and communications, but this time I think as much outside the classroom as within. I suspect the event also provided a healthy stimulus for continued dialog and experimentation among attendees for the rest of 2009 as well. So, if you’re curious to learn more about Blackboard’s content management plans or how mass communications services can supplement your own content strategies, please stay tuned to Just Sharing. There’s plenty more coming! Jim

Monday, June 8, 2009

Our Digital Lives (ECM), Cars and Changing Expectations

Recently, I’ve been researching how students manage content and collaborate with instructors and their peers. The younger “digital natives” are already significantly exposed to web technologies and different devices they use to connect online. Even older students now complete more than half of their coursework online these days. Outside of the classroom online collaboration continues at similar pace – the result being that much of young people’s lives are taking place on the Web.

I was thinking about this research while listening to reports about the final demise of GM and wondering how much that meant to students vs. older folks like myself listening to the bankruptcy unfold on Fox News. Cars were once quite important to me, including Corvettes, Camaro’s and maybe even the first Hummer. I was proud of my first convertible and probably thought it helped define who I was.

Less than a dozen years later my relationship with cars has changed considerably. While I can afford more significant models these days, I don’t purchase them. Certainly my own life changes have affected this, but I think it’s more than just that. Like today’s student’s, I’m collaborating online more than ever. In fact, I’m enjoying the benefits of not traveling as much, staying out of my car, and generally being more efficient participating in meetings, sharing documents, and collaborating with co-workers online almost every day.

My car sits in the garage a lot these days. That doesn’t bother me too much. I save money on fuel and its always ready if I need it to go somewhere. I took about two minutes to choose it. I just said, “I’ll take that silver one”, and I was done. In contrast, I spent hours choosing my last laptop and the applications I customized it with. I agonized, but finally switched to a Mac and soon discovered important new ways to develop and manage content with iLife, iWork and Quicktime.

Most importantly, I’ve begun to define myself via online services today much more than I do through cars. Linkedin, Twitter, email and blogs are where I interact with others and often how I begin my day. These online collaboration tools help me better communicate about my work. When combined with enterprise content management applications, like Xythos they also help me develop and share important documents and files that are the foundation of my business.

I may be a bit different from other late boomers in my business/persona migration to the web, but probably not by much. However, I’m certain that those on their way into the workforce will be the most digitally active ever. They’re going to expect web services at least as good as those they use at school or home and the freedom to flexibly employ them. That means from wherever and when ever they need them.

As the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives become less clear, I suspect that our cars will become a less significant part of our average workday. Hopefully, that will mean that we get to enjoy them more when we do use them and not associate them with insufferable office commutes anymore. With Cisco just added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average as GM was removed it almost seems like the highways of work themselves are changing from physical to digital ones too.

I guess the good news is that it’s a lot easier to transport my digital self to work projects these days. Now that I’ve invested some time better defining myself online, it seems more enjoyable too. Yes, there are fundamental changes rocking the economy, but they’re not just financial ones. The nature of work and how we perform it is changing rapidly. Isn't it time to get yourself and your business content online so that you can enjoy the extra time and cost savings too?

You’ll be doing yourself and the environment a favor. Who knows, with those extra carbon credits you’ll earn, you might even have time to enjoy that convertible again…

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Introducing Enterprise Content Management (ECM) at School?

When I was in school content management mostly consisted of storing my documents in a three-ring binder. If I could keep the papers for each of my classes organized between the color-coded page separators for a whole semester it seemed like a real victory. Archaic as that may appear today, when you think about it, learning those content organization skills was preparing me for work in the “modern office” of the time. At least I learned not to pinch my fingers in binders or open more than one upper filing cabinet drawer at a time.

Obviously, a lot has changed in decades since I was in grade school. More and more students are using online resources to supplement the learning process in addition to tracking and reporting on their progress. Learning or, course management systems are rapidly replacing traditional methods of content delivery and introducing fundamental changes into how students and teachers interact.

Students using today’s online learning management systems are also developing the skills they will need to succeed beyond the classroom. In less than a few years, IDC expects that over 70% of US employees will interact with their managers remotely. These workers will depend on a variety of content management tools to help them collaborate and work together across distances and time zones. They will probably expect to have access to tools like the one’s that allowed them review a lecture online or participate in a class discussion remotely.

While it may seem strange to discuss students using content management systems at school, that’s exactly what they are doing. Over 85% of higher education institutions have adopted an LMS standard and a growing number of K-12 districts are doing the same. Among the many advantages these systems offer, managing and sharing content online is fundamental benefit. As a result, students are learning how to access, create, modify and collaborate on learning materials at younger and younger ages.

Just as I learned to organize my own documents and later access others in the school library, today’s students are discovering new ways to search for information online and associate it with their own academic histories. As parents already know, it’s not unusual for class projects to be published on web pages these days. In fact, a growing number of students are now maintaining their own web portfolios, often using the same systems that help manage their class work. The concept of re-using content between applications or business processes won’t be foreign to these digital natives.

What does all of this learning management system experience mean for the ECM industry and the workforce that depends on its technology? A significant opportunity for change, I suspect. The common metaphors we use for organizing information are changing as content becomes more complex and abundant. Metadata is becoming more important to content discovery while file and folder hierarchies seem ever more cumbersome. Just think of how you last searched for rich media content (a photograph, perhaps?) on Google (Picasa) or Facebook.

My understanding of storage hierarchies and taxonomies may become as useful as my old three-ring binder as search technologies become more capable and our applications produce more useful metadata. This could be good news for ECM applications. It might allow them to become more flexible and easy to use, just like the web-enabled learning and social networking technologies that students are becoming comfortable with today.

It’s reasonable to expect that tomorrow’s knowledge workers will need to become even more efficient than today’s and ECM technologies should help support that demand. As students continue to gain familiarity with content management via their work with learning management systems, it will be interesting to observe how that experience shapes their expectations in the workplace. At a minimum, I expect that the mobility afforded by web applications will be demanded at the office.

A Web 2.0+/social network-guided education experience may also prepare future employees for a very different office computing and content management environment than we’re familiar with today. Who knows, that might leave hierarchical filing systems and the computing technology that’s enforced them back in the closet with my old binders and hanging file folders. I would at least expect it to increase demand for similar learning management solutions to support continuing education in the workplace. That’s something we’ll need to look into next time.

Until then, you can learn more about learning and content management beginning at Regards, Jim

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ECM & Email – The End of File Attachments?

I remember a marketing campaign we dreamed up years ago called “No More Attachments”. It was intended to encourage businesses to abandon attaching documents to email messages long before the concept was mainstream. Back then; most organizations weren’t familiar with social networks or storing much online, except for website pages.

Reading a recent AIIM ECM survey reminded me of the misconceived campaign because it suggests that even in 2009 many organizations remain overwhelmed with managing email. While email is certainly one of the most successful applications ever developed, its popularity and ease of use have created serious IT headaches.

For example, 55% of AIIM survey respondents report they have “little or no confidence” that important emails are recorded, complete or recoverable. (That’s just a small improvement compared to the prior year’s results of 62% “non-confidence”). Considering that US courts regard email as an electronic record, that could become an expensive problem should a business find itself involved in litigation.

In the same AIIM survey 27% of respondents also reported that email attachments were “very unmanaged”. I’m not sure which of these statistics scares me more? I suspect some organizations consider documents and files to be vital records, but if they’re being managed and stored as attachments in individual email accounts that could be a recipe for disaster.

Most mid-large sized businesses require employees to remove email from corporate servers or risk having it deleted after a specified period of time (30-90 days usually). If standard archiving rules aren’t supported, employees usually copy files to local folders on their PC, or possibly store them on portable drives or CD’s. What happens to that vital content then? What if the only remaining copy of an important document was a file attachment?

Email is simply a dangerous place to store important documents. Searching for documents in email clients like, Outlook is notoriously difficult. Trying to do the same in Entourage is worse (trust me). I rely on Google desktop to help get me out of these kinds of problems, but even that doesn’t always work. A well-intentioned IT admin recently updated my email identity to better manage my storage. Suddenly, I could not longer access any of the messages or attachments I could find with Google. Loss and theft of portable data storage devices is an even bigger problem.

I’ve learned my lesson to keep all my documents in an online content management system – no matter what they are about. The fact is, I can find them and share them much more easily and my employer can monitor and classify them, if needed as well. Once my files are stored online, I can skip attaching them to messages and use file links instead. These days, that’s really no different from how I share photographs and other content on the web outside of work.

So much is being written about the benefits and challenges of social networking in the enterprise. I think if employees could simply harness their new web collaboration skills to abandon sending file attachments they and their employers would find managing content could be much simpler. For example, replacing file attachments with links to documents stored in a common content repository significantly eases the burden on mail servers. Businesses could actually monitor and control content access more effectively as well.

Of course, this suggestion presumes that everyone has access to content management solutions. Well, if you don’t, here’s a somewhat radical suggestion. Get your own. That’s right; sign up for an ECM service online, like Xythos on Demand, or even use Google Docs. It’s free! I know that’s not probably IT-approved advice, but it will be an improvement, and your team will gain valuable experience using Web 2.0 tools to collaborate.

The better-known services, including Google Apps, Microsoft’s new SaaS version of SharePoint and Xythos on Demand all employ industry standard security methods to ensure your content remains safe. The rest is really up to you and your team. If you follow accepted workplace practices and don’t share content with unknown parties, you should keep out of trouble. Consider the advice you might tell your child about Facebook, and you’ll be OK.

Once you’ve learned how your own team can benefit from sharing document links, try leveraging your experience to convince your organization to adopt its own sanctioned solution. That way the rest of your co-workers can benefit from being able to find and share files more easily. Don’t forget to ask for a solution that scans email messages as well. That way you can take care of two content management problems at once.

Who knows, maybe AIIM’s survey will show some more improvements in this area next year… In the meantime,  if you run into trouble, let me know. If you end up with some good stories to tell, please share those as well! Oh, I almost forgot. Make sure to get your hands on a plug-in, or Xythos Drive for your preferred email client to replace “paper clipping” with a link to your ECM system. It will accelerate your independence from file attachments almost overnight!

Regards, Jim

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Will iPhone, Kindle and Online Collaboration be the end of Printed Documents?

What was the last document or file that you actually printed yourself? Was it something that you wanted to share with others, or did you simply prefer reading it on paper instead of on screen? Maybe it was something you needed to sign and submit, or perhaps you were just following a common work habit?

I remember the last item I printed. It was an airline boarding pass I needed a few days ago. The “document” before that was really just a discount coupon for parking. The last time I printed a business related document was about two weeks ago, when I decided to review a program summary outdoors. My MacBook display is quite bright, but it still isn’t useful in the sunlight. (I always wonder about those laptop adds staged near swimming pools….)

Anyway, I’ve been observing my reduced printing behavior as a sort of personal experiment. It’s encouraging progress from a green perspective, but that’s not really my motivation. I’m simply finding that my growing reliance on web based document delivery, editing and sharing is largely a matter of convenience. I’ve grown tired of re-typing my own freehand notes and my intended output format has largely become electronic as well.

The addition of new content delivery devices like the iPhone, and Kindle are also changing my expectations about how and when to consume and, sometimes edit content. I’m having no trouble reading news using the New York Times and Wall Street Journal iPhone apps. While I don’t do much serious document editing on this device yet, it’s easy to use email, Linkedin or Twitter, and reviewing an Office document isn’t impossible. I’m looking forward to iPhone OS 3.0 software updates for improved editing as well.

Using my iPhone to access and manage documents in an ECM system

I’m not sure where the Kindle would fit into my own content management lifestyle as my MacBook is with me at most times, or if it’s not my iPhone certainly is. However, the combination of these devices appears to have profoundly changed my appetite for printed output as both a content creator and consumer. For those who mostly consume content and maybe use another device for email, etc., the new Kindle DX may become their “green” alternative for newspapers and magazines. While a bit expensive, it will certainly help keep fingers and clothes cleaner.

A lot of business, legal and medical processes still depend on paper documents, but I think that may change sooner than most think. The cost-saving and security advantages of doing this have been well documented. While the process of change is not simple, I suspect some of the fears associated with managing electronic content are somewhat inflated. We simply need to become more comfortable with paper-less content in general, in order for it to be better accepted as part of mission-critical business processes.

Online document collaboration software and devices like the iPhone and Kindle may be just the enticement we need to become ready to embrace a paper-less future. I’ve even begun using my iPhone WSJ app to read the “paper” before it gets delivered. I wonder how much longer I’ll continue with home delivery of the “old” version…?

An easy way to test this whole hypothesis is to become more engaged in social networks like Facebook, Linkedin and even Twitter. I’ve noticed that the more I use these networks, the more I want all my content stored online – whether that’s photographs, music or documents. Pretty soon, having content stored anywhere else just seems like a hassle. And of course, that means printed documents too.

Has your paper document consumption and output begun to change also? What’s causing that to happen and how is it affecting you or your business? Please let us know.