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The politics of content management…

May 8, 2010

With election fever hitting the UK this last week it seemed timely to examine the role politics plays in the content management challenges many of us face daily.

Certainly my experiences over the last 15 years or so have shown it to be a very ‘politically’ charged activity.

If you look at the definition of ‘politics’ it’s easy to see why.

Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and refers to the regulation of a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.

Content management, in one form or another, touches many aspects of an organisation’s operation, crosses lines of authority and power frequently and thereby demands the regular formulation and application of policies.

Over the last decade politics has had a profound effect on content management at a macro level. In the UK, the spending of tax payers money by the Labour Party on IT and web related projects across central and local government played a key role in helping mid-market CMS venders gain traction, revenue and momentum. Policy and legislation regarding website accessibility, compliance and Freedom of Information has given plenty of opportunity for vendors to innovate and differentiate. I know for sure that my taxes and those of others certainly helped keep me gainfully employed by a CMS vendor for a good few years of the last decade.

But just as high levels of Government spending have helped to shape the CMS software market, the likely, necessary and overdue severe spending cuts that are heading our way fast will also have a profound effect. Those vendors and service providers for whom the Public Sector is a key revenue stream had better get new market strategies in place soon as they’re going to have to work harder to chase much smaller budgets.

Beyond the macro social and economic environment, content management and associated web related projects are often a microcosm of the type of drama that has just been playing out on the UK political scene. At one point or another, you’re going to encounter different factions that represent different thought worlds – be that on an individual, departmental, business unit, regional or country level.

Something I’ve noticed on the last few projects is how accurate the Google Analytics dashboard representation of an organisation’s web audience is in helping to predict the distribution of power and authority when it comes to gaining buy-in and co-operation to content management initiatives.

The screenshot below represented a global 3 way split between the Americas, Europe and Asia I’ve experienced on a project.  Also, in common with country politics, it represented different ideologies. The Americas supporting a J2EE approach, Europe a .NET one and Asia an Open Source one.  So how did we make progress?

Well, it was a bit like the situation we have right now with a hung parliament in the UK. You had a big power block on the left who had been running the global web initiative for several years and another big power block on the right who, along with the main countries in Europe, were getting frustrated at the lack of progress and calling for major change. Ultimately, it was the voting block made up of all the main European countries that helped swing the agreement on a route forward but even though consensus was gained originally and considerable progress made, it became a real battle to keep the focus on the developments that made sense for the company as a whole as opposed to those of one particular country above all else.

The warning bells really started sounding when the reasons the big power blocks on left and right kept raising for not doing things that would benefit the global initiative became more and more insular and illogical. As the progress of the project challenged established power and authority increasingly the politics became all the more apparent and whereas previously it had helped propel the project forward, it now started to stifle it.

As this excellent document from J Boye points out on web strategy, it’s important to understand the type of organisation structure and culture you are dealing with because if it is historically chaotic or highly devolved in its decision making getting agreement on essential process and policy across the varying factions may be virtually impossible to achieve.

The politics of information/content management is as relevant today as it was when this wise book was published in 1995 . This blog post about ‘mind-killing politics’ explores some of the downsides of this. Hung parliament scenarios in web projects waste time and resources – decisive leadership works far better. I’ll be watching with interest to see if there are lessons to be learned for web projects from what happens in the weeks and months in UK politics since our eventful election day last Thursday.

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