Tim's Weblog
Tim Strehle’s links and thoughts on Web apps, software development and Digital Asset Management, since 2002.

Web of information vs DAM, DM, CM, KM silos

I have spent years of my life making our software work with other software, and I think we have a problem: The “enterprise” is managing overlapping information in disparate systems that don’t interoperate well. There’s lots of system flavors: DAM (interesting stuff like photos, videos, articles). DM (boring stuff like forms, business letters, emails). CM for publishing on the Web. KM holds expert’s contact info and instructions. CRM, employee directories, project management tools, file sharing, document collaboration… Each one with a different focus, but with overlapping data.

Now one system’s asset metadata can be another system’s core asset… Take the Contact Info fields from the IPTC Photo Metadata standard, for instance: When a photographer’s phone number changes, will you update it in your DAM system? How many places will you have to update it in the DAM – is it stored in a single place, or has it been copied into each photo? You’ll probably just update your address book and ignore the DAM. A DAM system simply isn’t a good tool for managing contact information. But it still makes sense for it to display it…

For a more complex example, here’s a typical scenario from our customers: A freelance journalist submits a newspaper article with a photo. It’ll be published in print and online, copied into the newspaper archive, and the journalist is going to get paid. Now when an editor sees that nice photo in her Web CMS and wants to reuse it, can she click on it to see 1) the name of the editor who placed it in the print edition, 2) the photo usage rights, 3) the amount paid to the journalist for the current use, and 4) the journalist’s phone number? No, she can’t. The data for 1) is stored in the print editorial system, 2) in the DAM (rights) and the DM system (contracts), 3) in the SAP accounting system, and 4) in the employee directory.

Of course, all of this can be made to work since each system has some sort of API. With one-off interoperability hacks, for which you need a programmer who’s familiar with the systems involved! Incompatible information silos are hurting the business and wasting a lot of developer time. This is a known problem, and the subject of two more acronyms: II = Information Integration, and MDM = Master Data Management. As a software developer, I see two possible solutions:

First, going back to a monolithic system that does everything at once is not a solution. Neither its user interface nor its backend implementation would be well-suited to the host of different tasks that users need software for.

But we could find a clever, generic way to link information from various systems together so that we can “surf” it in any direction. Linked data in the form of HTML+RDFa is a great way to do this, see my post Publish your data, don’t build APIs. (And Lars Marius Garshol on Semantic integration in practice.)

Or a much more complicated (but fascinating) solution: Product developers stop rolling their own databases and assume they’re going to operate on a shared datastore that is created and managed by someone else. Their software accesses it through a configurable data access layer. Imagine running WordPress and Drupal simultaneously on top of the same MySQL database, working on the same content! A shared datastore would allow for centralized business rules and permissions. But for practical reasons (performance!), this is likely not going to happen. (A baby step in the right direction: Use LDAP instead of creating your own users and groups database tables. We’ve done this and it works great.)

In real life, information doesn’t stand alone – it lives inside a web of interlinked data. Until our systems can handle this reality, we’ve got to break it down, remodel and copy it for each siloed system. Let’s try to improve on that!

Update: See also Ralph Windsor – Digital Asset Management And The Politics Of Metadata Integration. Related blog post by me: Dreaming of a shared content store.