(Communities of) Practice Make Perfect

There's a lot of talk in business circles about best practices. But what exactly makes a practice "best"? In particular, who are the arbiters and judges who set the standards of practice in our industry? And where are said practices to be found by individuals or organizations seeking to implement a CMS?

Calling something a best practice implies a standard of excellence that has been proven to work within an organization. It must be describable and measurable. It should be repeatable but also adaptable to varying conditions in other organizations.

Sharing best practice knowledge is one of the stated goals of a "community of practice," an increasingly used content industry buzz phrase. McKinsey & Co. defines a community of practice as "a group of professionals, informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge." But even if a small community agrees on a particular best practice, where is the motivation for them to share their knowledge with one another and the wider industry?

A typical individual's reaction is "What's in it for me? If I publish my knowledge, when the next layoffs come, I'll be expendable if everyone knows my stuff." A typical enterprise reaction is "What's in it for us? If our methods get to our competitors, we'll be killed in the marketplace." And in these days of outsourcing concerns, a typical national reaction might be "What's in it for the country? Knowledge is intellectual capital and if we give it away, the work will go to the lowest-paid labor with this knowledge." It's a tragedy of the commons. Everyone wants something out of a community of practice, but few want to put anything valuable in.

Industry associations overcome some of these tendencies and are often a source for best practice advice. Members may be product vendors, hoping to show tools that embody a best practice, or enterprises that have overcome their inherently competitive nature to identify knowledge and share it with others.

AIIM, the Enterprise Content Management Association (www.aiim.org), annually recognizes a few winners with its Best Practice Award. APQC, the American Productivity and Quality Center (www.apqc.org) accepts submitted practices from its member organizations (which pay five-figure annual dues for the privilege). From these, a small number of practices are accepted as "benchmarking candidates." Documents describing an organization's practice are "sanitized" to remove organizations' identities, so judging isn't biased by reputation. Content Technology Works is an unusual industry initiative created to assess, document, and distribute hype-free case studies and best practices in content technology, making them available on a public site (www.gilbane.com). Initial case studies were nominated by CTW Partners (all vendors), although independent contributions are welcome.

Most of the large analyst and consulting firms purport to be describing best practices in the expensive reports they author. And most of the IT system houses—from the Big 5 through system integrators and even many a small content management boutique—will claim to offer clients best practice advice. And let's not forget the top lecturers and authors who make the circuit touting that their seminars and publications include best practices. Dollar for dollar, affordable books on content management, like Bob Boiko's Content Management Bible and Ann Rockley's Managing Enterprise Content, provide the best value in advice.

So now that I've outlined the good, bad, and affordable in CM best practice-purveyors, I want to discuss the latest entry into the fray: CM Professionals (www.cmprofessionals.org). This new membership organization, of which I am a founding member, plans to provide a community of practice that enables CM practitioners to share information, strategies, and yes, practices—hopefully some of the best. We have identified specific practice areas and will research and develop candidates for benchmarking. These include business issues like getting stakeholder support, making the business case, and assembling the project team. Of course, we will cover content issues including auditing content, aligning content strategy to business strategy, building categories, controlling vocabularies, information structure, and designing for reuse. And where would CM best practices be without the technical and navigational issues, which include search, personas and scenarios, use case testing, content conversion and migration, metadata tagging, roles-based workflow, requests for proposals, and vendor selection.

Sure, Fortune 1000 enterprises that belong to APQC are lucky to be able to take advantage of that organization's best practices. But if you are a freelancer or part of a small team implementing CM, consider joining the new CM Pros community of practice and participate in the process of deciding for our industry what constitutes a best practice.