Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Social Media, Enterprise Content Management, and Ownership Responsibility

By Dennis D. McDonald

I commented on the need to take into account, when developing strategies for implementing enterprise content management (ECM) systems, how social media can support not only internal and external corporate communications but also corporate innovation processes. In this post I discuss some of the issues associated with defining and assigning ownership and responsibility for such systems.

By “enterprise content management system” I refer to technologies and processes that support the creation, management, and use of unstructured data such as text, documents, and other digital media. Partly through XML-enabled structural and content definition information, and partly through improved metadata management systems, it will eventually be possible to enable a level of control over unstructured information that is similar to what has long been possible over structured information such as numeric, financial, and fielded data.

Complex corporate systems that are critical to corporate operations will eventually incorporate the management and use of both structured and unstructured data in a seamless fashion. When employees manage a customer’s transaction, for example, they will be able to navigate through a variety of data and metadata related to the transaction, the customer, and the object of the transaction, just as today we surf the web without regard to location or time. In some cases employees and customers will share access to the same data; we already see elements of this with calls for customer involvement in product development.

If and when such seamless management of data types becomes standard, as with any system implemented within an enterprise, it will be important to assign ownership and management responsibilities, even when the management and use of such systems is highly decentralized. This is especially true when an infrastructure system is implemented that has the potential for touching on how work is conducted throughout the organization.  Here are examples:

  • When a system breaks you have to know whom to call, irrespective of whether the person you call is sitting in your building, across the country, or across the world.
  • When a system changes through an upgrade or modification, the ripple effects on systems that touch it need to be accommodated and managed so that other systems and processes aren’t adversely affected.
  • When the business processes change that the system supports, someone must take responsibility for the development and training associated with the new business processes, and that person needs to understand something of how the underlying systems support those processes.  

Traditionally, assigning ownership responsibilities to different applications and technology components have been straightforward. Infrastructure systems that provide support throughout the organization have traditionally been the responsibility of IT or Communications departments. More specialized individual applications and data stores that support individual business processes are sometimes assigned both a business owner and a technology owner, where the business owner is responsible for the successful outcomes of the processes the system supports. Technology owners are responsible for ensuring the hardware, software, and communications technology associated with the business processes are available, reliable, and secure.  

Will the implementation of social media such as blogs, wikis, expertise management systems, or networks of socially bookmarked links and files require a rethinking of these traditional ownership and responsibility distinctions? I think so, but not so much because of the ongoing debate about whether to implement social media within the enterprise in a “top down” or “bottom up” fashion.

The following are three reasons why we may need to adapt traditional ownership and responsibility distinctions as both social media and content management continue to evolve and become more intertwined with existing applications and business processes.

The first reason is based on legal and regulatory requirements. As has become true with increasing attention being paid to how email can be tracked and located for “discovery” purposes during litigation, all types of communications associated with a particular customer or transaction may eventually become subject to legal discovery or regulation. Whether a social media based system begins life in a top down or bottom up fashion, the company’s legal department will be highly sensitive to the company’s ability to manage and recover those communications wherever they occurred or wherever they sit. Someone in a position of authority will have to be charged with responsibility for overseeing the operation of infrastructure content management and social networking systems, even if such systems operate in a hands-off or highly decentralized fashion.

The second reason is based on privacy and security concerns. Social media tend to be, well, social. People will have to become even more sensitive about privacy and the possibility that personally-identifying information will leak “outside” into the public web. This type of concern has as many technology issues as social issues associated with it. Again, organizations will need to establish oversight, policy, and training regimens to ensure privacy is maintained concerning dealings with customer or employee data.

The third reason is based on the strong possibility that different people will adopt and use new technology at different rates. For example, some people are more comfortable with managing content than others. We see that in how different people use social bookmarking and tagging. For some it’s a boon, and for others it requires more care and attention than seems warranted. For social media and social networking tools to become part and parcel of mainstream corporate business processes, these differences in adoption rates will need to be accommodated. That may mean that someone will need to be assigned responsibilities for seeing that available tools are used and used correctly.

I’m not suggesting that a “big brother” approach is necessary to making sure that social media and social networking techniques get taken up and adopted as standard operating procedures within the enterprise.  I am suggesting, though, that those with responsibility for planning ahead on how organizations operate will need to operate with more than a “let’s toss it in and see if it floats” attitude. Assigning ownership and responsibility with respect to desired outcomes therefore seems a reasonable thing to do.


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