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Interview with Bob Boiko

First published August 30, 2002

IQPC (Asia) hosted an Intranet Content Management Conference last month. I had the opportunity to attend this conference and listen to the likes of Bob Boiko, author of Content Management Bible, and Gerry McGovern, author of Content Critical.

I took this opportunity to interview Bob Boiko on content management issues revolving around e-learning. He is currently experimenting with e-learning at the Information School, University of Washington, where he teaches classes about information systems and the organizations that produce them.

elearningpost: Can you elaborate on the need or goal of a CMS in an e-learning context?

Bob: From an instructional designer's point of view, a major benefit of having a CMS gives him an opportunity to enact his understanding of the subject matter. When you put together a CMS you have to put together a lot of structure around the pieces of content. You also have to break down your content into small chunks, or objects. Those two activities are instructional design activities. The other benefits of a CMS is that once you have given structure to the content, you can use the system to automatically arrange the sequence of your learning object depending on the particular context in which you are going to deliver them in. For example, a CMS will allow you to use the exact same pieces of content for delivering a standard course (manuals) or an electronic course (website or CD-ROM).

The major benefit for the learner is that he gets the content in the modality he wants. A learner, from a CMS's point of view, is a consumer of published material. The learner will benefit when he a) finds the material in the required channel and b) the material he finds matches his context. A CMS makes it easier to attach context to content for individual learners.

elearningpost: Many times in your presentation you paused and reminded the audience that you were not talking about a "technology" issue. What were you trying to get across?

Bob: A Couple of points. Firstly, technology changes a lot and focusing on technology is not the right thing to do. What's really important to me is figuring out what exactly you want from your learning system or information system. From my point of view, I have certain information resources that I would like to deliver to certain people in a certain way. That's not a technology question. That's not about what system I have. Rather its about what information do I have, who wants it and how do I deliver that information in the best possible way. Now obviously I would need a system to do that, but the infrastructure follows from the need I have, not the other way around.

When someone makes the decision the other way around, focusing on the platform, the software, the features etc., they limit and constrain themselves to what the system allows them to do. This is not to say that technology wont be a determining factor in what you actually have to, its just that technology should be a response to the problem not a definer of the problem.

elearningpost: Some talk of a Moore's law of networks where the value of the network increases in proportion to the number of connections it serves. Is there an equivalent Moore's law for CMSs in which the value of a CMS increases in proportion to the number of content components its serves?

Bob: It's an interesting question. I would say if there is some sort of an equation it would not be that simple. The many factors and many different values would make it an unsolvable quadratic equation! However you say that the more content objects your system is managing the more you are served by that system.

For me the most meaningful value of a CMS is to what extent does the system allows me to deliver the most valuable information in the most consumable fashion. Now you can't write that down in some sort of a quadratic equation, but you can measure it. In fact it's real easy to measure it. In a learning system you measure the value by asking, "did the learners learn?" There are whole sets of evaluation techniques that enable you to measure such attributes.

elearningpost: You mentioned something about "context management." Can you elaborate?

Bob: I am actually very fond of saying that you could capture the concept of content management with the term "context management." A content management system is doing as much to manage context as it is doing to manage content. It allows you codify and insert context parameters to the content so as to re-create the context for the publications it serves. Thus a content management system is not only managing a set of content chunks but it is also managing context.

I've often heard that a content management system destroys context, as its sole purpose is to create neutral information that is free of context. My response to that isÑNo. If you do that you are going to fail. People looking for information do so within a context, and if they don't see that context in a content management system, they will not recognize anything at all. So, what you have to do is to recognize these situations under which the content will be consumed and then incorporate these parameters into the system.

For example, suppose you have three kinds of audiences for your content: management audience, technical audience and the editorial audience. You know beforehand that these are the three kinds of people who will be consuming your information. It's not at all hard to find out what do these three different kinds of people need. You incorporate these issues into the content management system. Now when a piece of content is request from the system, it serves three different of the same content based on the context parameters put into the system. So if I am creating content for a concept, say ROI, for these three kinds of people, some content, like the "definition of ROI", would be applicable for all three people, but others, like "ROI examples", would depend on each person's context. A content management system can recognize such difference in context and serve the appropriate content.

elearningpost: Lastly, the eternal question: Build or Buy?

Bob: Whether you should build or buy depends intensely on your particular situation. Let's look at some constraints, some parameters. Not too many years ago, there wasn't anything to buy. So it was a very simple decision. In not too many years from now, there will be a simple decision again; you won't build your own, because there is a huge industry out there that is trying to solve the problems in a general way by building tools that you need.

I can use the example of word-processors here. Ten years ago there was no such thing as a word-processor, there was just a text-editor. An industry grew up that realized that they want to be able to create printed publications using the computer. As there was nothing out there that catered to their needs, such organizations had to create their own word-processors.
As the industry matured, many products evolved, and this created a sort of a tipping point as organizations now understood that there are products out there that might not be great, but at least they won't have to create our own word-processor. At that point the scales started to tip toward buying more word-processors.

You can see a similar thing happening with CMSs. Once upon a time there was a simple decision to be made because there was nothing out there we could buy. Some day in the future, the problem space will be well defined, the industry will be mature enough that you will be really stupid to build your own. We're at somewhere around that tipping point now where if your problem is distinct enough and not like other peoples problems, you may need to build your own. On the other hand there is a lot of benefits to be gained by buying a product.

To me, a major factor in deciding whether to build or buy is finding out if I want to get into development, and more importantly do I want to get into support. Its not enough to just build a system, but also necessary to build the structure to support that system.
Thus, if your organization does not have the capability to develop and support a homegrown CMS then you are in a very disadvantaged position, as you will not be able to maintain it and keep up with the changes.

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