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The Enterprise as the Context

Rick Yagodich asked the question: How do we manage this Context thing, anyway?

He identifies that context has two main purposes:

  • to provide a baseline for understanding, the assumptions of meaning
  • to make the choices to communicate the appropriate message to the other party, in the best possible way

By focusing on the latter, he identifies a gap in current CMS technology and suggests how we might begin to deal with this problem. It’s an excellent starting point, but I would like to throw the net much wider; I would like to suggest that context is so important that it requires us to rethink the entire enterprise.

We are only at the beginning of the digital age; postulating about the digital future is much like asking a monk (in the Middle Ages) what the impact of the printing press will be on ecclesiastical affairs. Enterprises are faced with a similar question: what does all this mean? What will all this mean?

Monks' Mead
Ultimately, what Enterprises are dealing with is an explosion in the variety of people, experiences, products, services, geographies, societies, and markets they must cater for simultaneously. Compounding this is the accelerating emergence of new markets and communications channels. Context management is critical, and will only become more-so in determining the success or failure of enterprises online.

Current CMS technology is built for the enterprise as it has existed until now: the business demands a website or a mobile app etc; authors demand an interface which is easy to use; marketing departments demand the website is tailored for the key business goals and will provide key metrics; and IT demands that data be stored correctly and safely. The creation of high-quality, engaging content in this model becomes an arduous affair, as is clear to anyone who reads up on the emerging profession of Content Strategy.

Incorporating a strategy to handle context only serves to compound this problem. As Rick describes, context scares people for two reasons: 1) the number of meta-data axes that authors must maintain quickly becomes unmanageable; 2) context is dependent on the order that events occur (it’s non-commutative). We’re rapidly approaching a version of the Impossibility Theorem: there may be no way to manage this centrally.

Don’t give me impossible

The Impossibility Theorem is an economic theory which argues that due to the huge diversity of needs that are spread throughout the market, no central authority can ever manage or control them. It’s an argument for free-market policy in politics; I would argue that it can be applied here, too.

In his post, Rick demonstrates that we need a new role (The Context Manager), and that CMS’s need to be extended to become Context Management Systems also. I agree, but we must be careful to recognise the challenge that we face.

Due to the dynamic and complex nature of context, the only way that contextual information can be produced is if the wider enterprise is brought into the digital (and non-digital) content process in a far more prominent way. What other structure exists where all the various relationships with customers are handled; where the different varieties of content for different purposes are produced? Indeed, it could be argued that the enterprise is the only structure that can accurately map the complexity of its context.

We cannot expect a marketing – or communications – team to handle context for the enterprise in isolation. This model already struggles to deal with the creation of basic content for a handful of channels. In the future, the number of channels will explode, and the demands of customers over those channels will increase in ways we can not yet imagine. Therefore, the whole enterprise must be reorganised and mobilised to prepare for the contextualisation of its content. This is the purpose of the Context Manager.

Reference links

Monk’s Mead, by Chris Shipton@ChrisShipton

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