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Everything I needed to know about ECM I learned at divinity school

May 24, 2010

These next two posts are dedicated to my wife, Emily, who married me and my loans nine years ago and who has patiently watched me transition from professor to consultant—all the while carrying two mortgages…one on a house and the other on a house of knowledge.

In my day-to-day work, I help organizations find more effective ways to manage their content to meet business goals—increased revenues, higher margins, improved efficiency, more consistent compliance, more effective risk management, and so on. In a previous life, however, I was a professor of religious studies.

In my day-to-day work back then, I wrote and taught about how ancient Christians and Jews interpreted their sacred books in response to contemporary problems. Along the way, in the eight years it took to get my doctorate, I spent a lot of time studying the significant technological transitions from scrolls to books, from papyrus to parchment pages, and from hand-written manuscripts to printed volumes.

In this series of posts, we’ll take a look at some important content management challenges we face today and see how they’re not solely a product of the rapid pace of technological innovation over the last twenty years. Rather, they’ve been a part of enterprise content management (ECM) for almost as long as we’ve been able to write.

Here’s a quick list of them all before we dive into the first two:

  • Mobility
  • Searchability
  • Archiving and disposition
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Data migration


We’re living through a period of rapid growth in the mobility of information as well as the devices that deliver it. If someone had told you ten years ago that you would spend $100 to $250 a month simply to get access to information on your TV, home computer, and mobile devices, you might have wondered why you would need so much information and what you would do with it. Now it’s safe to say you can’t live without it, whether at home or at work.

A similarly radical shift in information mobility was underway during the first few centuries AD. At that time, people living in Europe and the Mediterranean began moving away from using scrolls to capture their important religious texts and adopting what scholars call the codex, which is very much like the modern printed book, with covers, a spine, and individual pages stitched or glued together.

This move had an enormous impact on information mobility. Consider that the Hebrew bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament) written on scrolls takes up the wall of a good sized room, whereas when published as a codex, it can be presented in one volume. Even the large codex required to contain the entire Hebrew bible would be far easier to transport than a single scroll, and a small codex could be carried on your person and still contain huge amounts of content.

None of this sounds as sexy as the mobile revolution we’re currently a part of—no doubt about it. But to give you some idea of the importance of the codex, first consider the longevity factor: for almost 2000 years, the codex in one form or another has been the way to publish information, from leaflets to encyclopedias. Only with the advent of e-book readers have we seen a viable heir to the codex, although even these only provide incremental gains (they still function essentially like a printed book in navigation and page layout) no matter how wonderful they are. Second, consider the fact that Christianity enjoyed its rapid spread across the ancient Mediterranean in the first six centuries AD in part because its sacred text was so portable and allowed its followers to easily carry their religion far and wide.


One of the biggest benefits of “going paperless” is the ability to search electronically stored information (ESI) more quickly, whether due to the semantic richness created by content mark up like XML and SGML or the ever-increasing power of search tools to crawl documents and information (or both).

An analogous gain was realized during the transition from the scroll to the codex described above. Think about how a scroll works: the text is written on a long piece of paper or parchment, attached to two rollers, and then rolled up. Basically, it works like a video or cassette tape. As those of you old enough to remember these media can attest, jumping around from one point to another was incredibly time consuming…even with Automatic Music Search (AMS), that futuristic fast-forwarding technology that “listened” for silence on a cassette to “jump” to the next track.

It was the same with scrolls: to find a given passage or citation was difficult, as you needed to wind the text from one handle to the other until you found the passage you were looking for.

With a codex, however, everything changed. Breaking the text into pages means you can flip through them quickly to find the passage you’re looking for. It also means you can flag important pages to find them later more easily.

The new possibilities for studying a text in a codex made more complex textual interpretation possible—it’s like the difference between doing analysis by paging through a spreadsheet or using a reporting interface that gets you the data you need. And in part it made possible the rich interpretive traditions that both Judaism and Christianity gave rise to over the first millennium.

Okay, so much for the first two challenges we share with our ancient ECM specialists. In the next post, we’ll turn to the last three. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear other historical perspectives on our twenty-first-century business and technology challenges–I know you closet humanities/liberal arts majors are out there…so don’t be shy!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lane permalink
    May 25, 2010 7:10 am

    Is there an analogy to be made between “re-tweeting” and the way the epistles circulated from church to church?

  2. May 27, 2010 9:10 am

    I think you could definitely make that parallel. And not only that, but I think Paul in particular would have been a Twitter power user on his travels to keep in touch with his contacts across the Mediterranean.

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