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Everything I needed to know about ECM I learned in divinity school (part 2)

May 27, 2010

This post and the last 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 this series of posts, we’re taking a look at some critical 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 as long as we’ve been able to write.

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

  • Mobility
  • Searchability
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Data migration

For those of you playing along at home, you’ll notice I’ve gotten rid of a category since the first post: Archiving and Disposition. Most of what I had to say overlapped with Data Migration, so I decided to go with the “sexier” topic.

Knowledge Sharing

With the exponential growth of electronically stored information (ESI) at organizations and the increasingly mobile, global, and virtual workforce, effective knowledge sharing is a serious challenge for modern organizations. The need for finding and sharing knowledge across the increasingly-complex enterprise is one key reason for the rapid adoption of social computing technology by businesses.

However, the need for sharing knowledge is by no means new; neither are challenges in how to effectively do so despite geographic (and other kinds of) distance. Early Christians were particularly successful at overcoming knowledge sharing challenges, in large part because of their use of the codex.

Here’s why: when you think about the physical differences between a scroll and a codex, you can imagine how the later would facilitate knowledge sharing more effectively. Rather than having to be located inside the scroll room or, worse yet, requiring you to lug around an unwieldy scroll, with a codex, you have the same information in a much smaller, more convenient format that can be easily carried wherever you go.

And once you meet with someone face to face to share your content, the ease with which you can navigate a codex to find particular passages far exceeds what’s possible with a scroll.

The implications of this for ancient Christians were profound: scrolls require a certain amount of infrastructure to maintain, i.e., a room to hold them and a building to hold the room. But what if you didn’t have a building or a room? What if you were itinerant, traveling from place to place trying to spread your beliefs and needed your sacred texts to travel with you?

Scrolls also make it more difficult to just sit down and begin discussing the text, or to share sections of it with others by teaching or interpreting. You need to roll or unroll until you find the place you’re looking for, and at that point, comparing one section to another or jumping around in the text is much more difficult than flipping through the pages of a codex. And so on.

Now, rather than get into a chicken and egg discussion about whether the spread of early Christianities was due to their use of the codex or vice versa (which we can’t answer anyway), we can say about ancient Christians—who spent a lot of time comparing what their New Testament said about Jesus to what their Old Testament said about the coming of a messiah, who also spent a lot of time on the road spreading their beliefs, and who were (at least for the first three centuries AD) an underdog of sorts in the ancient Mediterranean—that they certainly found the codex to be a knowledge sharing tool fit for their use.

Data migration

Spend enough time working on improving content management at an organization and you bump up against challenges related to data migration. Whether the issues involve online storage (e.g., shared drive content, SharePoint sites, images in an ECM system, email mailboxes) or offline storage (e.g., backup tapes, optical discs), just about every organization struggles with how to migrate data from one format or system to another to lower storage costs, improve performance, reduce risk, and so on.

Early Christians faced similar data migration challenges, primarily due to the papyrus that many ancient texts were written on, whether as scroll or codex. Even under ideal conditions, papyrus is not a great choice for texts that require real longevity–we could expect most texts to have lasted anywhere from 75 to 400 years (there are some notable exceptions). Which means that st some point during the third century AD and beyond, Christians began to develop a serious problem: the texts left to them from the very beginnings of their religion were falling apart. Like a modern-day organization with crumbling backup tapes on its hands, they needed to decide which of these texts merited the time and labor it took to preserve the information contained in them.

Their decisions about data migration were driven, like ours today, by a number of factors. First, did they have the resources to make the copies required? Second, was a given text important enough to merit being copied? Third, was a given text dangerous enough (i.e., heretical enough) to merit not being copied (or just being straight out destroyed)? Was the text lost somewhere in the library room and only found once it was beyond repair? And so on.

The way Christians answered these questions had profound downstream effects, because their data migration choices effectively limited the playing field of texts left for those who came after them—namely us. Here’s an example: when we look at the Christian texts left to us today from the second century AD, we certainly don’t think that all the texts written at that time have survived…we have only some subset left to us. And that subset is not solely a product of the luck of the draw (how well texts were stored, on what quality paper, in repositories that escaped fire or other forms of destruction, and so on), but also the product of a conscious editorial process undertaken by our later Christian data stewards who, when faced with crumbling papyrus, made decisions about what to migrate and what to dispose of. And the result is that our understanding of the Christian texts of the second-century AD must move within limits that in part were established by the work of these later data stewards.

The Final Word

Thanks for hanging in there for this series of “worlds colliding” posts—my wife probably won’t feel any better writing those loan checks for grad school, but I know she appreciates the effort! And I also know that I’ve taken two fairly niche areas of expertise, combined them, and reduced my already narrow target audience by quite a bit (Lane Severson, you know who you are). However, I’m also certain that I’m not the only one out there with an incongruous undergraduate or graduate degree…so if that’s you, pipe up and share your story with the rest of us here–we’d love to hear it!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee Dallas permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:51 am

    Nicean Records Managment – fascinating / though I wonder if Calvin would argue we only keep those documents we are meant to and you really can’t choose whether its a record or not.

    • May 27, 2010 6:14 pm

      Or as Luther would say, “Records are retained by faith alone, not by works…” / I may need a follow up post on Reformed Content Management…

      • Lane permalink
        May 28, 2010 6:38 am

        While Zwingli would likely advocate a purely historical view of records, reminding us that the true data can only be present at the right hand of God…

  2. Steve Froikin permalink
    May 27, 2010 6:15 pm

    Joe–You’ve dealt with random access of the Christian texts under Searchability, but Jewish texts of the time were developing methods of referencing passages from the Old Testament (mainly the Torah) as proof text for legal discussions in the Mishna and later the Gemora. I know that from the earliest days of printed texts, the “links” were accomplished by a layout device that placed the highest authority text in the middle of a page with related commentary placed in the (wide) margins around that text. I’m not sure I’ve seen how this was accomplished in the millenium previous to the printed volumes. (Do you have any idea?) If we were doing a similar thing today, we would certainly use links to accomplish the same thing, so that a page of Talmud would probably look like a Wikipedia page. (And maybe someone has created a web Talmud that looks like this.)

    • May 27, 2010 11:10 pm


      Great point–in fact, the Talmud was the first ancient textual tradition picked up on by web folks as a historical antecedent of their work.

      This is a well-done hyperlinked Talmud page that give s a flavor of what you’re talking about:

      Thanks for introducing this to the discussion!


      • Steve Froikin permalink
        May 28, 2010 6:28 am

        Back when we were using a Mosaic browser (does the term refer to Moses?), I wrote what I thought was a joke article talking about all these things. I wish I still had it.

        Another thing that was true of ancient texts (but later than early Christian days) was the use of graphic elements in the text. That was squelched with the advent of printing. But early printing discovered a whole lot of useful devices that were thrown out when people started putting stuff online and then later rediscovered.

  3. Lane permalink
    May 28, 2010 6:36 am

    Thanks for the shout out!

  4. July 19, 2011 5:17 pm

    I love this! It’s great to be reconnected with you in worlds of social media. xoxo, karen

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