Introducing the Intelligent Content Framework (ICF)

The Intelligent Content Framework (ICF) has been a passion of mine for a long time.  It all started about 6 years ago, when my friend Gerald Kukko and I attended a Life Sciences conference in DC, and after the conference we went down for a stroll by the Potomac.  We got into a deep discussion about eCTD and the XML backbone, and Gerald made the following bold statement ‘I don’t understand publishing’ (of course, this was a ‘loaded’ statement, since Gerald is one of the smartest people I know, and I consider him a mentor – he has a way of inspiring independent thinking with quizzical responses, but few people really understand the depth of his intellect).  This statement kind of put a bug in my ear, and I started thinking in broad terms about Enterprise Content Management.  I read everything I could find on the Web about XML, SGML etc.  I came to the conclusion that most companies were taking a purist view of ECM.  The XML specialist vendors were all talking about specialized XML databases, and the traditional ECM vendors were all taking about storing content that is produced on the Desktop in their repositories because the world needed ‘better file systems’.  Then I started thinking about how this all fits together, and why we could not have the best of both worlds.  What was wrong with storing XML snippets as individual objects in an ECM system, and extracting and synching the metadata to the XML object, so the metadata became readily usable?  The main limitation of this approach was that there was a lack of an information model to supplement this.  Most traditional ECM approaches overcame this limitation via ‘chunking’ the XML documents, and storing the chunks in a so-called virtual document, so it could be assembled according to hierarchy set by the virtual document.  I was never in favor of this approach and always thought that a pure metadata-driven approach to assembling content according to business rules was the right way to go.  I also developed the view that a document was basically a collection of static and dynamic components, frozen at a particular moment in time, as part of its Life Cycle.  This goes against the face of many traditionalist approaches of producing documents on the Desktop, and managing them in a ‘better file system’.  The reality is that both ends of the spectrum need to be covered by a holistic approach to ECM.  The current reality of content production on many Regulated Industries (and in particular the Life Sciences industry, where I work) is more like a ‘Digital Scriptorium’.  I picked up this term from a long-time good customer who was head of Worldwide Regulatory Operations for one of the leading Life Sciences companies.  Whenever I think of monks sitting in a scriptorium, copying text from the Scripture, I still smile inwardly.  The mental vision exactly describes today’s reality of copying and pasting text in a digital world.  There is simply no concept of intelligent content re-use and automation. 

Fast forward a few years and a few false starts (I will not bore anyone with the details – suffice it to say that it was a good learning experience for me).  Back in late 2007, one of my Microsoft colleagues introduced me to Content Technologies who had developed a solution called DITA-Exchange.  I had done some work with their founders before, and I knew they were a bunch of great guys.  When they showed me what they had built, I was blown away.  I also immediately realized that DITA, which had become a mature open standard by now, is exactly the kind of information model that I had been looking for.  DITA has been developed for complex technical manuals and publications.  One can consider a DITA Map as a sort of a Table of Contents, which governs how information artifacts are assembled.  I then took the thinking a bit further, and started wondering why DITA could not be applied to complete documents, instead of just content fragments.  And the answer was obvious: for sure it could be applied.   So I asked my friends at Content Technologies: why can’t you create a DITA-Map of a document collection of something like an eCTD.  Two weeks later they came back with a solution. 

In parallel to the work with Content Technologies, I was also working with the DIA Document and Records Management SIAC.   Several of us within this community have been talking about the need for a industry reference model for metadata that the Life Sciences industry could adopt, instead of each company developing their own.  As the work progressed, I started thinking that what we really need is a single integrated solution that combines the DITA information model and the metadata model.  As it happens, I also started working closely with another good partner, SchemaLogic at the same time on their new MetaPoint solution for managing Enterprise Metadata across the Desktop and SharePointMetaPoint is a revolutionary product in its own right.  We teamed up with SchemaLogic to demonstrate an implementation of the new industry reference model at the 22nd DIA EDM Conference in February, 2009.  As I worked with both partners, I quickly came to the conclusion that MetaPoint and DITA-Exchange are entirely complementary products, and that an integrated solution would result in a revolutionary approach to ECM.  After all these years of thinking and planning, it came down to the simple integration of two products!  And, since both are built on a single platform, SharePoint and Office OpenXML, their integration turned out to be very straightforward.  I guess the Leonardo Da Vinci quote that my friends at Content Technologies like to use is very applicable here: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

We realized that what we have here is an entirely new paradigm in the Enterprise Content Management industry, and so we needed to come up with a name for the integrated solution.   We decided to embrace a new name some folks have already started using in the XML Content Management: Intelligent Content, so we decided to call it the Intelligent Content Management Framework (ICF).  No doubt, Ann Rockley influenced my thinking quite a bit over the last few years, and another fundamental reading was Document Engineering by Bob Glushko.  Here is an excellent White Paper from Ann that defines her view of Intelligent Content, and here is another one by Joe Gollner that talks about Office OpenXML and DITA in the same vein.  I would call it visionary, and I share the same vision.  Here is a quote from the White Paper which brings it all together: OOXML in combination with the capabilities of DITA and collaborative workspaces fundamentally change the way organizations will handle their information. Most importantly of all, these changes are bringing the benefits of XML-enabled intelligent content to a new, and much broader, community of business stakeholders and this will energize the economics underlying the content management market.

I have uploaded some of the materials we have developed on SkyDrive over here, and the datasheet is also available from the Microsoft Life Sciences Site here: Intelligent Content Framework for Regulated Industries.

I am proud to say that we caused quite a stir at the DIA EDM Conference in February.  Our demo booth was packed most of the time, and people were quite surprised to see Microsoft get in the game with a such a high-end ECM solution.   And when it came to the ‘vendor showdown’ that the DIA organized to show the implementation of the new industry reference model, we changed the game and introduced the complete ICF vision.  Here is a direct quote from a customer after the session: “I have to say, the vendor showdown was great.  Not surprisingly, there was only ONE solution that proved it understood how content management should be.  It wasn’t even a close race.  You are doing some really exciting work.”  This kind of feedback is what makes it all worth it!

Why are we calling it a Framework?  Because a Framework needs an Intelligent Content Design (ICD) approach and the right implementation services to go along with it before we can call it a solution.  Kudos and special thanks go out to our partner and friend Jim Averback who helped adopt the vision to the Life Sciences industry, and was instrumental in developing the ICD approach.  We realized early on that technology alone is not sufficient.  Many years of experience has taught us that you can throw the best technology in the world at people, it will fail if it is not easy to use – user experience and user adoption is what can make or break the project!  Therefore, ICD will include content (taxonomy, sample content and topics, etc.)  and methodology.  Jim is already building an industry consortium of medical writers and subject matter experts who will contribute to ICD.  We also signed up a number of great Systems Integrator partners who are building an ICF practice.  It takes all these components to pull off such an ambitious and transformational endeavor!

I also want to thank Michael Brennan of Johnson & Johnson for his friendship over the years, and for sharing his vision and inspiring my thinking about ICF (and for challenging us to keep on.  Thanks also go out to Karin Schneider (‘Metadata Diva’) of J&J.

ICF is a true collaborative team effort, and is probably the most exciting solution I have worked on during my career in the ECM industry.  It is also one of the best examples I know of how SharePoint and Office OpenXML as a platform can address the needs of the most sophisticated ECM applications.

More to come – the fun has only just begun!  🙂

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