Having spent over 15 years in the field of digital asset management, both as a consultant and as a staff member of some of the leading media & entertainment companies, I am frequently asked to help define the skill set required to lead an ongoing digital asset management initiative and sometimes, I am even asked to assist in helping find the people to fill this role. What skills should the leader of a digital asset management team possess in order to operate and maintain these types of systems and enable the organization to maximize its full potential? It is an important question to ask and even more important for the organization to get right. I think the question is a challenging one to answer due to the fast pace at which the digital media and technology industries are evolving. I am seeing the skill requirements have grown over the years as the focus on the digital business has increased and departments and budgets have expanded. I will express my opinions in answering this question based on my own experiences but I know not everyone’s DAM experiences are the same. I welcome your feedback and would be interested in hearing what you most value when selecting a leader for your digital asset management teams.
I think it is important for the leader of your DAM department to possess 4 main skills. Before we go into each of those, I wanted to point out that I deliberately used the term “department”. I have seen many companies try to tuck DAM into an existing department within their organization and, generally speaking, it never works very well. DAM is unique. It is its own kind of animal. It involves a little bit of a lot of things such as software engineering, database design, operations, licensing, product design, account management, etc… but is not enough of any of these things, for it to make sense to fold it underneath any one of these headings. It really needs to be considered its own department that works closely with each of the other departments in the organization but is viewed as its own discipline, with its own resources, release schedules and budgets. Recognize this early and you will avoid a number of problems and you won’t inadvertently be setting up the members of the DAM team for failure.
The first skill on my list for a DAM department lead to possess is strong workflow management and troubleshooting skills. There are a number of formalized quality analysis techniques and methodologies used to describe the recursive nature of evaluating the operational components that make up your workflow systems to determine the quality, efficiency and identify deficiencies. They include Six Sigma, Lean, Pareto Analysis, etc… But it is not the method itself or the “certification” in any of these methodologies that is important. What is important is the person is capable of analyzing complex and interconnected systems and for them to be able to think in systematic way so that they can put into place ways in which to monitor these systems to recognize when a system is not running optimally, when failures are occurring or optimizations need to be added. What I am trying to describe here is not the obvious IT system failures like network outages or catastrophic software crashes (although dealing with these events are a part of the job as well). What I am trying to describe is much more subtle. There is an art in working in an environment where software interacts with large volumes of complex metadata. Workflow systems are designed around the data they are expecting to receive. But what happens when the software encounters data that is completely unexpected? Results vary depending on the design of the software and systems. You can never 100% predict the range of data variations that your systems will receive. The best you can do is to try to put defensive barriers in place that will recognize when data exceeds the expected norm and either tries to auto-correct it or routes it through to an error processing pipeline to be manually reviewed. The intelligent algorithms designed to make these complex workflow-processing decisions must be constantly re-evaluated and tweaked to handle newly discovered data variations that enter the system so that the number of manually reviewed records decreases over time.
One can never expect to completely eliminate the need for manual reviewing of failed metadata processing. Some poor quality data will slip past your defense systems and find its way into your production systems. When this happens, it is equally important for this person to be able to put into place a means to locate and correct any of these data issues before they have any significant affect on your data driven business systems. Because these software/data issues don’t typically result in catastrophic errors that take down your systems, it requires one to pay careful attention to the system outputs of the various workflow components and the interactions between them, in order to recognize when the results are deviating from the norm. Many times these problems do not occur regularly and may only manifest themselves under certain conditions involving multiple inputs.
What kind of person would have the well-honed skills to be successful in this role? I don’t think one can say there is a single mold in which one must fit but I will say that experience is critical. Well-honed trouble shooting and analysis skills are not something one can acquire in a certification course or weekend workshop. Neither are these skills something one can acquire proficiency in by reading a book or preparing for a certification exam. The real world can present challenges that can be enormously complex, especially within this era of “big data” in which more and more organizations are finding themselves. I may be a little biased in my opinion on this but I would lean towards individuals with a strong engineering background. The reason I say this is because engineers are typically trained and well practiced in the art of problem solving. They say to be an expert in a subject matter; one must practice a cumulative of 10,000 hours on that subject. The job of a typical engineer is to solve problems and devise solutions. Overtime, their thinking becomes oriented towards looking at complex situations and breaking them down to smaller and smaller sub-components and thinking about how to test each sub-component in order to determine the cause of the problem. I won’t say that engineers are the only ones who possess these skills but I think engineers typically have more opportunities, both in school and in their work life, to hone these types of skills.
A second area of focus, which I think is a very important trait to have in the field of digital asset management, is to have a passion for metadata modeling. I use the term “passion” because, let’s face it, metadata is not particularly sexy or exciting but it is critically important to the success of your DAM systems. If you can find someone who has strong opinions in this area, it is likely they have spent time studying the subject. I firmly believe that with DAM systems, architecture really, really matters! A significant part of any DAM system architecture is the way it captures and stores the metadata that describes its digital assets. “Content is king” as the saying goes but that content does not exist if you can’t find it! In the world of DAM, it could be easily argued, “context is king”. If you take this to heart, you will recognize how important metadata models are. In fact, I view the processing of the media files as the easy part of DAM. It is the metadata, which is the hard part. You need to either leverage existing metadata standards or build your own data models to accurately represent the needs of your business. Then, figure out how to accurately capture this data and protect it from being corrupted over the life of the content. Metadata design is more than just accumulating a list of data fields used to capture metadata. There are real design considerations and industry expertise one needs, in order to develop a metadata model that will last the test of time and grow with your organization’s needs. Also, don’t forget, we operate in an increasingly connected world; so making your metadata models interoperable with both internal and external parties is becoming increasingly important. Having someone who has both strong data modeling experience combined with in-depth knowledge of other available data modeling options is essential in my opinion.
Another trait that I feel is necessary for a DAM department lead that cannot be ignored is a strong background and interest in new technology. The pace of change in the field of technology has become truly exponential. DAM is not just about technology (remember we started our discussion on workflow), however, the right use of technology can make the difference between working harder and working smarter. In just the last few years, I have seen a 5X-10X increase in efficiency with some newer technologies over older tried and true techniques and methodologies. This can have a huge impact on the budget and resource requirements needed to build and maintain your DAM systems (not to mention your competitiveness in the marketplace). A genuine curiosity for new technologies and new approaches to old problems combined with a healthy skepticism and the ability to evaluate the trade-offs between the new and old approaches is important.
The last skill I think is important in a DAM department lead is a good understanding of intellectual property rights. One does not need to have the background of an IP lawyer, however, the plain reality in the digital asset management business is one rarely owns 100% of the rights under all circumstances to the content they manage. Most content has multiple parties with claims and interests in the intellectual property contained within those digital files. Those interests are outlined in contracts with all sorts of conditions and limitations. Understanding the true meaning of these contractual clauses have on your digital asset catalog is critical. You should expect your business to change over time and having someone who understands the implications that these changes can have on the use of the digital assets, the royalties owed and legal risks will be critical to your business.
By no means is this a complete list of skills. But from my experience, these are 4 critical skills that can significantly impact your DAM and your business. If you can find someone with this wide array of skills and experience, you would be certainly off to a very good start.