There’s no shame in being confused about the purpose of every single piece of the Enterprise software stack, such a complex arrangement of moving parts can be confusing to the best of us, even those who’ve worked with an array of software over a number of years. It’s also true that two companies may use a particular piece of software for entirely different purposes, in an entirely different way. It’s therefore easy to forget that there are dividing lines between software, and what seems like a great stand-in for say, a DAM system will turn out to be fundamentally flawed in fulfilling the same purpose. Best practice is to focus on best-in-breed software, only use software for its intended purpose and try to recognise when other software might be more appropriate for the particular task you wish to accomplish. It’s common to see companies use File Management in place of DAM, often not realising that dividing lines exist between this software. Inevitably problems arise when gaps in functionality highlight the fact that File Management is not DAM.


The rise of File management in the Enterprise Stack

Twenty years ago, when DAM was still in its infancy, the reason many companies sought a DAM system was largely the same; the centralisation of data and protection from its loss. At that time problems arose from CDs and external hard drives kept in desk drawers. Additionally, departmental servers, intranets and shared drives were hard to keep track of, access or manage effectively. While these situations still exist, there’s the additional problem of File Management platforms; cloud storage solutions which people use commonly in their social and work lives. Much like before there are several different File Management instances in a company, some for personal use, some enterprise-wide and some within business units or departments. These systems have clear benefits and seemingly assist us in our work lives but from the perspective of DAM, they muddy the water further by dispersing company data even more widely than before. Everyone brings their personal ‘ease of use’ accounts to the party, on their myriad devices; it’s BYOD gone haywire!

In order to understand the issues as they relate to DAM, it’s worth looking more closely at why people are using File Management platforms. Reasons can broadly be categorised  into 3 main areas:

  • It’s cheap
  • It’s easy to use
  • It’s ‘familiar’ to me


It’s cheap

What started out life as a way to file documents quickly and more cheaply, transfer large files or share folders of content behind firewalls has now skyrocketed. Dropbox is predicted to earn up to $1.35 Billion revenue this year, with roughly 30% deriving from business customers and user numbers in the hundreds of millions. Other free to use players include Google (Cloud & Drive) and Microsoft (OneDrive and 365), with revenues for individual platforms a little harder to calculate and similarly high user numbers. The shared theme with all of these and other players is that most businesses will have at least one paid instance (if not several departmental instances) and a significant percentage of employees will also have a paid instance for personal and business use. The point is that you are likely to be spending a lot more on File Management than you realise and as will be discussed there are other issues that may arise which can increase the expense further.

It’s easy to use

A quick bit of maths will tell you that 70% of Dropbox accounts are for ‘personal’ use, most people reading this will have used Google Drive, Office 365 or similar for ‘personal’ use. If we all looked at our usage of these platforms, could we say with 100% assuredness that there isn’t a single work file on our personal accounts? It’s likely that a larger proportion of people have files on their personal accounts that legally should not have been removed from a particular storage source. You will often hear the above phrase together with “It saves me time”.  File management systems offer us shortcuts to achieve tasks more quickly, to bypass firewalls, to avoid paperwork, they make our lives a little easier, but as Margaret Chase Smith once said: “The right way is not always the popular and easy way”.

It’s not a huge jump in logic to realise that bypassing firewalls, avoiding paperwork and taking shortcuts can be dangerous from a legal standpoint. After a few lawsuits, you might start to realise that there are other ‘costs’ involved with the improper use of data and this is ever more poignant with the recent changes brought about by GDPR. The metadata management, versioning and rights management features that are part of the ‘Core functionality’ of DAM are designed to avoid such issues. The idea that these ‘shortcuts’ increase your productivity is a falsehood, you are simply offsetting work that needs to be done, work that in the long term will benefit you, your colleagues and company alike.

It’s ‘familiar’ to me

People don’t like change and this is true in the workplace; why bother learning a new way when your way works just fine? User buy-in is a major issue in any software acquisition, an issue that was covered in a previous article. Even companies with long-standing DAM systems score low on metadata maturity because they have failed to instigate the correct working practices. Given the option of ingesting files through a DAM, adding metadata, categorising them, setting permissions and so on or simply whacking them in a shared folder most would choose the latter. Familiarity can count for a lot, you might hear “It works on my phone” as the main reason File Transfer / Management software has been chosen over DAM. This brings us back around to wanting to take shortcuts, which is dangerous.

If familiarity is the issue, then bring your employees into the decision making process for DAM acquisition. That way they’ll be familiarised with the software before they start to use it. If you get user buy-in, get people excited about the DAM, explain to them the benefits of properly marking up assets, setting permissions and so on, then maybe DAM looks the more appealing option. You need to remember that buying a piece of software is only one part of the overriding strategy. Getting your employees involved and utilising the software to its full potential takes a bit of time and effort, but will have a clear and positive impact on your ROI in the end. Governance, Human Resources and Compliance departments need to be all over this from the get-go.

Is File Management DAM?

A common misconception is that DAM is little more than a file management system, a fancy silo or shared drive where content can be stored and shared. As discussed there are a number of free to use File Management vendors out there used both privately and in businesses worldwide, often free versions have reduced functionality and/or scale. With paid versions of the software, it’s true that some functionality is shared with DAM and in some cases, functionality is on a par with DAM systems. However, dig a little bit deeper and the cracks start to show, you will soon realise that without significant assistance from other software, you’re unlikely to come close to something that acts like a DAM system.

In order to demonstrate the discrepancy between DAM and File management, 10 Core Characteristics Assessments were carried out on a number of leading file management vendors. These companies ranged from huge, multinational vendors found in almost every office in the world to smaller, File Transfer vendors which grew out of the need to share large files behind firewalls easily. In all cases, there was some capacity to store and share content, two of the features which denote DAM. In all cases, these systems failed the 10 Core Characteristics Assessment and in fact, all failed in multiple areas. This is not a slur against these companies, it is an attempt to highlight that they are not DAM systems and despite being very good at handling a lot of tasks as it relates to DAM, 10 Core accredited vendors will most likely do it better.

Our analyses revealed the following failures, please note that this is across all the vendors tested:

  • Inability to read and or write metadata
  • Inability to assign rights to assets
  • Inability to handle a wide range of asset/metadata types
  • Inability to create custom metadata fields
  • Inability to transform/transcode assets from one form to another
  • Inability to carry out automated transcodes, converting common file types into thumbnails and so on
  • Inability to gather / access audit data regarding activity on the DAM
  • Inability to at the very least download this data for analysis elsewhere
  • Inability to assign Unique Identifiers (UIDs) and use these UIDs to relate assets together
  • Inability to create relationships other than versions
  • Inability to carry out true version control
  • Inability to carry out upload AND review and approval & upload workflows
  • Inability to communicate within the system on workflow and the like
  • Inability to preview common file types
  • Inability to use lightbox-esque features to share assets with other people

Just to make this clear, that’s 15 failures from 22 dimensions across all the vendors tested.

It’s worth reiterating that every vendor tested failed on multiple dimensions and that one failed on all 15. Most of these 15 dimensions are pre-existing reasons for failing the 10 Core, from vendors who call themselves DAM vendors. These findings reflect more on the public perception of the File Management industry, as it relates to being a DAM vendor than it does to their proficiency as a software provider in general. File Transfer and File Management vendors, like DAM, have a specific subset of functionality in which they excel. Some of this functionality is shared with DAM and in some cases is not available on any DAM system. That’s the point to make here: “When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.”


WHY File Management is not Digital Asset Management

Our analyses identify main areas where File Management falls down at Digital Asset Management these are:

  • The inability to utilise metadata (especially taxonomy and controlled vocabularies)
  • The inability to handle a wide range of file types
  • The inability to prevent right violations, monitor and improve usage
  • The inability to carry out workflows (particularly at the metadata level)



The Inability to utilise metadata

Metadata permeates everything that you do in DAM. It is the copy that tells the story of assets, it records activities, directs workflow and manages users, and consequently is key to effective asset management. Digital Asset Management should focus as much on the storage and utilisation of metadata as it does the storage and utilisation of ‘Files’. File management and transfer platforms focus almost entirely on the file, with only a small number of platforms allowing for very basic metadata-driven functionality. That isn’t necessarily a problem if you want to use File Management for its intended purpose, it becomes a problem if you want to use it for DAM, and the keyword as to why is ‘Asset’.

Assets are created from files when you ‘describe’ them with metadata. This can be a literal description, a keyword or taxonomy assigned but is also data gathered throughout its lifecycle regarding its usage and the changes that have occurred to it. Without the ability to Ingest, read, Store and create such data you can’t really call a file management system an asset management system. A majority of the File management vendors failed in multiple areas due to a lack of metadata management tools. None were able to utilise taxonomies and controlled vocabularies in the way that most DAM systems can and there was little to no ability to describe assets using searchable metadata. Several of the other 10 Core Characteristics directly involve metadata handling, including Ingest, Secure, Store and Enrich. Metadata management impacts most activities in DAM and this is why it’s been covered it first.

The inability to handle a wide range of file types

A finding from our analyses is that many of the File Management systems investigated were borne out of Document Management and the ties remain strong. Many of these systems handle documents with greater proficiency than other file types and some features are exclusively available for documents such as version control. Digital Asset Management attempts to connect the silos, to provide a one-stop shop for all types of content, to provide the basis for a range of workflows and a multitude of asset life cycles. All assets are created equal in a DAM system (even if DAM systems themselves are not!), whilst in most File Management systems a particular asset type is favoured which leads to failures in multiple dimensions including Transformation, Transcoding & Editing, Version Control, Previewing and Workflow. It’s the same reason why MAM (Media Asset Management) vendors, despite their proficiency with handling audiovisual content, are unlikely to pass the 10 Core Characteristics of a DAM test.

A major issue which arises from an inability to handle a wide range of asset types and metadata is that you remove DAM as the foundation for all digital operations. As soon as you have to take an asset out of the DAM to Process, Preview or Transform it you lose an element of control, you lose the DAM’s connection to the asset lifecycle. This is not to say that integrations for such activities aren’t a crucial component of Digital Asset Management. The difference with Integrations is that DAM remains in control of the metadata, the versions and usage of that asset. With File Management, even when versioning is available there is little to no information stored with the asset about the changes that have been made to it, who’s made them and why. This is precisely why DAM is more than a storage medium, it manages and monitors assets throughout the lifecycle and provides a space for collaboration and creative work.

The inability to prevent right violations, monitor and improve usage

This observation actually covers several of the 22 dimensions of the 10 Core Characteristics, but mainly the characteristics of Secure and Enrich. Dealing first with Secure, several of the File Management vendors scored quite well on Access and Roles & Permissions and would rank somewhere in the middle when compared to accredited vendors. However all but one failed on Rights management due to an inability to embed rights metadata, monitor asset usage or assign Roles & Permissions at the metadata level. This issue lies at the heart of the problem of using File Management in place of DAM; you are unable to truly keep track of what data you have, where it is and who is using it. You could easily be harbouring several rights management violations and not even know about it.

Enrich is one of the 10 Core Characteristics and relates to the DAM’s ability to gather, store and analyse data on the DAM system. This includes data on users & their activity, the assets stored on the system and in some cases data from external sources. Analytics & Reporting is a key component required to make constant improvements, is a method of quality control and also a method of measuring the ‘success’ of particular work. 10 Core Accreditation requires that you can access data gathered through Auditing and analyse it or at the very least, download it for analysis elsewhere. Vendors who score higher have inbuilt or tightly integrated tools which can access and analyse the data. They are also able to ask more complex and meaningful questions about the data gathered such as the ability to analyse search data or carry out complex analyses of individual users. The type of questions you are able to ask is as important as the amount of data that you’re collecting.

A small proportion of the File Management vendors had a data audit that could be accessed and analysed. Of this small proportion, the breadth of reporting and analytics available was small and related largely to site traffic and global system data. Even the most proficient vendors were only capable of average scores. It’s worth mentioning that this is an area a lot of DAM vendors also score poorly on, however it is the combination of this with other 10 Core failures that makes the lacking functionality more significant with File Management vendors. It is, again a fault which stems from a lack of metadata management capabilities. It manifests as the inability to utilise data to improve the operation of the system itself and as such File Management systems are limited in their ability to self-monitor and improve usage.

The inability to carry out workflows

One of the features which separate other storage mediums from DAM is the capacity to kick off a range of Workflows for a range of purposes. For the 10 Core Characteristic Process / Workflow it’s expected that there are upload workflows, used to apply metadata and categorise assets into a folder or similar, there must also be some capacity to carry out review and approval. Very few File Management vendors had upload workflows. Those that did were comparable to low scoring vendors, with rudimentary abilities to add metadata tags. However, in most cases they were entirely absent. Review and approval workflows were better covered, but in most cases were limited to documents. Minus a couple of the vendors, the integrations available to supplement workflow were simply widgets where you could send content to and from the File Management system. As anticipated any metadata created during the workflow process was not stored or made accessible for tracking and infringements of copyright, IP and licenses.

Most of the issues with Workflow which would result in failing the 10 Core related to both an inability to handle metadata and an inability to handle a wide range of file types. The knock on effect is that you lose control further down the line when you want to take your files, edit, improve and then Produce / Publish a finished product. With File Management you’re missing a record of all the changes that have happened, you’re missing the input from your colleagues, you’re missing the space to collaborate and you’re missing creative oversight from admins, managers and your seniors through Workflow Management.  When coupled with failures in Rights Management and Reporting & Analytics you’re also missing the ability to monitor content once it has been shared or published. DAM is the basis for workflow and a key component in its delivery. A File Management system is more likely to be where you retrieve files in order to begin a workflow.

The Inability to do DAM

In conclusion, don’t use a File Management system in place of a DAM and don’t mistake DAM for just a simple storage medium. It is DAM’s capacity as a metadata engine and as the facilitator of workflow, analytics, collaboration and transformation which sets it apart from such mediums. File Management systems have their uses as places to back up work, collaborate on documents and transfer large files behind firewalls (although this might be discouraged). Such is their capacity for collaboration on documents and their general widespread usage that many DAMs integrate with many of the more well-known vendors. However, they encourage a silo-mentality, and can further complicate your enterprise architecture by simply moving a problem to a new location. This is something which DAM seeks to remedy, to break down and consolidate the silos and get everyone on the same page working on the same assets. This is largely achieved through the use of metadata and as discussed metadata management is the main reason that File Management systems are incapable of Core DAM functionality.

Let’s not forget that File Management has a place within a DAM strategy, people use them everyday and this should be factored in to the decision making process for DAM.

Questions to ask yourself now…

What happens when an employee leaves and still has access to your content on their own paid or free File Management system?

How do you find content on multiple File Management systems if there is no central control or management of these smaller app purchases?

Can you be certain of other risks, like IP or Copyright infringement, compliance and governance issues as they relate to File Management over DAM?

Is a vast net of File Management solutions really improving productivity, or would you be better served ‘starting again’ with a single source of the truth?

Strategy Footnote: Asset Amnesty

As discussed it’s possible that sensitive files and data exist on File Management systems somewhere in your company and/or in the possession of your staff. Upon realisation it’s probable that many will keep hold of said data rather than face repercussions, thus permeating the problem. Taking inspiration from conflict resolution, perhaps we should see DAM acquisition as a fresh start, draw a line under the prior, disorganised state and have an ‘Asset Amnesty’. This could be a simple but effective way to tidy up potential copyright and IP infringements, locate missing assets which can then be marked up, repurposed and reused all while taking the pressure off employees for what is likely to be innocent errors in judgement. It also encourages the idea of a shared vision and community around the DAM and encourages a change in culture around governance and best practice.