Notes from Elizabeth's Email

This blog series will address common themes in email questions I receive at

In my practice as both a consultant and advocate for Digital Asset Management (DAM) systems and best practices, I often receive emails asking for advice or thoughts on common DAM, MAM, PIM, LMS and related asset management systems.

Not a quarter goes by that I do not receive an email similar to the one below:

Help! My Company Bought a DAM!

Good Morning, Ms. Keathley:

I am writing to you for advice. I’m a (pick one) photographer/librarian/archivist/public relations specialist/graphic designer and recently my company has assigned the care and keeping of a DAM to me. This system was bought years ago, launched with much fanfare, and has fallen into disuse. Many consider the system broken and/or unusable, but my managers have asked me to fix the system problems.

Where do I start? How do I make my DAM function the way everyone expects?


The Newly DAMed

When I get emails such as this one – and they are, at times, a monthly occurrence – I heave a sigh. I have heard the story many times. A committee of well-intentioned employees likely spent more than a year searching for a DAM vendor, gathered what they thought were the appropriate requirements, interviewed vendors, perhaps even attended an industry convention and then spent large amounts of money on a DAM, MAM, or PIM system. If it was a very big company, they may have even invested in rebranding the interface to match company goals, and at first everyone was very excited to be new members of the twenty-first century workforce where sharing assets securely and finding them easily made everyone’s job better.

But over the months, reality set in. Perhaps only one training class was offered for the system. Everyone was told to upload assets, but those that were loaded into the system could be difficult to find, and workers were aggravated by one more password and website to remember. Loud complaints were often heard from workers who didn’t like the new DAM and felt they were being forced to change in ways that made their day more difficult. The system fell out of favor, and two or three years later the problem is shifted to a new team. You, The Newly DAMed, have been handed a problem that everyone assumes can be fixed if the company just tries a little harder to make it work.

Digital Asset Management is as much a workplace philosophy as it is a platform

However, as I always have to gently tell those emailing me with this common complaint, it’s likely that you can’t fix this system, at least not by yourself. DAM is a top-down effort, and requires first that managers and C-level employees commit themselves fully to changing the workplace routines to be DAM centered. Digital Asset Management is as much a workplace philosophy as it is a platform for the arrangement, description, preservation and access of digital assets. Often when a DAM fails to be adopted by a workplace, what you have on your hands is a failure of change management, not the technology itself.

When handed a situation like this one, put thoughts of how the DAM works aside for a moment, and look at what the users need first. Interview them, and ask the critical question: if you could design a DAM to meet your needs, what would it look like? Now that the company has been exposed to a failed DAM, it’s likely they will be far more articulate about what they want and need from a system. Be sure to emphasize in your interviews what you think is achievable – most DAMs can’t “be like Getty images” as is the often heard cry of graphic designers. Focus in on small goals that you think your company has the people power and budget to accomplish.

After these interviews, then look at the system you’ve been handed. Ask yourself realistically: can the company accomplish the user’s desired goals with this DAM? In my experience, about fifty percent of the time the answer will be no. Be prepared to look at your existing DAM as a learning experience, the system that got you to the place where your users could truly express their asset management needs, so that another system might be contracted to replace the failed one.

Digital Asset Management is as much about personnel and office culture as it is about the system you buy

If you do decide that the DAM you have should be replaced, learn from the last launch! Digital Asset Management is as much about personnel and office culture as it is about the system you buy. Identify dedicated employees who will be in charge of assets going into the system. Design metrics and goals that are truly enforceable by management, and make sure that the company leaders are onboard to making a functional DAM a reality in your company.

The problem of DAMs failing to be adopted by the workplace is pervasive enough that in the second edition of Digital Asset Management: Content Architectures, Project Management, and Creating Order Out of Media Chaos, I included a new chapter on change management co-written with Ralph Windsor of DAM News. I picked Ralph to help me write this chapter because his article The Undervalued Role of The Corporate Digital Asset Librarian, addressed this issue as well. As two consultants working on two different continents with no overlapping clientele, I was surprised to see that Ralph encountered this very same sort of problem just as often in his practice as I did in mine. Together, we managed to write twenty-five pages on the topic, and titled the new chapter DAM Strategy: Risk Management and Change Management.

I have been told by those holding MBAs or other Business degrees that much of what Ralph and I cover in our new chapter are the basic foundations of Roadmapping, or Business Planning. I’m not surprised; to be an effective Digital Asset Manager, one must know the basics of many disciplines. The Newly DAMed must become equal parts librarian, archivist, graphic designer, information scientist, contract negotiator, and human resources professional.

Focus not on bending those working to the shape of the tool, but rather ensure that the tool is shaped to the tasks

So where do The Newly DAMed start? How do they make the system function in the way everyone expects? By gathering together users and explaining first that needs must be redefined by them, those who hope to use the DAM as an everyday tool. Focus not on bending those working to the shape of the tool, but rather ensure that the tool is shaped to the tasks. Help those around you understand that a move into a DAM working environment is as much a shift in office culture norms as the move to email once was. When you feel down and pessimistic about this work, read blogs like this one and other industry news. You, The Newly DAMed, are not alone.