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Tracing the ancestry of a product

This article appears in the issue February 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 2]
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I have been in this industry a long time and if there is one thing that I've learned, it is that nothing much changes. That's not to say that nothing ever changes-things do, only at a much slower pace than we might imagine. The professional and academic debates that I listened to at the KMWorld Conference in 1999, detailing the enormous problems one encounters when trying to encourage and build a knowledge sharing organization, are the same discussions I hear today. The only difference is that now we talk less often about knowledge management; instead we talk about collaboration, social networking and, dare I say it, E 2.0. And if the underlying organizational dynamics have not changed that much, it really should be no surprise that the underlying technology has not changed that much either. Indeed, products that I evaluated and researched in the .com boom are in the main still with us, looking much the same and doing much the same as they did then. For sure, the names have in many cases changed, as have the owners of the various offerings. But most of the time the core technology remains the same.

All that being said, change is in some ways constant. For me the biggest change of the last decade in our industry has been the dramatic demise of procurement (buying) professionals. Highly trained professionals, procurement managers kept the world of information management on something approaching solid ground. They did so by ensuring that new technology solutions were thoroughly vetted and met the needs of users and businesses before any commitment was made. Yet in 2011, most product procurement processes are undertaken by IT and businesspeople alone, who usually have little or no training or background in technology procurement practices. The net-net of all of this is that today we see totally inappropriate, overpriced and redundant technology being procured on a regular basis.

Of course, even in the "good old days" people bought the wrong technology at the wrong price, and then had little idea what to do with it. But far from that situation gradually improving over the years, it has gotten worse. There are ways, though, to mitigate the risk of investing in new information technology, one of which is an understanding of what it is that you are actually buying.

The consequences of growth

The wonder of marketing is that people are far more aware of brands than what those brands actually represent. For example, in my day-to-day work, it is not uncommon for people to tell me things like: "We use OpenText" or "We bought Autonomy" or "We are going to use Documentum for this project." When they say such things, we typically presume that they are using an OpenText product (of which there are many). Or they have bought an Autonomy product to use. The question always left unanswered is: "Which Autonomy/OpenText/EMC Documentum product/s?"

Most big ECM/KM suppliers have grown in large part via acquisitions over the past decade. They have not organically developed and created new functionality and products; they have in fact gone out and bought a company that had a product they liked, then typically changed the name of said product and rebranded it as their own. In many cases, they bought firms with multiple products, often products that overlapped with products they already owned and sold.

Each of those products was designed by different people, for different purposes at different times-some were good, some were bad, some worked well in one situation and not so well in another. So inspired in part by television programs that delve into celebrities' family trees, unveiling the heroic and the debauched in their lineage, I thought I would try and do something similar for some of the major suppliers in the KM sector. With a view to illustrating how research and an open mind can be not only revealing, but also essential when you are looking to buy new technology for your organization.

The family trees in this article only illustrate the actual companies that have been acquired to build up these firms over the years. Tracking the individual products that each company sold prior to the acquisition, and current status would be near impossible. But that restriction aside, we have found these family trees to be of value, as I hope you will. First up is KM veteran and stalwart OpenText of Waterloo, Canada.

OpenText

As you can see in the chart on page 7 KMWorld, February 2012, OpenText has made a lot of corporate acquisitions over its lifetime, and we have been vocal critics of that strategy at times. Not critical of the strategy from a financial standpoint because OpenText has grown strongly and has remained profitable over a long period. But critical from a buyer's perspective. What is it that a buyer is getting from OpenText, which product is being sold to them, and what is the long-term future of that product within OpenText? Is it a product that is somewhat redundant because OpenText already has others that do the same thing, or is it something that fills a key gap in OpenText's portfolio and will be the subject of much love and attention in the coming years?

To illustrate, Epicentric was a dot.com era darling and was at the forefront of providing business portal application software. Founded in 1998, it was acquired in 2001 by Vignette, which had plans to use the software as an interface for all its existing legacy technology. Vignette, in turn, was acquired by OpenText in 2009. There is not much left of the original Epicentric product, and OpenText has many other products with which you could build a business portal. Would OpenText have acquired Vignette without the Epicentric piece? Almost certainly, because by 2009 Epicentric was long forgotten.

So if you are looking to build a business portal and are considering OpenText as a supplier, you really do need to know what it is trying to sell to you. Is it a former Vignette product based on the original Epicentric technology? Is it ECM Suite 2010 (formerly LiveLink), or is it the company acquired from Hummingbird? The fact is it matters, to you at least. You need to know what it is you are buying, where it came from and what its future is. Without really digging into that kind of thing, you run the risk of being sold a clunker (wittingly or not).

But this article is not about OpenText, it is about all big KM vendors, like Autonomy currently in the process of being acquired by HP.

Instead of portals, this time we might consider what buying an Autonomy "record management product" might actually mean. It could mean the SharePoint-centric product that Autonomy acquired when it bought Northern Ireland-based Meridio in 2007, or MDY or iLumin, which were gobbled up via the acquisition of CA's records management offerings, or even the RM functionality of iManage, or the archiving functionality of Zantaz. Once HP has completed its purchase of Autonomy, it could even mean HP's own acquired RM functionality TRIM, which came from HP's acquisition of Australia-based Tower Software in 2008.

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