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The deep and delicate art of ECM

This article appears in the issue March 2008 (100 Companies) [Volume 17, Issue 3]
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The enterprise content management (ECM) market is at a critical turning point where it must prove itself or be lost altogether. Over the last 20 years, widely disparate business demands for content management, the stubborn resistance of antiquated practices, widely different methods of handling content, technology growing pains, the slow maturation of standards, the whims of investment hype as money flits from document management to Web content management to Web 2.0, and conflicting definitions of what content management is, have led us to a rocky, complicated and still wildly dynamic vendor landscape.

No matter how loudly the vendors tout the notion of a unified ECM system, no matter how many vendors consume each other, the ECM market has defied complete consolidation. Having covered the market for eight years, I’ve kept a simple list of every content management-related vendor that has crossed my desk, noting when they emerge, when they’re acquired or when they disappear. At 316 as I write this, the list grows daily.

That is caused partially by disruptive technology and business models, which these days center on Web 2.0, where community-generated content, like wikis and blogs, is changing the content management game. But more fundamental to the ever expanding content management market is that its purpose is to deal with change and variety rather than predictability, with ideas and knowledge rather than data, and with the endless idiosyncrasies of human communication and collaboration rather than programmable logic.

Companies do well to look at content management as an enabler for their knowledge management strategy. And rather than existing separately from their established systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP), content management acts as an extension of those systems, allowing for exceptions to the repeatable processes governed by ERP, as well as recognizing and capturing processes and data that should be managed in those systems. At the same time, content management is an enabler for machine-to-human, human-to-machine and human-to-human collaboration and communication.

The human communication aspect of content management is surely an art, as is the deep information management foundation that supports it.

So, a seemingly trite but crucial point about ECM is that, in its infinite variety, it’s just plain hard. Vendors that have tried to go after the truly common denominators of content management demand, across industries and business processes, often look like little more than just another kind of database. A more expansive data repository is not nearly enough to solve the most pressing customer problems. Business initiatives—like improving knowledge worker productivity, product development and innovation, customer service and support, and sales and marketing, as well as addressing compliance—require purpose-built capture and delivery mechanisms, interfaces, business logic, analytics and often unique ways of handling data.

So, contrary to what you may have heard, not all content repositories are the same. Even this goes back to the development and growth of the content management market.

In principle, content management proposes to allow companies to manage information independent of its form, format or publishing medium, so that it’s accurate and synchronized across the many places it may appear, and so that presentation can be changed without changing the content’s meaning. Unfortunately, because of competitive factors, specific market demands and technology limitations of the past, many content management products have had to compromise that principle during their development and maturation.

To look more closely, the biggest, most successful and influential providers of content management in the enterprise were formed around two primary categories: document management (DM) and Web content management (WCM).

Document management

Document management systems typically handle content at a file level, organizing, versioning and integrating documents by using metadata, information about the content that’s generally stored separately from the content itself. In effect, document management systems grew not really to handle content but rather to manage the containers of content, like word processing files, scanned images and PDFs.

Document management systems developed that way for good reason. Managing the intricacies of the content in those containers was far too complicated for most companies to face. Furthermore, much of the early demand was to remove paper dependency, so a great deal of the content consisted of scanned document images, which were difficult to break down into content components.

And document management remains a useful and necessary approach in many situations, especially in managing paper—in the many places where paper remains an inescapable reality—and in managing rich media, which can also be difficult to break down into manageable content components.

Web content management

The emergence of the Web brought an urgent need for companies to establish a presence in a new environment, as well as a burgeoning new kind of content management provider. This time they knew the information would have to be published and updated dynamically, and that the same content elements were likely to be seen and viewed in various places. So managing content elements themselves, separate from form or format, was part of the fundamental architecture.

Unfortunately, Web content management was hugely hot and held unique new challenges, so we ended up with vendors that, despite the good architectural principles, supported the Web at the expense of other content management needs. Moreover, because it was new territory, vendors used various often-proprietary architectures and development languages.

The other two major growth categories are records management (RM) and digital asset management (DAM). Both of those essentially use document management techniques, yet were founded on different principles. Records management is specifically used to address a business issue. Digital asset management was largely created to deal with particularly hard-to-manage rich assets, like graphics and videos, which are more difficult than text to manage at any level of granularity, which often require greater bandwidth and networking capabilities, and which often carry an implication of intellectual or publishing rights property.

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