Enterprise Content Management: Are You Content With Your Content?

We've been talking about enterprise content management (ECM) well over 10 years now. The basic concept hasn't changed much: that the information assets of an organization should be made readily available to everyone who needs them to do their jobs better. Pretty hard to argue with.

But even with all the hand-wringing, thought-provoking, well-meaning articles... all the PowerPoint presentations... all the white-paper publishing... all the sales calls and application workshops... there is still no such thing as enterprise content management in 99% of the world. In fact, I'd venture to say that due to increasing globalization and rampant merger and acquisition, there are even FEWER businesses practicing anything that could be described as ECM than there were those long 10 years ago.

"The thing that surprises me the most about enterprise content management is that people aren't doing it already!" exclaims Theresa Kollath. Theresa is senior director of product management for content management solutions at ASG Software. So she knows a thing or two about the adoption of ECM. "It's shocking to me, in this day and age, how many people continue to do things the way they always have."

Shocked, I tell you! Theresa insists. But I'm not. Because ECM is not easy. For it to truly exist, all of an organization's business processes need to be intertwined in very intimate ways. And each of the stakeholders has to agree on a position from a Kama Sutra-like collection of possible interrelationships. And then you gotta get someone to pay for it.

The Dilemma of Automation

"Most people assume that automation in all business areas is mature. We've all become accustomed to things like online banking. Our expectation is that everything works that way. Well, everything doesn't work that way," declares Theresa. "I think the average consumer of these processes would also be shocked (again with the shocked!) at how much manual effort still goes on, and how much paper is still being generated."

"I try to keep in mind the ultimate goal of ECM: To connect a business's people (knowledge workers), processes and information," says Mary Leigh Mackie, AvePoint's director of marketing in the Americas. "If they don't all integrate with each other there are two problems: One, it becomes more and more difficult to implement, enforce and monitor ECM policies; and two, it adds complexity to knowledge workers' roles... they have to learn how to work in multiple business applications," says Mary Leigh.

It's clear that embracing ECM can be fraught with peril. But the way to clear the path, according to both Theresa and Mary Leigh, is to illustrate the potential return from making the effort. And there needn't be fancy-schmancy fifth-generation applications. As in most of life's experiences, the simpler the better.

"When you can explain the value of true ECM and the cost savings and so forth, the light bulbs go off," says Theresa. They may not be sexy examples, she admits, but they indicate the degree to which ECM is—and is not—incorporated into our typical processes. "For example," starts Theresa. "Everyone has accounts payable (AP), but a lot of that process is still manual—information has to be keyed in, visually compared and verified against a purchase order, manually approved and so forth. It's a process made up of many discrete steps."

Under a manual AP system, a company can get underwater fast. "The process can take 10-20 days. When you think about how many business days there are in a month, 20 days can put you into the next billing cycle. It's not a new problem, but there can be significant improvements though the use of an enterprise content management system," says Theresa.

Mary Leigh has another example. "Look at the creation and management of contracts. Knowledge workers might collaborate on a contract until its completion. Once a contract is finalized and executed, however, now it may be subject to policies for legal retention and must be managed in accordance with a records management process. If this is a software license agreement, as a more specific example, and you're a products company, you may even need to publish the contract terms on your website so that when prospects download a trial version of your software they are presented with the most up-to-date terms and conditions." So already the document—a simple contract—has been delivered through three vastly different systems as part of the overall process. "If those systems for collaboration, RM and Web content management are not integrated, it increases the amount of manual effort necessary to move the completed contract through the process. If these business applications were instead integrated or even resided on the same platform, upon contract approval you could automate the ‘publishing' of the contract to the Web and apply retention policies with vastly reduced manual effort." And further, Mary Leigh adds, "with automation, you can track process and policy compliance, and with the integration or even consolidation of these applications, reduce the management complexity from an IT perspective as well."

"Insurance claims is another example," adds Theresa. "It's not a terribly innovative concept, but it is crucially important. You need to be able to identify and hand off every item related to a claim. Let's say it's a car accident—there is a police report, photos, statements from those involved, insurance information from all parties. And if there's anything ‘off' in any of the information, you have to deal with the exceptions. To integrate that packet of information into a workflow that has rules for both the normal and the exception cases... that's pretty hard for many companies."

The Organization, Man

The low-hanging fruit of AP and insurance claim processing are indeed likely candidates for improvement via ECM, if not all that exciting. But what about the less-obvious applications... places where you can apply ECM to solve problems you wouldn't ordinarily think of? "Then you need people who are extraordinarily smart technically as well as well-versed with the business. I had a curious conversation with someone last week who is extremely bright, very well-versed in the field, but had absolutely no idea how an idea he was proposing would have crippled a third-party partner of his company. The person's idea was completely un-feasible. So you have to have both the technical acumen and the business acumen to ask the right questions," answers Theresa.

By this time, I think everyone agrees that a content management vision and strategy must be aligned with the organization's business imperatives and processes. But the question is: Whose job is it to create and articulate that vision? And if it's truly an enterprisewide strategy, how can it be translated into the various departmental "lingos" that have to be addressed?

"When it comes to creating, articulating and executing on content management visions and strategies, I do not believe there is a single defining person or organizational role," Mary Leigh says. "We encourage the introduction of a ‘governance board.' It should have executive sponsors, but should also gather business and IT representatives all in the same room, to discuss both business and IT requirements for content management systems, to develop a comprehensive vision and strategy. Business representatives should include personnel from various departments—HR, legal, knowledge management, sales, marketing and the like—and these representatives (whether business owners or end users) should help translate strategies and plans into departmental lingo."

Fighting For Change

We often float that idea of "centers of excellence" committees like the one Mary Leigh proposes. And it's clearly a good idea. But in practice, it's often another thing altogether. Organizations can often be hidebound in their routines. Compromise usually means letting something you value go. The politics of organizations are byzantine in structure and medieval in execution. "Change can be good; change can be bad," says Theresa. "But change is always scary. Change does not come out of a box; it takes work," she says.

"One thing I learned as a consultant was that you have to come in and act as though you know nothing, rather than pretend to be a know-all be-all. You should say, ‘I'm the expert on my stuff, but I'm sure as heck not the expert in the way YOU do business.'"

A lot of vendors make that mistake—they act as though they can walk in on a Tuesday and tell you how to transform your business overnight. "What you should do instead is develop personal interrelationships with the customers, and work with folks to learn how they do business. And trust me... it will not happen in a single one-hour meeting, Theresa says." "You cannot get a comprehensive overview without chatting with a number of different people over a number of different sessions. You have to sit with the people in the trenches, and see firsthand how things get done."

It can be kind of nerve-wracking for the customer, to have someone watching over their shoulders. It reminds me of the great Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie, "Desk Set," where the great Kate plays a reference librarian at a network news organization, and Spencer wants to automate her out of a job with his new-fangled computer. The conflict between man and machine is time-worn; it's no different for organizations facing the massive overhaul of its precious routines.

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