An Entirely New View of ECM
It’s about Discipline and Practice; Not Technology

We’ve been talking forever about enterprise content management (ECM) as though it was some kind of object, a thing that you could acquire and install and then it would purr like a hemi. We talked about ECM as though it were a thing that came boxed and plastic-wrapped and worked as it should from day one, and if it didn’t, that’s because we bought the wrong box and we should go buy a different one.

But what if that isn’t the case? What if ECM, like Dorothy’s slippers, has been here all along. All we had to do was...

This month’s column is devoted not to the technology of ECM, but to its spirit. Because, it turns out, ECM is not about technology at all. It’s about discipline and practice.

“If you try to unify content management across the entire organization based on a single technology, that will be difficult. The goal of having a single product is lofty. No matter how hard you try, different business units will require different technologies. But if you have, as a central theme, the goal of centralizing your data, and a process of recording it, tagging it, archiving it and storing it, I think you have achieved ECM. It’s more of a cultural definition than a technology one.” That’s Chris Foreman, senior VP of sales for AvePoint. Chris is a leading advocate for ECM as an integrated business philosophy, not a product of technology.

“Is there such a thing as ECM? Theoretically, yes. As to whether it actually exists, probably not so much. There are a lot of companies out there that have a lot of discipline, and are more in control of how they leverage software in that way, but they are the rare exception. It’s part luck, but they also have the discipline, vision and leadership that is committed to making it happen. But it’s rare to have the aggregation of those three elements.” That’s Theresa Kollath. Theresa is senior director of product management for ASG Software.

“Every company has a multitude of systems. They have financial systems, and manufacturing systems... there’s ALL kinds of systems. A unified ECM system is more rare than we’ve ever seen before, thanks in part to the addition of social user-generated content. But that just means that having the practice of enterprise content management in place in order to be more efficient and get cost savings and being able to re-use and monetize content is even more important than ever. Any department can have different systems, but in order to really benefit across the enterprise, there needs to be a plan for the taxonomy and the metadata to be consistent. When a customer calls in, that begins a ‘case record’ for that transaction that relates to the customer service information, financial information, etc. If all that information can be brought together in a case, there’s no need for all that information to reside in one unified system.” That’s Corrine Schmid, director of marketing at OpenText. If anyone has a stake in selling ECM software, it’s her. But here she is—in fact here’s three of the leading ECM vendors—telling me that content management is more of a state of mind than it is a matter of technology.

This conversation took place over a couple of days last month, and it has me thinking that our traditional view of content management needs revising in a big way. Not only the part about content management being more about the practices than the tools. But also the notion that content management is perhaps the central, most important organizing condition that businesses today can rely on.

Does ECM Exist? Discuss
“Whether it’s ‘enterprise content management’ depends on how the company itself defines it,” asserts Chris Foreman. “They might have a process in place for a specific function, and declare it ECM. But enterprise content management is defined by the degree it changes business culture and business practices. It is possible; it does exist. But it depends on the type of company,” he says.

Is there any common denominator among those companies that ARE disciplined enough to manage content in an organized way? Is it their regulatory status? Is it the industries they are in? Is it the way they comb their hair? Theresa says, “Nope. I don’t think there’s any single factor that makes it happen.”

“ECM might have been originally implemented as a defensive measure, due to legislation or legal activities taken by some of the more progressive Attorneys General around the country,” says Chris. “But it has snowballed into an overall information management initiative. So the people initially responsible were the IT groups. They were the ones tasked to oversee it, and create a record or to archive it or to create the taxonomy. But within the last couple years, people have realized that IT can’t do it alone, and the leaders on the business side have to lead these initiatives and have to fund and support them if they want them to actually work and get value back from the data.”

“With the tsunami of unstructured content coming at you from all directions, including user-generated content, it’s more important than ever to create a way to leverage and use that content to achieve the old adage: better, faster, cheaper,” adds Corrine. “There’s a lot of expense in maintaining records management for content that you get no value from... it’s sitting there in tier-one storage, collecting dust and racking up costs. I call it ‘lazy content.’ Better to take some of that content and transform it, share it, socialize on it, collaborate on it and change that lazy content into capital that you can actually monetize.

I have yet to hear a CEO say ‘I need an ECM platform.’ But as for the disciplines within ECM... absolutely. Across the board, from the C-level suite and downwards, it’s on the agenda. Given this economy, companies are forced to look at ways to be more effective, and get more information in order to hold onto the precious customers they have. It’s always easier to farm than it is to hunt,” she adds.

Getting value back from the data. That’s an important phrase. For a long time, content has been something you had to beat with a stick, crack a whip at and train to sit on a stool. And after all that, what did you have? “Lazy content,” as Corrine calls it, just sitting there, all nice and managed and doing absolutely nothing to propel the business. It was all pain, no gain.

Chris agrees with Corrine on this point. “Companies are now finding alternatives to storing all their data in tier-one storage, and offloading storage in ways that didn’t previously exist. That helps to turn a lot of heads in the executive suite. We talk to customers who are ingesting hundreds of terabytes of data. We can tell a data-centric customer, like a bank, that we can move 70%-80% of their data from tier-one storage to something else, and save them millions of dollars a year. It makes the idea of consolidating data that much more realistic. They know how they can take that kind of money and re-invest it on projects they’ve been working on. And it works. And they can say to the business leaders, ‘You can get very nearly the same response in terms of retrieval time as you did yesterday, with very little impact on the user experience.”’

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