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The Motor or the Fan?: ECM Moves From Pure-Play to Every Day

Lots of people have written about the inevitable assimilation of "technology" into "application." The best example (thanks, Paul S.) is in the 1993 Don Norman book "The Things That Make Us Smart." In it he talks about how, in the 1920s, you could order from the Sears-Roebuck catalog an electric motor. Then you could buy various attachments...a fan attachment, a blender attachment, a sewing machine attachment, etc. The motor itself was the "thing" you bought; the rest was just application. Then we all know what happened...all those "applications" overtook the underlying technology, and the consumer product market was born.

I think it can be safely said that enterprise content management (ECM) is already way down that path. I don't know anyone (with a notable exception to be pointed out later) who gets up in the morning, takes a shower, and says "I better get to the office...I got a lot of content to manage."

So it's from this slippery part of the adoption curve that I spoke with some really out-there (and I mean that in a good way) thinkers about the ECM marketplace...and the role of the various players in it.

"Nobody builds an expensive infrastructure before there's a problem, then applies it when they encounter problems as they pop up," says Eben Miller, director of product marketing for Interwoven. "Typically what happens is you get lots of point-problems, and when there are enough of them, you aggregate and centralize and standardize on one of your platforms."

So much for boil-the-ocean enterprise content management. So, I ask Eben, it's an afterthought? "Companies are looking at all the content they have spent a lot of time organizing, digitizing, describing, imaging over the years, and are trying to combine it with all the customer data they've also been aggregating through their CRM initiatives," he says. "The purpose is to figure out how to put existing content to work to grow the business. The value is located at where customer content and customer interaction intersect."

He continues: "Before, people spent a lot of their efforts on back-end content management. Now more people are focusing on putting that content to work, doing things like targeted delivery of different offers to customers based on the specific relationship they have with your company, in a dynamic fashion, via the Web. You have to master the complexities under the hood, sure. But because we better understand the relationships among pieces of content found throughout the organization, it can be used to deliver a very relevant experience to your customers."

Andy MacMillan, VP product marketing at Oracle/Stellent, thinks the trend started a long time ago...we're just getting around to noticing: "Customers were rolling out ECM in a certain way before we, as an industry, were even positioning it that way. That is, customers were doing focused deployments on a single business problem, BUT they would do it on top of a single business infrastructure, so that they could continue to roll out solutions and re-leverage the basic architecture. They didn't come with a big checkbook and say, ‘I want to buy ECM.' Instead, they were building business applications that used ECM. And knowing they'd probably build another application in the future, they planned it so they could use the same ECM to build that one, too."

Graham Barker, chief marketing officer for the Toronto-based Xenos, detects a similar market trend: "We've seen demand from customers to consolidate their systems internally. The demand for ECM systems consolidation and ‘document migration' is the driving force in the market right now."

Document migration...what's that?

"That's taking parts of documents from existing system repositories," explains Graham, "and not only transforming the format, but repurposing the content for use by another ECM system. For one thing, this reduces the cost of ownership (from eliminating the redundancy). Also, the M&A trend has led to the need to streamline and merge operations. But more importantly, customers want to turn what sounds like a back-office migration project into a forward-moving strategic initiative," Graham says.

He's joined by Xenos' executive VP and COO Paul Walker. "Even though a corporate IT group is driving the ECM roll-out throughout the enterprise, there's also a cross-disciplinary involvement at the department level," says Paul. "So each department that has content management requirements is getting involved to make sure their requirements get achieved."

How's that going? I ask. "It's a tough change. When we're brought to the table, one of the roles we're involved in is facilitating the discussions among various departments. We've been involved in meetings where, as we're doing introductions, they're introducing themselves to each other! People in various departments have never even met each other!" (I'm imagining a lot of Dilbert organizations where that might be considered an advantage.)

More Organizational Change

There are other aspects of organizational change that have subtly occurred, thanks to the embrace of content as a key component in business process management. Dean Tang is CEO of ABBYY USA, a vendor in the more-or-less traditional space of document imaging/capture and forms processing. But as "traditional" as that might seem, there's nothing static—or simple—about it. "There is a paradoxical phenomenon," Dean admits. "The electronic world has become more and more adopted, more forms have become electronic and more transactions are communicated through electronic means. But there is still 20%-30% of the world that deals with paper; and that paper slows them down."

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