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What is Enterprise Content Management?
You know you have an information management problem, but what kind? Defining the exact nature of the problem is always half the battle to finding a solution.
Technology solutions to business problems that are associated with the production, storage, and distribution of information have historically gelled around different types of management software:
- Imaging and Capture
- RM: Records Management
- DAM: Digital Assets Management
- DM: Document Management
- Workflow/Business Process Management
- KM: Knowledge Management
- WCM: Web Content Management
But today, the lines between these product segments have seemingly become quite blurry, and there is consequently broad confusion around what is increasingly being called “Enterprise Content Management” or ECM.
Compounding this confusion has been the rapid expansion of feature sets among ECM vendors to capture larger market-shares, or simply lay claim to an ECM mantle. While some companies have taken a partnership approach – particularly among the more niche-oriented vendors – the marketplace as a whole has seen substantial convergence, consolidation, and overlap. This, coupled with vague yet expansive marketing information, can make it difficult to discern the core capabilities of the solution a vendor may be offering.
Moreover, a vendor may only provide a single function-point solution, such as Imaging or RM or WCM, but call themselves an “Enterprise” Content Management vendor because they are targeting enterprise-level customers, or simply because that term makes their software sound more sophisticated and valuable.
Typical ECM projects could be a very big DM, DAM, or WCM implementation that crosses departmental silos, and essentially promises a highly scalable approach to a common, practical need. This is a nice strategy in theory, and some large, cohesive enterprises (especially in the tech sector) have executed successfully on it. However, we see some backlash against this approach today in some areas for financial reasons and because the implementation times across multiple silos can be highly impractical. For Imaging projects, enterprise consolidation can make a lot of sense; for Web Content Management, the business case remains less obvious. At the same time, many enterprises are beginning to provide content management as a central service to different business units. In any case, this definition means that any large vendor from among all the various categories above could call themselves an ECM player (and many of them do).
What is Content Management?
In short then, no one really agrees on what ECM is, and the various definitions touted today don’t really help technology buyers very much.
At a very basic level, all content management systems do the same thing: take in content, add value to it by applying approval and other business processes, then output it in some format. Within any content management system, regardless of content type, several standard features are typically available to support these business processes. This set of core features spans the ECM functional spectrum from Imaging to DM to DAM to WCM, and can be found in almost any major vendor package in those spaces. Whether the content in question is text, images, binary documents, XML nodes, multimedia files, forms, or something else, these core capabilities are essential in any content management system:
Contributor and managerial rights and privileges must be managed, usually according to pre-set roles. This promotes security and insures that participating staff people are only undertaking suitable and appropriate tasks.
Content must be authored or ingested into the system, and sometimes transformed into a consumable format. This enables corporate information to be actively managed.
Repositories must be managed through versioning and version control. This insures the integrity and authority of the core content.
Content must be indexed and/or classified. This enables content to be subsequently retrieved more easily and reused more widely, with minimal human intervention.
Workflow mechanisms must be in place. This helps assure consistency, quality, auditability, and reliability of content and business processes alike.
Content must be localized for multiethnic or multilingual audiences as well as authors. This enables enterprises to extend their content management efforts across national boundaries.
Content must be properly accounted for across a life cycle that ultimately terminates with archiving and/or disposition.
However, the function-point domains of Web Content Management, Document and Records Management, Digital Assets Management, et al. still represent distinct solution sets, each with their own unique business and technical drivers. And even if the technology elements are similar or even identical, structuring and organizing content e.g., for the Web, Media Consumers or internal document users remains very distinct.
The Rise of ECM “Suites”
Most of the vendors that CMS Watch studies have developed multi-function point “suites”– often via acquisitions of smaller software companies – that address some or even most of the ECM family of functional products, from Imaging to DM to Collaboration, WCM, DAM, Syndication, and more. Most analysts, including CMS Watch, call them “ECM Suites,” while Gartner once labeled them “Smart Enterprise Suites.”
On the surface, vendors make a strong case for multi-functional suites:
Some of their major customers – who have probably already invested substantially in that vendor’s platform and particular API – are clamoring for comprehensive solutions that look at content in a more integrated way.
Obtaining multiple software modules from one vendor should reduce software ownership and support costs and potentially smooth out and accelerate what are always thorny and lengthy integration projects. By providing a variety of different functional services under one platform, a single vendor can theoretically support a document through a longer portion of its life cycle from creation to destruction.
ECM then remains an ever changing and difficult to define sector of the software industry. More importantly though ECM as a discipline is essential to any organization for at its roots it is simply about managing information much as we have always done. The difference being the huge volumes of electronic information that swamp our organizations today require new tools and techniques to manage. ECM will continue to grow in importance, just as the skills of information management will continue to grow in importance and remain consistent, even if the software and vendor landscape changes on regular basis.
Moving forward into 2008 – we see a major shortage of skills in the marketplace, an emerging realization that software alone will not fix our problems, and a race to close this gap. This will remain a challenge for both technologists and business practitioners in organizations large and small around the world. A challenge that also represents an opportunity for many.