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Enterprise Content Management: Hide What's Inside

Content management works best when its behind the scenes -- and not treated it as an application unto itself. Consider integrating with e-mail and business apps or explore emerging options for infrastructure- or service-based management.

In the predigital era, those who created documents rarely faced the task of filing them; they had secretaries and file clerks to do that work. As electronic documents became the standard in the 1990s, many early document management deployments failed because they required cumbersome filing processes using poorly designed interfaces that users never learned or simply ignored.

To this day, some enterprise content management (ECM) vendors position their tools as business applications, under the mistaken impression that general business users will take 15 or 20 minutes out of their day to do a bit of content management. Some companies have specialists for whom managing documents, declaring records, clearing workflow queues and building Web pages is a daily activity, but most organizations (and certainly most end users) want content management to be more automated and transparent.

Conventional ECM vendors are meeting the demand for simplicity by streamlining interfaces, automating filing steps and adding Outlook clients and app integration options that hide the messy details of content management. These efforts are also a response to new competitors that are also focused on ease of use. Microsoft, for one, has introduced low-cost, easy-to-use document management and collaboration functionality to more than 35 million users through SharePoint. The company is promising more robust, ECM-level document management, records management and workflow capabilities by next year (see "What's Ahead in Infrastructure-Based ECM?"). Oracle, too, offers a low-cost, every-seat style of document and records management.

Together, the drive toward simplification and the incursion of giants such as Microsoft and Oracle will change the face of content management. The good news for us is that you'll be able to mask the nitty-gritty of filing, tracking and access, and business users will have faster, easier access to content in the context of their work. The hard part will be choosing the right simplification approach and settling on the right strategy for truly enterprisewide content control.

A Brief History Lesson

ECM developed out of traditional document management technologies. The earliest of these systems addressed either:

• Highly complex, compound documents managed in comparatively low-volumes--typified by pharmaceutical research records and technical documentation

• Simple but very high-volume documents--epitomized by account application forms or insurance claims that were typically scanned and processed with the aid of workflow technology

The logic of using separate systems began to fall apart when vendors decided they could move beyond the specialized departments and take the technology across the enterprise.

Through a flurry of mergers and acquisitions (and some internal development), today's ECM vendors have bundled established technologies in what are now marketed as suites. Here you'll find document management, records management and workflow, various qualities of Web content management, and, in some cases, portals and collaboration environments. Each of these technologies is still favored in specific applications, industries and departments.

Most, if not all, large organizations now have sizable or numerous Web sites that demand Web content management tools from the likes of Interwoven and Vignette. Most banking and insurance organizations have high-volume transactional documents that have been managed by systems from vendors such as IBM, FileNet or, among midsize enterprises, Hyland Software or EMC's ApplicationXtender product. Manufacturers often have complex documents and related collaborative processes that have favored vendors such as EMC/Documentum, Open Text and Stellent.

ECM vendors talk about enterprisewide deployments, but very few are doing anything of the kind. To gain a broader user base, ECM must be easy enough for ordinary business users with basic content management needs.

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