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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.

Strategies for Simplicity

To achieve that goal, the trend is to automate ECM activities and hide complex tasks from end users. This approach also ensures that information is filed and managed accurately, consistently and efficiently--something that has never happened with manual approaches.

The trend toward automation and more widespread adoption of content management is being shaped by three factors:

• Cost is a crucial consideration: Rolling out a $300- to $600-per-seat license to 100 users is a very different proposition than for 10,000 users. Low-cost options from Oracle and Microsoft (or open-source alternatives such as Alfresco, 80-20 Software and Nuxeo) should at least be considered if you want to extend basic document management to large numbers of users.

• Usability is also essential. If your workers are comfortable with content folders exposed through Outlook, or if they want access to documents through accustomed business applications such as ERP or CRM systems, many vendors offer one or both of these options.

• Sustainability is what may tip the scales in your decision-making process. A broadly deployed system for electronic filing--remember that content management is really no more than that--must be easy to maintain, manage, scale and administer. If it is not all of these things, it will quickly fall into disuse or misuse.

Most organizations (particularly those that have gone through mergers and acquisitions) have a patchwork of systems, but this is not a cost-effective, user-friendly or sustainable strategy. Things are starting to change, however. The trend toward hiding complexity is being fueled by four more tactical trends: desktop integration, content integration, infrastructure-based systems and Web services.

Get It at the Desktop

Desktop integration is nearly synonymous with content access through Outlook. Almost all ECM vendors now provide some kind of Outlook integration, with one of the best (and first) being from Interwoven (gained through its iManage acquisition). To the end user, Outlook integration means little more than an extra set of folders into which they can move e-mail messages, attachments or documents on their own. The act of moving a document into one of these Outlook folders might also trigger content tagging, workflows and retention rules. It is a seamless and unobtrusive way to provide content management to lots of users.

This approach does have serious drawbacks: First, it tends to focus too myopically on what happens in Outlook while ignoring all the other content sitting around. Second, in some of the more passive approaches to Outlook integration, it's easy to forget about (or circumvent) management steps that shouldn't be ignored.

Nevertheless, Exchange is the de facto repository for content in many organizations, and if yours relies heavily on administrative- and correspondence-related tasks, it's one of the best approaches to take. If the integration is well designed, users won't even realize they're performing document or records management.

Law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey had been using Hummingbird's legacy DOCS Open content management software to extend access to more than 1,500 lawyers and legal staffers in 30 offices; however, users needed a separate interface and had to choose from among several repositories to find documents. Last year, the firm upgraded to Hummingbird's latest platform, and users now access content through Outlook without opening separate interfaces or searching multiple sources (see "Targeting Transparency").

Integrate and Unify

In recent years, content integration has emerged as the alternative to ripping out legacy systems and costly, time-consuming content migration projects. Content integration lets you link disparate repositories, making them searchable from a single system or portal interface. Within the past two years, the leading independent content integration vendors, Venetica and Context Media, were acquired by IBM and Oracle, respectively, but their software is still offered as part of broader integration portfolios. Rivals, including Day Software, FileNet and Mobius, offer integration options of their own.

Plenty of firms have unified access to content through portals, but users may still have to search across and drill down into multiple, disparate repositories. Fast-food giant McDonald's improved on this approach by using Day Software's content integration bus to unify access to a FileNet contracts repository, an Oracle database managing electronic documents and a digital asset library managed by Day's Communiqué content management software. By consolidating access through a single interface, McDonald's gave users around the globe faster, easier access to a broad swath of content.

Build on the Infrastructure

These days, the infrastructure vendors are causing the biggest stir in content management, with key products such as Microsoft SharePoint Services and Oracle Content Services 10g. Both of these offerings aim to replace the approach of managing content in repositories (separate from the metadata database) by placing both content and metadata into the database. Just a few years ago, this was not a sensible thing to do, but today, there is virtually no impact on performance.

The Microsoft and Oracle offerings do have their limitations. SharePoint has been a victim of its own success, with instances popping up like wildfire across numerous enterprises, creating many content silos that are difficult to manage.

Oracle Content Services is more comprehensive than SharePoint, providing records management and workflow. It also provides more robust, centralized administrative control, yet it's competitively priced at less than $100 per seat. The product's biggest advantage is in supporting thousands of users. Indeed, one U.S. financial services firm replaced an imaging- and workflow-based solution with Oracle Content Services 10g in large part because it wanted to extend basic document management functionality to more than 30,000 employees. The costs of scaling up the incumbent system would have been prohibitive, whereas Content Services presented much lower software license and hardware costs.

While Oracle's scalability sounds like an advantage, the dirty little secret of the ECM market is that most companies are only addressing departmental needs. Industry- and application-specific offerings have established appeal, whereas giant deployments are rare and Oracle's more generic platform has yet to sprout industry- and application-specific wings.

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