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.

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.

Deliver Content as a Service

Content enabling business applications is nothing new. The idea is to let workers access relevant documents within the applications they use every day. Historically, these links have been created through fragile, API-level integrations that take time to develop or that must be customized even if they're "certified" and "out-of-the-box." And with each software upgrade, there's always the risk of broken connections. The simpler screen-scrapping techniques that let you click on data fields and pop up related documents are equally vulnerable to changes in software. The default approach is still tabbing between interfaces.

Many ECM vendors are now developing Web services that can seamlessly and flexibly integrate content management functionality into business applications. Nearly all ECM vendors now claim some form of service-oriented approach or accessibility, but most are in the early stages of development. Some are little more than Band-Aids designed to tie together disparate product acquisitions.

Despite their relative immaturity in the ECM vendor community, Web services are very much in the plans of end-user organizations planning large-scale deployments. Outside of North America (where there is less of a predisposition to packaged software), many ECM solutions are being successfully deployed using SOA-ready application servers, databases and business process layers from the infrastructure vendors. Again, the main driver is simplicity for the user. Services-based approaches may well improve interoperability across applications and silos, but the biggest win for early adopters has been to embed content management functionality into tried-and-tested legacy systems.

Most early adopters of Web services for ECM have been in the engineering and manufacturing sectors, which have long required cross-app integration. These industries also rely on applications that are closely related to ECM, such as product lifecycle management and configuration change management tools. PLM systems are ripe for services-based integration with ECM functionality so that all product content could be stored in a single repository.

Serve the Masses

There are plenty of industry- and app-specific content management solutions that are proven and cost effective. They will continue to sell, and the vendors that offer them can meet many needs across the enterprise. But the one challenge most organizations have yet to meet is taming the huge masses of content that are currently unmanaged and overwhelming basic IT infrastructure.

If you're charged with reducing the number of file servers in the organization or, more worrisome, facing up to regulatory compliance challenges or legal risks, a broader approach is called for. Consider the database/infrastructure options, including Oracle 10g and pending products from Microsoft. Also look at storage-centric approaches, such as that offered by EMC Centera.

If you're considering broader deployments of ECM systems, make sure there are options that are technically scalable and economically scalable if you want to extend content and records management functionality to thousands or tens of thousands of users.

Most of all, make sure you ease or entirely remove the burden of electronic filing, access and distribution from business users. Content management is simply the ability to file, retrieve, manage and distribute unstructured data. True enterprisewide content management should unleash the power of business applications and processes, not be an end in itself.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe is principal strategist and ECM consulting practice lead at Wipro. He was previously an analyst with Ovum. Write him at [email protected]. Girish Iyer is a solutions architect within Wipro's technical consulting practice focused on ECM solutions. Write him at [email protected]

Most enterprises have as least five different content management systems, and it's not uncommon for large organizations to have more than 10 or 15, according to Forrester Research. These legacy systems are typically aligned with specific departments or business processes, yet vast stores of documents, e-mail messages and other forms of unstructured information in the enterprise have historically gone unmanaged, strewn across shared folders, file systems and desktop hard drives.

In recent years, infrastructure vendors have honed in on broad-based content management needs by offering built-in functionality such as that provided by Windows SharePoint Services. The trend will continue, with leading vendors stepping up the depth and breadth of their build-in content management functionality.

"Oracle [with its Oracle Content Services 10g] is well down the path--as are Microsoft, IBM and EMC--of making content management services look and feel like a next-generation database or file system," says Kyle McNabb of Forrester Research. "Microsoft's appeal to IT is similar to Oracle's, and it also owns the Office productivity tools used by end users to create a large amount of content."

Microsoft has made public its plans to deliver document management as an embedded feature of SharePoint 2007, the Vista operating system and the next generation of the Office suite. SharePoint 2007, due in October, will provide the overarching control, blending document management, records management and Web content management capabilities. Plans now call for Vista and Office to be introduced early next year. It's still unclear, however, when important building blocks such as the WinFS Web-based file system will be introduced and how they'll figure in the complete platform.

Also unclear is how far these pending products will go in satisfying conventional enterprise content management (ECM) needs. Microsoft's platform will be "a great 50 or 60 percent solution for a lot of people and a very big deal," according to Eric Bean, senior director, product management at Captaris. "We see it as expanding everyone's basic understanding of content management."

A Microsoft partner, Captaris plans to build on top of Microsoft's platform. For example, just as CRM vendors build applications on top of standard relational databases, Captaris is designing its workflow to run on top of the Windows Workflow Foundation, which will deliver basic functionality that Captaris formerly built. "[WWF] is a low-level engine that processes tasks and manages the database of the workflow. We're building out the activities, the KPIs, the simulations and the task lists."

Other content management vendors, including Open Text, Hummingbird, FileNet and Interwoven say they'll work with, rather than compete against, Microsoft. There's room for both, as Microsoft will deliver the basics at a low cost, while the high-end vendors will deliver industry- and application-specific solutions on top of that infrastructure.

The key question for companies with conventional ECM platforms is whether to attempt to rationalize and filter content from today's basic collaborative platforms such as SharePoint, and, if so, whether to perform that task automatically or rely on users to do the work? "Users frequently treat [collaborative] systems as a content parking lot," says Lou Latham, principal analyst at Gartner. "You can certainly ... move content up into the more rigorous enterprise systems, but you better not make it impossible, or you'll have a whole lot of frustrated people who aren't using the big ECM systems."

IT managers would do well to be proactive, because users will naturally gravitate to "what works" solutions. Within most companies, there's now a lot of content interaction "going on under the radar," Latham says. "One of the driving factors is the fact that the business units are now going out shopping for [basic content management] systems. You're not going to make those systems go away." --Michael Voelker and Doug Henschen

With companies paying more attention to regulatory and legal compliance risks, there's growing interest in getting documents, reports, e-mail messages and other forms of unstructured information under control. With broad, enterprisewide deployments in mind, organizations want content management to be as easy as possible.

Enterprise content management (ECM) vendors are responding to the demand for simplicity by streamlining interfaces, automating filing steps and adding Outlook clients and application integration options that hide the complexity of content management. Meanwhile, infrastructure giants including Microsoft and Oracle are stepping up the management and collaboration capabilities they're providing alongside operating systems, databases, portals and desktop tools. Thus, organizations now have plenty of content-filing and access options.

The hardest part of simplifying content management is choosing an approach that fits user work habits and application pain points. The second feature in this cover package, "Targeting Transparency", offers instructive, real-world examples. For instance, a global law firm opted for Outlook integration because its attorneys constantly collaborate via e-mail. A county government office chose a more flexible, application-enabling approach to serve the needs of 11 departments. Finally, a large global services company integrated content management with SAP so it could deliver content both inside and outside of the ERP system. Read on to learn more about the options and strategies for giving business users faster, easier access to content in the context of their work.

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