ERP and Content Management: Harmonic Convergence? - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management

ERP and Content Management: Harmonic Convergence?

To drive collaborative processes, businesses need embedded intelligence. BI, focused on structured data, is only half of the story: Businesses need content management for the unstructured stuff. ERP wants to be the point of convergence.

NetWeaver and similar ERP platform shifts will certainly affect BI development and implementation. Even more interesting, however, is that ERP vendors are looking beyond BI's traditional world of structured data. Most technology analysts say that around 70 percent of business information is in unstructured form; most decision makers collaborate via email and voicemail. Vast resources sit outside business processes — and outside the reach of traditional BI systems. Businesses need to exploit these enormous resources, sitting right inside their business processes. They are looking for integration — or perhaps once again, market convergence centered on ERP systems.

Content Convergence

The desire to reach unstructured resources and pull them closer to business processes will drive the next big convergence: ERP vendors will pull enterprise content management (ECM) into their domain. Figure 1 offers a big-picture vision of how once exclusive software application areas — including BI and ECM — are coming together, ultimately to reach the long-term goal of what I call "intelligent collaborative business solutions."

What is "content"? It comes in many shapes and forms. Paper records, faxes, electronic documents, Web pages, email, and multimedia objects are all pieces of information "content" collected, derived, and generated as part of business processes. Today, many tools exist to manage individual content objects; there are only a few vendors, such as Documentum (now a division of EMC), that attempt to cover the full ECM spectrum. None, however, go so far as to offer actionable intelligence derived from content repositories to add business value to supported business processes.

The boundaries of many businesses now reach across continents; processes today require collaboration among multiple, globally distributed business entities. ECM processes need to be fully aware of the complete business process model so that relevant content (transactional, compliance, intelligence, and other information) arrives in applications and is collected and managed securely and appropriately. In other words, today's ECM solutions need to be taught entire business processes so that they can connect the right business functions to the right collaborative business process steps — and then collect relevant process content and manage it effectively.

It's accurate to say that we're in the midst of a reinvention of the "business process wheel" that will involve tight BI and content integration. ECM's current "outside-in" look at the business process is very similar to traditional BI's perspective on processes. After BI, pulling in ECM is the next logical convergence by ERP vendors that are bent on fully managing processes. Some analysts and content (or knowledge) management gurus may be skeptical, as they were before ERP vendors started to embed BI solutions into their portfolios. But I believe that history foretells what's likely to be the next wave: enterprise collaborative content management offered within extended ERP solutions.

Content and Processes

Figure 2 outlines the enterprise information life cycle. It gives us a look at the different roles content types play in a business process. The y axis represents business activities associated with content: for example, create, capture, define workflow, and organize. The x axis represents content-state time, where the start-to-end time period may range from a few seconds to several decades. The "content" is the fine-grained entity defined by a business process. Participating applications along the x axis include content management systems (CMS), as well as document (DMS), record (RMS), and archive (AMS) management systems.

FIGURE 2 - Enterprise content life cycle.

Let's take an example to illustrate: You receive a book order (in XML) that consists of the book name, ISBN number, customer number, price, and other elements. As soon as the system captures the order, an associated business activity processes the book order content and hands the order over to the next stage of the order-entry process, most likely in the shape of an order document. As this order moves through the order-to-cash process chain, several details about the customer, book, shipping and billing, and other individual documents start to transform themselves into "records," with all of the accompanying legal ramifications. Also along the path, the system must capture and store documents for future business analysis and to satisfy corporate internal data retention policies. Ultimately, the organization will destroy or retain the captured records and documents according to internal and legal requirements.

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