ECM and two worlds of content

Informed Group notebook

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ECM nowadays is a confusing area. On one hand we see that the adoption rates for solutions such as SharePoint that support users in collaborating and interacting rapidly growing. On the other hand it seems that a lot of traditional ECM projects seem to fail, costing way too much money while the acceptance of the final solution by the users is at a minimum. Customers seem to move away from ECM and go for a more free-format, easy access type of solution.

Traditionally ECM is focused on the value of content for the enterprise. Content is recorded, managed, maintained, approved or even phased out based on its importance towards the goals of the enterprise and the fulfillment of its obligations. Of course this also translates into the day-to-day business of the users in terms of capturing content, performing assessment and approval processes, managing records, etc. But mostly this is the world where content has to be managed, where its use has to adhere to strict rules and regulations, often enforced by entities outside of the enterprise. The focus here is primarily on the actual management of content in all its aspects. How users interact with this content is quite often a secondary concern.

Besides that there is also a whole different world of content. One where content roams freely, not limited by the boundaries of the enterprise. Where content is like a drop of water in the ocean, you can get it anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Where knowledge workers collaborate with each other and exchange content using a mobile device. Where information is found by quick and simple searching and is easily accessed and easily shared. Which also means that content that cannot be found simply is not there. The focus here is not just on the value of the content but also – and sometimes even more so – on the user experience: easy to create, find, use and share.

These are not disparate, disconnected worlds as content transitions from one world to another. Content such as an RFP that is the result of collaboration may be reviewed, approved and finally filed as a record. Managed content that describes best practices, solutions or design patterns is referenced during the collaboration process. When doing their job a user lives in both worlds. Or at least, they should be.

Currently at some point these two worlds collide. The content in the second world is a nightmare to manage. It is hard to determine its value, quality and ownership. It can be in small pieces or linked with other content. The content in the first world is a drag to work with. Archaic user interfaces and complex access mechanisms drive out any desire to search for and use content. Simple tasks take forever to perform instead of a single click.

Of course this is an exaggeration, but it is the reason a fair number of ECM projects fail. The user experience of traditional ECM systems has not kept up with the developments of the last five years. These systems are not geared towards supporting users who are collaborating and performing different tasks at the same time, using content from different sources. Users have become comfortable with user experiences that conform to the way they work; they turn away from having to work in a way that is dictated by the user interface.

But the systems that support the user’s collaboration and knowledge sharing tasks lack the ability to decently manage the content that is created. Because a lot of these systems grow organically – content and structure being added “as we go” – they run a high risk of ending up in chaos. Content can no longer be found or when found it is hard to decide what its status, quality and relevance is. Content stays largely unmanaged.

So where does that leave us? First of all we have to realize that content is everywhere and that it will always be created, stored and accessed in different environments. There will not be a single content management system but content management will be handled by different systems with their own strengths and weaknesses. It is the job of the ECM experts to join both worlds. To determine with the customer what content is managed by which system in which way. To integrate these systems so that when content transfers from one managed state to the next it may transfer to another system. And of course to ensure that all necessary content can be found and accessed from the environment that best supports the user in performing his job. In other words: a single content management solution based on a number of (hopefully best of breed) content management systems.

So there’s our challenge for future.

Jeroen Teeling

ECM Consultant

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