Beyond ECM

Enterprise content management (ECM) is having an identity crisis. The broad group of companies that have gravitated towards ECM – the set of technologies and processes used to extract maximum value from documents, email and other unstructured data – have fallen out of love with their sector’s name.

“It is a confusing term: ‘content’ is a different thing for all organisations,” says Andrew Graham, UK CEO at archiving and document management company Easy Software. He adds that the industry plays its part in that confusion, referring to digital documents, unstructured data and information, often interchangeably, as ‘content’.

John Newton, founder of ECM pioneer Documentum and now CTO of Alfresco, a leader in open-source content and document management software, agrees entirely: “ECM can only get bigger and better, but we need to shed the ECM term. The ECM concept alienates a lot of people.”
It was storage systems giant EMC’s desire to get into the document and content management market with its $1.7 billion acquisition of market leader Documentum in 2003 that fuelled the rise of ECM as a unifying platform for all kinds of distinct technologies, making Newton a rich man. The rampant consolidation that has shaken up the industry since then has been largely applauded.

Historically, many large organisations have talked about being frustrated by the fragmented nature of the sector – that they needed to source systems for web-content management from one vendor, document management from another and email archiving elsewhere, while also finding sources for records management, digital rights software, document capture and other products used in the management of content (in its broadest sense).

It is no surprise, even today, to discover scores of such products at large organisations, few, if any, of which can be integrated. Indeed, according to IT industry watcher, Gartner, having up to 20 disparate content management systems is not uncommon.

As such, larger organisations have appreciated the annexing of the high end of the ECM market by some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Some of the largest forces of the IT industry have spend upwards of $5 billion to make the high-end ECM market theirs: the acquisition of FileNet by IBM, Oracle’s purchase of Stellent, and the rolling together of Open Text with Hummingbird, IXOS and RedDot. Running alongside that is another phenomenon that has been fuelled by a mixture of internal development and acquisition: the rise and rise of Microsoft SharePoint.

Following the 50 or so significant acquisitions in the last five years, over half the ECM market is now controlled by a handful of major vendors who actively encouraged a move to, if not a one-stop shop then, at least, a ‘one-stop mall’. Better integration leads to lower cost of ownership and the need to support fewer products.

What large-scale mergers promise – and, in some cases, go a long way in delivering – is common document, records and web content repositories, coupled with workflow functions and, in some cases, search tools.

If a section of industry has started to deliver to the requirements of those looking for enterprise-wide, integrated solutions, then much of the remainder of the sector is on a more focused path. This group seeks to better serve customers’ specialist needs – whether that requirement is for a better fit with their vertical industry needs, simpler, easier-to implement solutions (so-called ‘content management for the masses’) or content that integrates into Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs and social networking.

Special needs

In content and document management there have always been vertical specialists. But the pressure to focus is now much more acute.

A consequence of this is the arrival of what applications. In the post-consolidation world of ECM it predicts that “content-enabled vertical applications and line-of-business offerings are the future for most traditional ECM vendors.”

These incorporate expertise in processes for vertical industries: “They manage content within the context of business processes better than traditional content management applications or even some custom applications,” says Gartner.

These are not so much technology changes as structural changes. And there are some really challenging technologies on user wish lists. Three stand out: basic content services (BCS), extensions to support Web 2.0 and the arrival of content-as-a-service (CaaS).

Again, with BCS, Gartner outlines how it is going to be. “The emergence of BCS presents a significant challenge to the established ECM players, which are shifting their strategies to address higher-value applications and vertical solutions,” says analyst Karen Shegda.

The significance of that challenge has yet to be seen, but the BCS concept and technologies have garnered mindshare among users due to some of the biggest infrastructure vendors and document-centric companies – including Oracle, Microsoft and Xerox – heavily marketing and developing BCS.

Such ‘content management for the masses’ offers entry-level functions such as version control, check-in, check-out, document security and auditing – all at a fraction of the price of traditional ECM products.

The information systems team at the London Business School, for example, recently provided basic content services for 20,000 students in order to have them use web-based document stores rather than keep everything in email format.

In essence, BCS has emerged as a way to roll out document-management and document-sharing functions on everyone’s desktop for $100 or less.

Of course, BCS is essentially ‘vanilla’ functionality, and its emergence has further encouraged ECM vendors to tailor their suites to provide industry-specific and line-of business focused solutions for all key vertical sectors, from government and healthcare to pharmaceuticals and legal.

Interestingly – and many in IT will be uncomfortably familiar with this concept – BCS adoption is not particularly co-ordinated. Like other technologies before it, BCS is often being introduced by departments without the knowledge or approval of the IT organisation.

Web log

Web 2.0 technologies also fall into that category. The emergence of blogs, wikis, social networking and other collaboration services have transformed the Internet from a read-only to a collaborative environment, where users can read from and write to a website, interacting with others and sharing information. But how does this fit with ECM?

Why shouldn’t an ECM system be able to view a wiki or a blog as a complementary service or link to a YouTube feed for content? Why couldn’t a social network act as a source of project documents to a group of internal and external users?

Vendors of ECM systems are having to ask themselves whether Web 2.0 represents a threat or an opportunity to their traditional method of handling documents, records, web content and related collaboration. And many still have no answer.

There is one other development that is equally far reaching: CaaS – the idea of delivering parts of ECM as a service over the web.

To date, that has involved only very select parts of the ECM portfolio. Companies such as MediaSurface and Visual Sciences have started offering on-demand web content management services; Xerox and Hyland Software are doing the same for imaging; and numerous start-ups are promising to make other parts of ECM a service.

At this stage the demand amounts to just 2% to 3% of the 2007 ECM market, but just wait and see, says Alfresco CTO John Newton: “Content-as-a-service is much bigger than ECM.”

One perhaps-unexpected factor here is basic content services. Their arrival has lowered the entry price point for ECM overall, and that has reduced an obvious attraction of CaaS. Other advantages of on-demand services still stand.

Above all, there are no upfront licensing fees and little or no implementation. What is clear is that CaaS is best for tactical, departmental applications and for deployment in areas with simple requirements and processes.

So, given these developments and the ECM industry’s apparent disdain for its own label, what does the future hold? “With the content [stored] due to grow sixfold between now and 2010,” says Chris Blaik, content management and archiving marketing director at EMC Documentum in Europe: “There is now no doubt that ‘content is king’, that it creates competitive edge.”

And what about the term ECM? ECM will become information management, he predicts.

Further reading

The content conundrum The content management market presents some tough choices for IT decision-makers.

Find more stories in the Information Management Briefing Room.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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