Moving beyond ECM


Enterprise content management or ECM, it seems, is changing before our eyes, so I thought it might be a useful exercise to discuss where we came from and where we could be going.

Early records management

In the beginning there were papers. Papers were organized in files and files were organized in file cabinets. Over time, the files became old and were put in boxes and labeled and placed on a shelf in a storage facility. To keep track of those boxes, somebody recorded the contents in a ledger and placed the ledger on a shelf.

The records probably remained in the storage facility until they rotted, or if the company was really on the ball, periodically they would weed through those records and destroy what they no longer were required by law to keep.

First came content management

Then computers came along and we started tracking the records on the computer, but over time the sheer volume became overwhelming. There were documents and web content and all of a sudden digital assets like pictures. And we needed to track it all, so folks like John Newton, currently CTO at Alfresco, and one of the original founders of Documentum had an idea (a perfectly wonderful, awful idea), they would use a database to track these elements and called it content management.

Then came ECM

From humble beginnings trying to track documents and records, enterprise content management developed as an umbrella term meant to incorporate a number of different technologies including:

  • Records management;
  • document management;
  • digital asset management;
  • web content management;
  • portal design and management;
  • XML content management;
  • collaboration tools;
  • social media tools; and
  • marketing tools.

Where do we go from here?

Today we find ourselves at a cross roads. ECM is too broad and no one vendor does all of these things well. Last week EMC (which bought Documentum in 2003) held its annual Writer's Summit, and since I couldn't be there this year, I followed along on Twitter.

One attendee, Laurence Hart, a consultant who pens the Word of Pie Blog suggested at one point that in a perfect world, we would buy the components we need from the best vendor and plug them into a central ECM system that would be built on open standards (and we would all join hands singing Kumbaya.)

When I read that, my first thought was how vendors could adapt to this approach. It took years of hits and misses to simply create the CMIS standard so that data could travel freely across repositories. Imagine, what it would take to get them to agree to a basic framework into which all ECM components would fit.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a wonderful vision and would be ideal for the consumer companies who could pick and choose best of breed components, buying the ones that best suited their individual company requirements, but where would that leave the vendors or who aren't just going to roll over? They need to have a business model.

They could do what the industry appears to be trying to do now. They could build expertise around specific use case scenarios such as case management. Cases after all, require a range of different components, depending on the type case: Legal, insurance, medical and so forth. Think for a moment about how much data is in a single medical record of one individual. Now suppose one company decided to be the medical records experts. Maybe there could be something to this?

For years, the industry has been stuck in neutral from a revenue perspective. This could provide a way to move the industry in a direction that could help it grow and develop in a way that proprietary database silos never could.

The question becomes: Can we build an infrastructure and set of standards to get us there? It took customers to drive CMIS and it will take customers to lead the way here too because as long as we put up with proprietary systems that can't interoperate, the longer ECM in its present form will continue to thrive.

Hart may have the right idea, but getting there is another matter altogether.

What do you think? Where is ECM going? Leave a comment and let me know. - Ron