Enterprise content management brings order to chaotic unstructured content

Enterprise content management technologies help companies meet compliance requirements and improve business processes, bringing order to unwieldy, unstructured content.

Lest chaos ensue, companies had better get a handle on unstructured content, according to a recent analyst report.

There's certainly plenty of it. Experts estimate that up to 80% of an organization's information typically takes the form of unstructured content.

Luckily, there is a slew of both mature and up-and-coming enterprise content management (ECM) technologies to help companies access, manage and dispose of emails, documents, wikis and other unstructured content, according to Kyle McNabb, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

McNabb, who recently authored a report on the ECM market, said companies are increasingly looking to manage unstructured content with ECM technology, just as they do structured content with expensive databases and data warehouses.

Typically, he said, they do so for one of two reasons: to meet compliance regulations and manage risk; and to improve business processes by making documents and other unstructured content readily available to knowledge workers; or both.

"There are all types of content that are exploding throughout the organization," McNabb said, "and a lack of good policies around how people not just use them but also manage [unstructured content] can lead to trouble."

Recently enacted compliance requirements in the U.S., for example, mean that all types of unstructured content, not just emails, are discoverable in legal disputes, McNabb said. Content archiving, one of 16 ECM technologies he reviewed in his report, lets companies locate and access contracts, schematics and other documents to meet these requirements.

However, content archiving technology -- like content analytics technology that lets users derive meaning from unstructured content -- is still in the "creation phase." It requires "substantial resources, both human and capital, to implement, integrate and operate," the report says.

That will change in the next one to three years, though, as vendors like Autonomy Corp., EMC Corp. and IBM Corp. refine and improve both technologies, McNabb said. Until then, various established ECM technologies are available to fill the void. Some of the most useful ECM technologies are in fact years and even decades old, he said.

Imaging technology, which creates digital images of paper documents, has been around since the 1980s. Industry stalwart Xerox Corp., for one, has been in the imaging business for years. But the technology is still invaluable for "document-intensive" business processes, "often resulting in millions of dollars in savings and greater business process efficiency," the report says. Thanks to imaging technology, workers no longer need to carry around mounds of paper but can access invoices and other documents on their laptop or office computer.

Other mature ECM technologies are on the downswing, however. Message archiving, for example, is likely to be overtaken by more comprehensive content archiving technologies in the next few years, McNabb said.

ECM technology not one-size-fits-all

The type and volume of unstructured content any particular company deals with, and the best ECM technologies to manage it, often depend on industry and line of business. "It varies from one organization to the next what the big driver of ECM will be and fluctuates from time to time," McNabb said.

An insurance company, for example, is likely to benefit from imaging technologies to assist with underwriting and opening new accounts, he said. A retail outlet that does business via the Web, on the other hand, is more likely to profit from Web content management technology that gets the right content in front of the right customers.

McNabb recommends that companies take a portfolio-based approach to ECM, noting that it is neither a one-technology nor a one-vendor proposition. "[Information and knowledge workers] need to weigh multiple ECM technology options to find the right combination of business value and ecosystem maturity to meet their varying needs," the report states.

Companies should also determine the level of risk they're willing to take when it comes to ECM technologies. Those with a high risk threshold -- an innovative high-tech company, for instance -- can roll the dice on unproven technologies like content analytics, McNabb said.

Organizations with fewer resources, and those in highly regulated industries such as insurance and healthcare, are better sticking to mature ECM technologies like imaging and document management.

Either way, McNabb urged companies to be realistic about their unstructured content needs and to keep an open mind when evaluating ECM technologies.

"Don't assume that just because a technology is mature, it's not relevant to you," he said. "The ECM market is mature, but it's also diverse. So the more work these enterprises can do to understand their real business objectives versus just what their technical challenges happen to be, then the better position they're going to be in to invest in the right mix of ECM technologies."

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