Six steps for creating an enterprise content management (ECM) strategy

Get advice for creating or updating an enterprise content management strategy – whether you’re moving from an older ECM system or just starting out.

It’s OK if your company doesn’t have an enterprise content management (ECM) strategy yet. The good news is you are probably already using ECM tools and techniques; the bad news is you are probably not doing it in the optimal way. However, whatever you have in place can give you valuable insight for developing or updating a formal ECM strategy.

At some point, every company organically develops methods for creating, storing and sharing documents among its workers. Yet this is often informal, meaning many companies are missing out on opportunities to improve efficiency, data integrity and data value, while putting themselves at risk of compliance problems. That’s not ideal. And when it becomes painful – often because of the costs of manual information management – that’s the perfect time to start or recommend an ECM strategy project. So here is a quick how-to for starting a high-level ECM strategy that will meet the requirements of your organization while keeping end users happy.

Create an IT-business team.
First, determine who will be involved in the project. IT should manage the ECM strategy, partnering with business departments. As with other enterprise applications, since end-user constituents will be the ones using the system, they must accept it to achieve long-term success – and they are the ones with the most insight on which functions are needed to help them do their jobs.

Record, interview and brainstorm.
The early phases of ECM strategy development are more of an interviewing and brainstorming process than anything else. As with many IT initiatives, most departments have notions about how their jobs can be made easier with technology, but they don’t always understand specifically what the technology can do. Encourage everyone involved to throw all assumptions and specific products out the window and take an outsider’s view about problems, possible solutions and best practices. Build your strategy around the user, the requirements and compliance.

Assess the current state.
Next, take a snapshot of what is already in place. How is content stored today? Who is asking for more ECM capabilities? Which departments can potentially benefit? What are the real pain points?

During the interviews, you can also collect data and look at existing systems and patterns for design and implementation input.

Companies at the beginning of their ECM journey generally fall into one of two categories: those using network drives for content storage, and those replacing an inadequate ECM system. Shared drives are common. Typically, users of shared drives are comfortable with how they store and retrieve data – and because of this, the end-user opposition to proper ECM may be very high. The more the users are required to use clicks and windows, the more pushback you will encounter. So you will want to make sure that ease of use is at the top of the requirements list. Consider interviewing users of all skill levels about how they use shared drives or existing ECM systems. This will help you determine which features will be key for user adoption, such as having a Windows Explorer view of the ECM system.

Assess how shared drives are used.
The way the shared drives are used also gives some guidance on how to set up a true ECM system. The folder structure that end users have created is a good starting point for a proper ECM taxonomy or ECM container hierarchy.

But this is just a starting point – don’t assume it is necessarily best for the company to mirror the shared drive folders in a content management system, but do use it as a tool, even if just to say, “Look at this mess.” Use of shared drives may have also created bad habits in your organization, such as too much individual control, duplicate files, orphaned data, and laziness. Proper ECM takes care of the logistical aspects of security, duplicates and version history, but it cannot fix habits. In this case, a sound strategy should take into account organizational change management and training.

Determine your priorities and goals.
To complicate matters, ECM encompasses not just storage of documents but also their capture and delivery. Taking on all three aspects at once will be a never-ending cycle – so it is important to prioritize the projects.

For most organizations and departments, the low-hanging fruit is the storage of documents and other content. Storage is the foundation of a strong ECM strategy. The business drivers for content storage should be around increasing efficiency, improving compliance and reducing the cost of managing documents and processes.

The delivery of documents might naturally evolve as a result of storage, but this also could be an IT nightmare. Knowing upfront what and how information will be accessed, and what the demands are, is crucial. Delivery is a large topic, especially when business intelligence programs may be involved.

Data capture is a necessity for many. It can also be driven by demands for becoming paperless or reducing intellectual property diffusion. Electronic capture is fairly straightforward to envision and implement. Paper document capture, though not the most popular of topics, requires more investigation than one would expect. Starting with electronic data capture should be a slam-dunk for an organization, but unless there are incentives to go “green” or reduce paper storage costs, this should be a secondary and more thought-out process.

Develop an implementation and migration roadmap.
It may seem straightforward to assume that all existing data will simply be moved from wherever it is to a new ECM system.

Migration should be thought of as not simply the transfer of content but also what needs to come with it, or what needs to be augmented. What is often neglected during a migration of shared drives to ECM is moving the metadata associated with documents, document-linking and version histories.

Starting fresh is one thing; moving from an old ECM system to a new one is another. Granted, some companies make the move because of license and maintenance costs for an old system. Other companies choose to bring in a new ECM tool because the old one is inadequate or underused.

The only difference between moving from shared drives to a new ECM system, versus moving from an old system to a new system, is slightly better user adoption. Even worse habits may have formed, and migration will then be even more complex.

Users of old ECM systems have developed habits related to the operating system and proprietary habits related to the existing ECM product. These habits include how to add documents, tag them, link them, etc. – all through a very specific user-interface.

When dealing with an existing ECM system, the first part of the strategy is thinking not about something new but about using what already exists in a better way. Often, already deployed ECM products are misunderstood. Investigate their features and configuration more intensely. If the system is adequate and priced right, as part of the test environment, include the old ECM product set up the right way.

If a new solution is inevitable, then the strategy should include spending time to mirror the usage steps of the old system. While this risks copying bad processes from one system to the other, the benefit is that the primary users are likely to be more accepting. Users who have adapted to the old system may prefer its less efficient steps to accepting anything new. Not only will they expect system usability to be the same, they will expect the new system to have all the data in the same place and set up the way they are used to seeing it.

Time must be spent on migration. Organizations sometimes find that the best way to migrate is not to do it at all. Forcing migration might negate best practices in a new system, risk audit trails and risk data loss. Instead, use day-forward uploading of documents. An alternative is surfacing old content in a new system.

Final advice for your ECM strategy.
Whether your company is using shared drives or an old ECM system, your entire organization can benefit from proper ECM technologies. Do not let your ECM strategy drift. Instead, keep a requirements document and wish-list as two separate items. Focus on the department with the greatest pain, biggest gain and clearest direction.


Chris RileyAbout the author: Chris Riley is a recognized industry expert in document recognition, enterprise content management (ECM) and analytics technologies. Currently, Riley is senior ECM & document capture architect at ShareSquared, Inc.; he lives and breathes technology and has built his career on helping companies buy, use and optimize advanced technologies for their business. Riley has 12-plus years of experience in this arena; during that time, he has owned three software companies and received several technology and business awards. He has degrees in business administration, computer science and mathematics, and holds certifications from the ECM trade organization AIIM as an "Enterprise Content Management Practitioner (ECMp)" and "Information, Organization and Access Practitioner (IOAp)." Riley also is a sought-after speaker and educator throughout the content gathering and delivery space. He can be reached at Chris.Riley@sharesquared.com.

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