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Shawn Shell

From Punxsutawney Phil to Michel de Nostradamus, humans have tried to divine the future for centuries. While the verity of these prognostications varies, we're still drawn to visions of the future.

So with a little trepidation and some caveats about the potential fallacies that come with a crystal ball, I would like to offer five predictions for the coming year in the enterprise content management (ECM) market.

Cloud computing in 2014

It's no surprise that many organizations have made advances in moving toward cloud computing. Shedding internal infrastructure in favor of a scalable and elastic hosting approach for a range of needs is alluring. But most large enterprises are hesitant to subject their content to prying eyes in the cloud. As discussed in my article on cloud-based ECM software, it's legitimate for firms to be wary.

In 2014, however, that story will shift. It should be clear that firms like Box.net and DropBox have made enterprise-class file storage, management and lifecycle management accessible and reliable. Over the past few years, large and small enterprises have signed up in droves to use these Software as a Service-based technologies. Historically, use has largely been limited to small- and medium-sized firms. In 2014, by contrast, large, marquee organizations will adopt cloud-based ECM tools. In effect, 2014 will be a tipping point for ECM software.

Mergers and acquisitions

Over the past few years, large and small enterprises have signed up in droves to use SaaS-based technologies.

In order for this article to be credibly clairvoyant, it's necessary to use predictable -- even in the estimation of mere mortals-- events. Suggesting future mergers and acquisitions (to "consolidate" the market) fits that approach. But in the ECM space, mergers and acquisitions will be less about market share (as in more early-stage technology markets) and more about feature enhancements to existing suites.

Few of the most-established ECM software technologies (e.g., Documentum, OpenText and Hewlett-Packard's Autonomy) have made significant technological advancements. While these technologies have been upgraded, their functionality remains largely unchanged. So updates represent a matter of degree, not kind. They lack a combination of the slick polish of startups and the interactivity associated with the relatively new crop of technologies, such as Carbonite (Sync), LogMeIn (Cubby) and Huddle.

In 2014, larger ECM software vendors will abandon their organic development approach and buy upstarts. Who will be the targets and who will be the acquirers is more difficult to predict. But the old guard needs to buy its way back to relevancy, and the new kids need to be integrated with established players to stay in business.

Customer upgrades and acceptance

The key to any change is adoption, and the key to adoption is getting customers to agree that the changes are valuable. While many firms with old-school ECM software have been reluctant to upgrade, 2014 will signal newfound acceptance in the form of upgrades.

In 2014, ironically, several pieces will fall into place without seismic displacement.

The proverbial train has left the station on several ECM-related fronts: social, cloud and mobility, to be specific. Well-established ECM vendors are being forced to integrate these concepts into their tools. At the same time, the upstarts are pushing the market from the bottom up and winning market share. The perfect storm of stability and maturity -- and the historical upgrade lag -- are driving customers to make decisions about the future of existing ECM technologies and the adoption of new ones.

Those firms that, for one reason or another, cannot completely disconnect from legacy ECM software will upgrade. They'll make a significant investment in new licenses, new hardware and the organizational changes that accompany updates to existing software.

At the same time, a whole new community of organizations will strategically implement the newest crop of ECM software (perhaps alongside of or to replace legacy ECM technologies). Since most of these new ECM software options are now cloud-hosted, this prediction goes hand-in-hand with the earlier cloud adoption prognostication. The end result will be a new baseline established for the ECM market.

Capability maturation

Somewhat in conflict with the previous prediction regarding acquisitions, though not entirely, ECM will again plateau. Whereas 2012 and 2013 represented significant shifts in how firms view ECM, 2014 will represent a cooling period for features and functions.

The traditional ECM feature set is fairly well-known (e.g., check in, check out, versioning, overall lifecycle management, workflow and so on). However, over the past few years, the way content is created and how it's stored has changed. Whether this is represented by the way social networking features have crept in (e.g., heavier reliance on discussion around content), the rise of collaborative authoring (e.g., synchronous authoring as in Google Docs), or simply the way content storage is managed (e.g., a combination of local store synchronized with a central store -- à la Microsoft's SkyDrive), things have changed. However, even these newer features have come to be expected, operating, somewhat consistently, among various vendors' technologies. 2014 represents the year everyone will recognize the market has created predictable patterns of features and interactivity.

A year without change

For more on ECM trends:

ECM and security: Three considerations

The top ECM software this year

Cloud-based ECM technologies: SharePoint Online vs. Box

The perils and promise of cloud-based ECM

While it won't be a "Seinfeld year" in which nothing happens, in 2014, ironically, several pieces will fall into place without seismic displacement. All the predictions about what's to come originate from real shifts that began two or three years ago. These shifts are now coming to roost in a year that will enable firms to stabilize their environments and adopt.

To be sure, there will be challenges, but these challenges will be adoption- and migration-related. They are not likely to create the conceptual dissonance we've seen over the past few years; firms get cloud and social capabilities now. In 2014, the market will take a breath and make real all of those concepts, and sow the seeds of change for the coming years.

ECM trends: Wait and see

These ECM trend predictions are as accurate as the Mayan calendar or our ability to pilot our flying cars in the 21st century. No one can see the future. That said, it's always fun to make educated guesses about the direction of the market.

Here's to a fantastic 2014 and the excitement that comes with watching events unfold!

This was first published in January 2014

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