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This content is part of the Buyer's Guide: A buyer's guide to selecting the best ECM tool
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Which is the best ECM application for your business?

Examine the top commercial and open source ECM software to help you determine which product is best for your organization.

Selecting the best ECM application or platform is not a daunting process, but it does require some research and planning. Be sure to have a clear understanding of what an ECM tool should do and outline must-have features before building a request for proposal. The final step is evaluating enterprise content management tools, weighing their strengths and determining which best fits your company.

This article summarizes six ECM applications from enterprise software vendors -- Hyland, IBM, Microsoft, two from OpenText and Oracle -- along with two other vendors: Alfresco, which provides open source ECM software, and Box, which provides a cloud-native content services platform. It also considers Dropbox and Google -- two vendors that offer file-sharing platforms frequently used by enterprises to provide a subset of ECM functions.

Document management

If your main requirement is formal document management, consider OpenText Documentum, Hyland Software's OnBase and IBM. The Documentum suite provides content analytics and a highly scalable repository for storing and retrieving content quickly, with fine-grained access control. OnBase manages content coming from transactional systems and can serve as a central content repository, linking documents from other enterprise applications so users don't have to change screens to find information in different applications. IBM has several document management products that may be appropriate, depending on particular business requirements.

Records management

If records management is a priority, consider OpenText Content Suite and Microsoft SharePoint. Compliance is the core strength of OpenText, and the company has a comprehensive ECM portfolio for managing the complete document lifecycle. SharePoint is a scalable, adaptable ECM platform, and companies can tailor the software to accommodate many records management requirements.

Workflow

If workflow is an important requirement, consider IBM, Alfresco and Box. IBM Business Automation Workflow enables users to analyze content and take action within the context of a workflow. Once that is completed, the complete case is stored with full audit control, and users can perform and apply analytics to improve the process, if desired. Alfresco Activiti is a workflow and business process management platform that developers and administrators can use, as well as more technically challenged end users. For a cloud-native option, Box Relay automates and standardizes document workflows within its repository.

Web publishing

If a major concern is the ability to automatically publish content to internal and/or external (customer- and/or partner-facing) websites, consider Microsoft SharePoint and Oracle WebCenter Content. Originally designed for portal development, SharePoint links internal content to web content. Oracle WebCenter Content is part of a set of tools specifically designed for web content management. Both deliver HTML-formatted content to target webpages.

Integrating ECM with other enterprise applications

If you rely on one or more enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management or ERP, chances are you will want to incorporate content from the ECM system directly into the application. For example, an accounts payable staffer may need to check the terms and conditions of a contract, managed within an ECM system, directly from the ERP desktop application. Most ECM vendors provide APIs and/or out-of-the-box connectors to facilitate interfacing ECM with specific enterprise applications.

Beyond that, some ECM vendors provide additional development tools to make it easier for systems integrators (SIs) to custom-build interfaces between the ECM system and other enterprise applications.

If the primary concern is integrating with enterprise applications from Oracle or Oracle subsidiaries, such as JD Edwards, PeopleSoft and Siebel, start the product search with Oracle WebCenter Content. Likewise, if the next priority is to integrate with enterprise applications already running within a Microsoft environment, such as .NET or Azure, consider SharePoint, since it includes an extensive set of APIs. The company should have little trouble finding the connectors and tools needed to accomplish its main objectives.

However, if the company wants to customize a platform by integrating an ECM application with one or more enterprise applications, Alfresco open source platforms might provide a good foundation from which an SI or in-house developers can develop a system specifically for an enterprise.

Companies may also want interoperability between two or more ECM platforms. Most ECM vendors support Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS), designed to enable the integration of two or more ECM systems. Beware, however, as there are different degrees of compatibility with CMIS. Users generally regard Alfresco products as highly compatible with CMIS, so those are a safe bet.

Finally, an organization may want to develop applications to work with its content. These applications use the capabilities of a shared repository, deployed either on premises or in the cloud. Companies should consider OpenText Content Suite, which comes with a rich set of development tools to create applications on top of OpenText platforms, as well as makes it easier to integrate with other enterprise systems. Box also supports an extensive set of APIs for incorporating Box Platform into a content-driven business application.

Cloud-based file sync-and-share services

Multiple ECM vendors offer cloud-based file sync-and-share services, designed to synchronize content with mobile devices. Box and Microsoft -- with its OneDrive product deployed in Azure -- provide content services and APIs for incorporating managed content into mobile apps.

Dropbox and Google Drive also provide enterprise file sync-and-share services but lack the workflow features and integration with enterprise applications. However, if users just need to share files from common folders, these products will do the job.

ECM applications most appropriate to your industry

ECM software solves business problems that are frequently specific to an industry, and that is important to consider when evaluating vendors. Be sure to assess the existing enterprise architecture. Consider an ECM application that easily incorporates into the existing enterprise architecture. If the company is already an Oracle shop, focus first on Oracle WebCenter Content. If the business is committed to Microsoft, SharePoint is a good place to begin.

There are several industry-specific guideposts. If a company is in the energy industry, it may wish to examine OpenText Documentum, IBM Business Automation Workflow and OpenText Content Suite. If it's in the telecom or communication industries, the company may wish to consider IBM Case Manager. If the organization is in media and entertainment, start the search with OpenText Content Suite or Box.

Likewise, companies in engineering or construction industries should consider Alfresco, OpenText Documentum and OpenText Content Suite. Companies in life sciences should examine OpenText Documentum, OpenText Content Suite and Box.

ECM applications to fit your company size requirements

Remember also that different-sized companies have different ECMs. For example, large companies with sizable transaction volumes often need ECM platforms that can operate across multiple company departments and even different countries. Scalability and extensibility are important issues.

A multinational organization must provide support for multiple languages and needs to process a large number of documents daily. IBM, OpenText and Oracle have past experience supporting large multinational customers and scaling to handle high transaction volumes.

Midsize companies frequently need a customized ECM application that fits specific business needs. A midsize company may want to consider building a less expensive solution with open source tools, such as those provided by Alfresco. Cloud-powered content services are another option. SharePoint deployed on Azure may also be a cost-effective alternative, with a tailored environment appropriate for midsize business operations. Box can also be configured to accommodate the requirements of midsize companies and can serve as the authoritative repository for content-centric business applications.

Smaller companies have fewer business processes and, by definition, few requirements for operating across multiple departments or countries. Cloud content management from Box or Microsoft provides most expected ECM capabilities, delivered on a subscription basis. Dropbox and Google Drive offer bare-bones file sync and share, where content is organized and secured through predefined file plans.

Changes to expect in the ECM marketplace over the next five years

Like all other areas in high tech, ECM continues to evolve. When assessing an ECM application, be sure take into account some of the underlying trends that are likely to affect the ECM marketplace over the next five years.

Industry partnerships. ECM platforms remain a dynamic marketplace and are continuing to change as companies consider new ways to extract value from all stored content. Over the next five years, larger vendors will continue to acquire niche players to enhance their feature sets.

Large and small vendors will also collaborate to combine the reach of established players with the latest innovations of smaller, more nimble vendors. Companies should expect to see more partnerships for content services, including machine learning and other approaches to AI.

A case in point is Box. Since June 2015, it has partnered with IBM to combine Box's collaboration tools and ease of use with IBM's analytics, size and customer base. The partnership targets industries with a high need for security, including financial services, healthcare and government. Box is also collaborating with Google, Microsoft and IBM to add image recognition, content analytics and cognitive services to content managed within Box. OpenText partners with Microsoft for image recognition and other services.

Integration with other enterprise systems. ECM applications will integrate more tightly with enterprise applications to blend content management and cross-company business processes even further. More vendors will focus on specific business problems in a given industry. For example, Alfresco already integrates with computer-aided design systems for engineering firms.

Natural language handling. With the increasing consumerization of IT, more customers will expect the ability to query content using natural language interfaces. With ever-improving tools for natural language, a growing number of vendors will respond to demand by offering natural language processing tools for more powerful queries.

Some vendors already offer tools for automatic language translation of content. For example, Oracle has a partnership with Lingotek to provide this feature in WebCenter Content. These tools will become more common, enabling people who speak different languages to work on the same content base.

Image recognition. Recent advances in image analysis algorithms, which now perform better than humans at recognizing the content of images and placing the images into appropriate categories, will find their way into the content management tools of forward-thinking ECM vendors. Such enhancements will improve the capture, retrieval and analytics of image-based content. Box, IBM and OpenText already deliver customized solutions.

Improved metadata. With data volumes increasing, enterprises will demand richer metadata features for better cataloging and searching of content. Some ECM vendors already offer ECM platforms with the ability to automatically extract metadata from a document (e.g., OpenText Documentum) or the ability for users to add metadata to documents (e.g., OpenText Content Suite and Box).

Blending of structured and unstructured data. Enterprises have an increasing need to manage nontextual content, and many vendors have responded by providing ECM applications to help companies handle unstructured content. For example, Oracle WebCenter Content provides centralized control of unstructured content. Over the next five years, more vendors will offer tools to combine structured and unstructured data in ways that enable seamless processing of either type of content.

The final word

ECM software should provide a key set of services within your enterprise architecture. However, there are many variables in play, and choosing the right platform requires consideration of business objectives, existing software and in-house resources. Once that groundwork is set, the company is ready to evaluate which vendors best meet the specific requirements.

Geoff Bock contributed to this report.

This was last published in December 2018

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