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This article is part of our Buyer's Guide: A buyer's guide to selecting the best ECM tool

ECM tools help companies overcome content challenges

Expert Pat Brans examines how ECM tools have become a cornerstone application in the enterprise information toolkit.

Enterprise content management tools help enterprises of all sizes and in all industries capture, analyze, index, store, deliver and preserve content. So it’s no surprise that companies have turned to ECM tools to overcome a variety of challenges.

With dispersed, often remote workforces, today’s enterprises need a common repository from which to share files. Teams can no longer rely on simply emailing items to one another, saving information as files on personal computer drives. Instead, they need a shared location they can access from anywhere.

With so much content to process, managers need to be able to configure access rights and track changes to content. Work groups can’t rely on document naming conventions to track versions, as documents are changed by multiple team members. Groups need automatic and intuitive document versioning tools that track changes and allow team members to easily identify the appropriate version of a given set of information.

With so many team members working on so many different projects, teams need a common platform that allows them to communicate with one another in real time. While communicating over email and using an ad-hoc set of chat tools has served organizations in the past, the most competitive organizations are now opting for tools that allow both group communication and one-on-one exchanges to function in a consistent manner across the project team.

Still other needs exist, as many organizations subject to compliance or other industry regulations need to demonstrate adherence to information management requirements. They need to store and access files for a certain period of time -- and ultimately to be able to destroy the data after that time has elapsed. For all these reasons, enterprise content management (ECM) software has become a cornerstone application in the enterprise information toolkit.

The evolving features of ECM tools

When applied to enterprise software, the term enterprise content management has traditionally referred to a set of features, limited mostly to document management. However, as teams have become more dispersed, and as collaboration and workflow have grown more complex, the scope of ECM has broadened to include a richer set of capabilities, including the following:

Document management. As mentioned above, document management is the traditional use case for ECM and includes checking documents in and out of storage, controlling document versions, and easy and quick content search and retrieval. A company with multiple offices may need a common repository to share and edit files and automatic versioning to allow team members to distinguish between different document versions.

Records management. With so much information being collected and managed, organizations need to record important events and archive and retain content in conformance with various regulations. An enterprise may need record management features to record business transactions -- or to record data captured by sensors -- to reliably reconstruct events to fend off legal threats.

Workflow. Enabling efficient cross-company business processes and workflow involves passing a document through different stations in a pre-configured sequence to automate cross-company business processes. An organization may need these features to coordinate steps in complex business processes -- such as purchasing, invoicing and hiring -- that span departments and geographies.

Collaboration. These features help workers share content internally and externally with appropriate access and concurrency control. This set of capabilities may also encompass more modern features, such as enterprise social networking (ESN). Some ECM suites include ESN features to allow for real-time messaging, content markup by third parties and content feeds that enable workers to see updates in real time. While these more sophisticated social networking features lie on the periphery of ECM, they represent a new direction for ECM software.

Web content management. These features automatically publish content to multiple websites whenever certain information is modified internally. While some ECM vendors manage internal content and content on public-facing websites (like Microsoft’s SharePoint), for the most part, vendors that sell ECM tools don’t provide their own set of tools to manage Web content.

The move toward enterprise-wide ECM tools

ECM tools manage structured and unstructured content. Information can be captured and indexed in structured form; organized in fields, records and files; and information may be captured and indexed in unstructured form, in audio or video form or in email messages with no pre-set fields.

ECM software manages data coming from a variety of content-enabling applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM), ERP or electronic medical records (EMR). By interfacing with legacy applications, ECM tools enable enterprises to consolidate information and avoid the problems that arise from duplicate data.

ECM systems operate across departments to help solve a number of problems for all but the smallest enterprises. Here are some common uses:

  • ECM allows finance departments to scan, index and retrieve invoices to process payments more efficiently.
  • ECM allows human resources departments to view a candidate’s résumé, and with the click of a button, forward it to the hiring manager as the next step in a workflow process.
  • ECM helps enterprises manage records in accordance with Sarbanes-Oxley (or other regulations), storing the right documents, for the right amount of time and with the appropriate access control.

Some ECM tools focus on a limited number of business processes -- for example, those processes associated with loans -- or only on a limited number of industries, such as healthcare or government. Others focus on just a few of the processes involved in content management; for example, on capture, analysis and storage. Still other products are strong at interfacing with just one enterprise application, such as CRM.

The ECM tools market

The market-leading vendors of ECM software offer on-premises, cloud-based and hybrid deployments that integrate with a large set of enterprise applications and enhance the business processes of virtually any industry. These vendors include OpenText, IBM, Dell EMC, Microsoft and Oracle. Other strong players include Hewlett-Packard, Perceptive Software, Hyland and Alfresco.

A new class of vendors, not traditionally known for ECM, has entered the market. Spawned by cloud computing, vendors such as Box and Dropbox, which launched as traditional cloud-based file storage (without versioning, workflow, alerts or tools to help with adherence to compliance), have begun to mimic core ECM capabilities. Box and Dropbox, unlike many traditional ECM vendors, have also earned a reputation as being user-friendly and easy to configure. For this reason, many users have brought these applications into their enterprises in shadow-IT mode -- that is, without IT sanction and paid for out of budgets that don't traditionally cover IT expenses.

A cross-company approach to content sharing

When considering ECM tools, enterprises should avoid having content fall into silos -- a situation that would defeat the purpose of content sharing. Instead, enterprises should take a cross-company approach. Rather than viewing ECM software as a way of improving just one business process, enterprises should look for ways to use a consistent and integrated set of ECM applications across the business -- to improve multiple business processes in multiple geographies. To find out how to justify the purchase of ECM, consider how other businesses are addressing their own sets of challenges in content management.

Next Steps

Is ECM at a crossroads or crisis?

Mobile management a driving trend for ECM

Identifying the ROI from ECM and collaboration tools

This was last published in July 2015

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What features is your company looking for in ECM software?
I'm researching solutions that select (or, tailor) messaging and content based on audience attribute and are capable of publishing across platform (i.e. email, social, web, mobile). Any recommendations for the solutions/providers I should include in my search?