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

Content management tools address digital content challenges

With the digital content explosion and increasing mandates come the need to manage all those files. ECM tools do just that and more, ever evolving to meet changing business needs.

Enterprise content management tools help enterprises of all sizes and in all industries capture, categorize, store, deliver and preserve content. It is no surprise that ECM has emerged as a software category that helps enterprises overcome multiple challenges.

First, many organizations are dispersed geographically with offices and employees located around the globe. These organizations need a common repository from which to share files. Teams can no longer rely on simply emailing items to one another and saving information as files on their own personal computer drives. Instead, office workers need a shared location, an authoritative repository within a networked environment where they can access documents and other content types wherever they are.

Second, there is a digital information explosion. With so much content to process, IT must ensure security, configure access rights and manage updates. Workgroups cannot rely on document naming conventions to determine the most up-to-date versions. Groups need automatic and intuitive document versioning tools that track changes and enable team members to easily identify the appropriate versions of information given.

Third, organizational mandates matter. Many enterprises are subject to multiple industry regulations and need to demonstrate compliance with archiving requirements. They need to retain files for a predefined period and, ultimately, be able to dispose of -- and permanently destroy -- the files once the time passes. In regulated industries, companies need to demonstrate content provenance -- that the organization has made all updates in a systematic, authoritative and traceable manner. Multinational firms frequently need to demonstrate content sovereignty -- that the organization is storing files in specific geographical locations.

With this combination of distributed workforces, the content explosion and continuously changing organizational mandates, the importance of content management tools continues to grow.

The evolving features of ECM applications

When applied to enterprise software, the term enterprise content management has traditionally referred to a set of features that begin with document management. As teams become more dispersed and information sharing requirements more complex, ECM's scope broadens to include additional capabilities.

Document management. Document management provides the foundation for ECM tools. This includes basic library services for checking documents in and out of a shared repository, controlling document versions and making it easy to find relevant items and search and browse capabilities. An organization with multiple locations and distributed work teams needs a common repository to easily share, find and edit files, as well as automatic versioning to enable team members to distinguish between different document versions.

Document management incorporates perimeter-based security -- access rights so that individuals authenticated to the repository have permissions to create, read, update and/or delete particular documents or document sets. Content management tools help with these security requirements.

Records management. With so much information being collected and managed, organizations need to retain documents and other content types in conformity with predefined policies, procedures and regulations. Records management is essential for maintaining organizational histories of important events, documenting discoveries for patent applications and other documentation-related business tasks. In addition, enterprises may need record management capabilities to prepare for subpoenas and other document production requests.

Related to records management are content disposition capabilities -- features to remove files from collections and demonstrate their destruction in a systematic and auditable manner.

Workflow. Workflow involves passing one or more documents through different steps in a preconfigured sequence to automate business processes, such as purchasing, invoicing, hiring and applying for loans. Typically, these are formally defined processes that span multiple departments and locations and that support essential activities within an organization.

Web publishing. These features automatically publish content to multiple websites whenever an employee modifies certain information. While some ECM products, like Microsoft SharePoint, manage internal content and content on public-facing websites, most content management tools need to integrate with other applications to support web publishing.

The move toward enterprise-wide ECM tools

Remember, semistructured information is remarkably useful. An ECM application relies on structured metadata to manage unstructured content, including images, email, records, videos and web files, stored within the shared repository. Structured fields and records capture and store the metadata, often managed by an underlying relational database.

ECM software can integrate with other enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM), ERP or marketing automation applications. By relying on ECM software's authoritative repository, enterprises consolidate information, maintain a single source of truth and avoid duplicate content issues.

ECM tools can operate across departments to help solve numerous problems for all but the smallest enterprises. Here are some common uses:

  • ECM enables finance departments to scan, index and retrieve invoices to process payments more efficiently.
  • ECM enables HR departments to view a candidate's resume and, with the click of a button, forward it to the hiring manager.
  • 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 enterprise content management tools can be tailored to focus on specific business processes -- for example, loan approvals or insurance claim processing -- or only on a limited number of industries, such as healthcare or government. Others focus on just a few processes involved in content management -- for example, on capture, analysis and storage. Still other products are strong at integrating with just one enterprise application, such as CRM.

The ECM market

ECM should support a shared, authoritative repository for all of an organization's important business content.

The market-leading ECM vendors offer on-premises, cloud-based and hybrid deployments that integrate with numerous enterprise applications. Long-standing and important vendors include OpenText, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Hyland and Alfresco.

Then, there is a new class of disrupters entering the market. Spawned by cloud computing, vendors such as Google, Box and Dropbox, initially launched as file sync-and-share applications. However, they lacked enterprise-grade capabilities for library services, workflow and features to ensure compliance with organizational and regulatory mandates. These cloud-native competitors are rapidly adding essential ECM capabilities. Moreover, unlike many traditional ECM vendors, Google, Box and Dropbox also have a reputation as being user-friendly and easy to configure.

A cross-company approach to content sharing

When considering enterprise content management tools, companies should avoid having content fall into silos -- a situation that defeats the purpose of content sharing. Instead, enterprises should take a cross-company approach. Rather than viewing ECM tools as a way of improving just one business process, enterprises should look for ways to use consistent and integrated ECM applications across the business -- to improve multiple business processes in multiple geographies.

In short, ECM should support a shared, authoritative repository for all of an organization's important business content.

Editor's note

Geoff Bock contributed to this report.

Next Steps

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This was last published in November 2018

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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? 
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