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Planning, prep work for ECM tool rollout puts an end to content chaos

Consultants and analysts say that targeted planning before ECM deployments begin helps organizations realize enterprise content management success.

Proper planning and preparation are crucial when using technology to effectively tame the content chaos that exists in many organizations, say information management experts.

A "state of the industry" report released by the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) showed that about 40% of enterprises lack confidence in their electronic data and struggle with its accessibility, accuracy and trustworthiness. While implementing an enterprise content management (ECM) system goes a long way toward automating the process of maintaining that information, most consultants and analysts say that information professionals must become intimately familiar with the underlying business problems and understand how users interact with content to gain real control. Otherwise, that ECM tool could become an underused shiny new toy.

Businesses should determine up front what they want to accomplish with ECM. For example, managers might want to cut costs, meet regulatory requirements or improve the business' ability to attract, engage and retain customers, said Karen Shegda, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. "There is an overarching driver that the business is looking for that would translate into the ECM software tools they might need," Shegda said.

Once that's done, the first step in any ECM program is to document all the types of content that the organization deals with, the business processes it's part of and who handles it, Shegda said. Some content might be for internal users only, while some might be shared with partners or customers. Getting a firm grasp of all that "is key to building a successful strategy," she added.

Meeting with directors, managers and front-line users was the most important part of CWCapital's ECM initiative, said Joe Aiello, administrator of the content management department at the commercial real estate lending company in Washington, D.C. He said his department learned how loans were handled, which helped them implement the new system. While some users assumed that paper processes would have to be duplicated digitally with an ECM tool, it was possible to skip steps and deliver information faster, he said.

One way Aiello's team did that was by enabling metadata to be embedded in loan applications. Now the loan origination team can see what other real estate deals customers are involved in with the company, opening up more customer-service opportunities, he said.

Pinpointing the business problems causing content chaos is another key to ECM success, said Steve Weissman, principal consultant at Holly Group, a content, process and information management consultancy in Waltham, Mass.

"If there are multiple pain points or the same one is recurring, don't just treat the symptoms, but look for the underlying disease," he said. "There may be something more systemic that you're not getting to by flitting from pain point to pain point."

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For example, an enterprise might be consistently late with payments, meaning it has to pay late fees or interest. The problem isn't that the payments are being sent late, but that the process for making payments goes through too many departments, according to Weissman. In that situation, the organization might devise a way to not only process payables faster with an ECM tool but reduce the number of departments that handle a single piece of content.

"In today's information environment, almost everything intersects with everything else," Weissman said. A company might have a records management issue that intersects with its legal and technology departments, and an ECM initiative needs to address those issues for efficient content management, he said.

Information duplication also contributes to the content scramble.

"It is really destructive," said JoAnn Hackos, president of Denver-based consultancy Comtech Services Inc. The problem stems from how users handle content, forwarding it to colleagues via email and saving multiple versions of documents and other items, she said.

Using an ECM tool to identify duplicates and near-duplicates, then normalizing the data to keep a few copies -- instead of hundreds -- proved to be very valuable on a recent Comtech project, Hackos said. The client, a multinational medical device manufacturer, maintained 33 different versions of its employee manual, which it then translated into several languages. The human resources department created the manuals, but marketing communications would update them every six months and the company quickly amassed a collection of files that was increasingly confusing to sort through.

By using a new technology, however, the team created a single XML-based master version of the manual. The medical device maker now introduces variations as needed and can produce all translations in six minutes, Hackos said.

That kind of targeted approach, according to Shegda, is a wise way to begin managing content rather than trying to implement ECM technology and processes in one fell swoop.

"Companies should pick something that is going to meet the enterprise's needs," she said, "but roll out [ECM] one department at a time." If an organization uses a platform such as SharePoint, she suggested that it roll out the infrastructure so that a common set of services, such as version control and basic search capabilities, is live across the platform. Functionality pieces, such as workflow or records management, can be added later.

Finally, ensure that all pertinent business processes and applications will be integrated as you get started on an ECM initiative, Weissman said.

"The steps themselves are straightforward. [But] the work is challenging, and it's not a quick fix, especially across an enterprise with so many different personalities, processes and cultural legacies to be accommodated," he said. The key to harnessing all the moving parts of an ECM system infrastructure, he added, is to get started documenting your processes, identifying content, evaluating existing technology and looking toward the future.

Christine Parizo is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology.  She's based in West Springfield, Mass. Contact her at

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