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

Using ECM tools to solve business problems

To determine if your organization could benefit from ECM tools, examine how other organizations are using this software to address their content management challenges.

If your company is considering buying ECM tools, your first question should be, "Can we justify the purchase from a business perspective?" Remember, enterprise content management software can be costly, so rationalize your investment with clear examples of return on investment or operational efficiency. What critical information management needs can your company address by adopting such a system?

Consider also whether your company has to adhere to industry-specific regulations -- or to the requirements of a government agency -- concerning how you handle documents. Enterprise content management (ECM) tools can also be justified as a resource to help ensure compliance with regulations.

One way to get ideas on how to justify the purchase is to look at how other businesses are addressing a variety of challenges in content management and to find out which specific ECM features they use to meet their needs.

Use cases for ECM tools

Records management. For many organizations, managing customer records or other similar data has been the traditional use case for ECM tools. Companies that are subject to compliance or other industry regulations need ECM to capture, manage, archive and ultimately destroy files after a required period.

ECM systems support compliance with regulations specific to certain industries, such as Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) for financial services and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for healthcare. ECM systems may also support compliance with some of the records management requirements from government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration or Department of Defense.

ECM features that support compliance enable documents to be converted from paper to electronic form and then stored in a secured manner with controlled access for a prescribed period. Once the period has elapsed, the software automatically archives or destroys the content according to requirements.

After capturing data through scanning, many ECM systems also tag and categorize data to allow easy retrieval and tracking throughout the lifecycle. Some software suites enable users to tag specific parts of documents, so that those sections can be treated differently from the rest of the larger document.

In this light, ECM software vendors still have some work to do in enhancing tagging and search capabilities to enable users to retrieve the right content while also getting pushed to them certain content that is relevant based on their role, location and search history. This is one of the principles behind semantic search, and ECM software is just beginning to incorporate this functionality into its portfolio of capabilities. Semantic search will likely be a key differentiator of ECM products within the next five years.

Basic file-sharing and document management repositories. These are core capabilities of full-featured ECM suites, but they may also be satisfied by a less fully featured ECM solution or by one of the file-sharing applications on the market, such as Box or Dropbox. For this reason, file-sharing services have given traditional ECM vendors a run for their money.

At the same time, ECM tools can operate on-premises and behind the firewall. Some companies won’t move their data to the cloud for security reasons or can't for regulatory reasons, so they instead opt for on-premises ECM technologies rather than cloud-based file-sharing services. Many companies are now opting for hybrid ECM deployments, where they place some content on-premises and some in the cloud. Hybrid solutions can present licensing and other concerns, including problems configuring enterprise search functionality to effectively search both repositories. But some vendors are addressing these issues with capabilities that allow users to find content across repositories through a single search.

Traditional ECM suites tend to incorporate a richer set of features for access control, workflow design, and management and alerts. While these aspects of fully featured solutions make the systems more complex to install, configure and use, they also make the systems more secure and robust.

Many ECM systems support Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS), which allow two or more ECM suites to interoperate -- an essential feature for those large enterprises that wish to introduce a new ECM system and still continue using one or more ECM suites they already have in place.

Collaboration for third parties, remote workforces and mobile teams. ECM tools provide a central repository of information that enables collaboration on work projects. But new uses have also sprung up -- such as crowdsourcing. Medical research companies are using ECM software to manage research content that other teams can learn from and comment on, or to allow groups to collaborate on finding cures for diseases by following crowdsourcing practices.

In some cases, companies are building hybrid cloud architectures to accommodate collaboration and crowdsourcing -- not only within an organization, but also outside an organization to include third parties and thought leaders beyond a company’s four walls.

Most ECM systems provide tools to interconnect with social media platforms so content and ideas can be shared outside the company through some of the powerful social media platforms used by the general public. Systems can be configured to automatically publish content changes that occur within the company to platforms outside the company in order to maintain consistency between internal and external views of information.

Business process management (BPM). Companies use ECM to establish workflows that span departments and geographies in support of cross-company business processes. Many software suites interface with popular office tools, such as Microsoft Word and Excel, so employees can use the tools they’re familiar with when viewing or modifying content in the context of a workflow.

Most ECM systems provide tools to help both technical and nontechnical business users define business processes. Some of the software suites provide audit control to track every step of a process and analytic capabilities to help identify inefficiencies and streamline business processes.

Content repositories that are linked to other back-office or human resource systems. Some companies use ECM as a repository for files that are created by other systems, including customer relationship management, ERP and financial systems, and the content managed under ECM may even be accessed through those other systems.

Vendors often provide APIs -- or independent developers may provide a set of APIs -- to allow access to content saved in an ECM repository while still being able to work in the platform native to their business processes. For example, salespeople can work in a CRM system and still view contracts and proposals that were created by another system.

Enabling mobile and remote workforces. This is an increasingly important, though still maturing, issue for many companies. ECM systems are building functionality to allow remote workers to access content in the cloud from mobile devices. Going through the cloud removes the need to establish a virtual private network connection into the corporate network to access corporate files on the go. So, for example, a contractor or developer can access diagrams, photos and other materials saved to an ECM repository in the cloud.

Most vendors now provide hybrid cloud arrangements, with more sensitive information being stored on-premises and other information being stored in the cloud for easier access by the mobile workforce and outside contractors and partner companies. Enterprises that choose a hybrid service get the best of both worlds: They maintain tight control of some data, while benefitting from cloud services.

Many ECM vendors provide mobile apps that allow workers to view and modify content on their smartphones in a manner specifically adapted to the constrained environment of a smaller device that may not always be connected. Others produce HTML content that can be interpreted differently, depending on the device type.

Some ECM vendors provide not only view and modify capabilities through mobile apps, but also features that allow the mobile worker to participate in workflows. Mobile users can perform an action on the mobile device as well as indicate completion of a step. Users can then have the content passed along to the next station in a business process.

New mobile capabilities are also enabling new kinds of data capture and presentation. By combining content management capabilities with other data, for example, a political canvasser can use a tablet to enter new information about a political donor without having to start from scratch because some of that information is already stored in a content management system. The canvasser may also be able to have a more intelligent conversation with that donor about increasing his donation or diverting funds to particular causes based on the data he has available.

Hopefully, this overview of what companies are doing with ECM, and the specific features they use to meet their needs, will help you develop a list of the features and functions you need from ECM tools. The next step is to whittle that list down to a set of must-have features for ECM in your organization.

Next Steps

Learn how to maintain and launch an enterprise taxonomy

This was last published in August 2015

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Is your company adopting ECM tools to address compliance requirements?
Great article!