Expert advice for enterprise content management technology purchases

Read expert advice on navigating the enterprise content management technology purchase process – including six questions to ask and answer before talking to vendors.

Enterprise content management guideRead advice from expert Chris Riley on navigating the enterprise content management technology purchase process – including six questions to ask and answer before talking to vendors.

Table of Contents

Enterprise content management overview: Understanding ECM systems
Five ECM technology trends that can affect your ECM strategy
Disjointed eDiscovery practices exposing companies to legal risk, rising costs
ECM strategy evolves from focus on acquisition to actualization
Expert advice for enterprise content management technology purchases

Enterprise content management (ECM) system technology purchases are more complicated than matching basic requirements with features. In addition to the functionality a system provides, ECM purchases should also take into account organizational impact, usability and ability to integrate with other line-of-business applications. Ignoring these issues can result in overbought and underutilized technology, duplicate packages, and issues with connectivity or reliability. But it's not necessarily easy to choose the right system. ECM offers more options than ever before, which can make navigating the market a challenge.

ECM today comes in all the typical flavors: individual components, all-in-one solutions, or as a service. And now the first two have open source options. But whatever route companies choose, perhaps one of the most important considerations to keep in mind when selecting ECM technology is how it will fit into the rest of an IT infrastructure.

Consider integration in the ECM purchase process
Often neglected, but always a problem, is integrating all ECM components in an organization -- which may include any number of business applications. The requirements are exacting: make all the components work together but in a way the end users want (which is sometimes a moving target). And IT departments are often bogged down with getting technology to work, never mind being tailored to a particular business case or integrated with related systems. In the past, vendors ignored integration. Today, they are on the bandwagon for making technologies play together and simplifying deployment -- but buyers should still keep integration requirements top of mind when evaluating systems.

IT departments have demanded more integration for years, but vendors are slowly taking the matter more seriously. Many commercial ECM vendors have responded to the integration issue with larger professional service teams, connectors, and modifications to the core of their products. IT departments are solving the problem with virtualization, custom integrations, advanced training, customization of open source products -- and demanding more from vendors. ECM vendors have put more emphasis on open standards such as ODBC connectivity and are building more connectors to common platforms.

Here are some of the pros and cons of different approaches to creating an ECM system:

Building ECM by sourcing components.
Building an ECM system by sourcing the individual components allows an organization to pick the best-of-breed functions but often requires significantly more development and integration effort.

  • Pros: Individual components are easier to install and support, and the quality of each component is optimum
  • Cons: More heavy lifting with IT development, integration and support


Buying an 'all in one' software platform.
All-in-one platforms offer "one (vendor) neck to wring," and easier implementation but may lack specific functionality in an area that is not in the vendor's focus.

  • Pros: Single vendor contract to manage and shorter acquisition and integration phase
  • Cons: Less customizable -- may force organizations to adapt more to the system than the system adapts to them


Going the Software as a Service (SaaS) route.
SaaS ECM can make integration a breeze and can provide a predictable ROI, but it limits functionality to the average enterprise. For traditional ECM, SaaS has the functionality, but for more specialized use, most SaaS options still lack key features.

  • Pros: No IT infrastructure required, predictable cost and virtually no integration
  • Cons: Higher total cost of ownership and limited ability to customize


Other dos and don'ts for picking an ECM system
Because of the sheer number of choices, having clear requirements is essential in the ECM decision-making process. Today, companies need to have more answers than questions before bringing ECM vendors to the table. When the technical gap between IT department and vendor was larger, companies could rely on the vendor to answer many of their questions. Now, the vendor landscape is cut-throat -- companies need to tell vendors how they want to use technology instead of asking.

The biggest mistake that is made in ECM selection is lack of preparation -- particularly, not involving business users early on in the process. Ideally, business users should be included in the entire purchase process, from requirements development to evaluation and testing to signoff. Inevitably, without end users signing off, there could be one specialized and neglected feature that's needed – and adding it can result in a complete rework and effort and money exponentially lost on an incorrect system.

It's also important that business users take part in evaluating the user interface for ECM systems. The history of technology adoption has shown that users cannot be expected to change substantially how they work. That's why the interfaces of many ECM products have been simplified so they can be mapped more clearly to business processes. Many systems even offer the customization of user-facing functionality on an organizational or per-user level.

Another major mistake is not investigating the standards used by an ECM platform. The neutrality of content is imperative. An organization's ability to move from one system to another has to be a priority. Content management systems have focused generally on standards for content; allowing organizations to get at the data external of the content management system. In addition, the data contained within content management systems often needs to be utilized in external applications -- and that requires common standards.

It is easy to get caught in the trap of choices and what appears to be never-ending cycles of review. But a well-thought-out requirements-gathering process, careful research, integration planning and careful vetting of vendors can go a long way. At the conclusion, aim to make sure your ECM system passes the business accountability test: Are the end users satisfied?


Is open source ECM ready for prime time?
As is true with many technologies, questions often arise: "Is this available as open source?" or "Can we build this better ourselves?" Eight years ago, open source was thought of as the community of rebels opposing closed source software and intellectual property. Today, it defines a business model. While there are still open source communities that see development as sport, when it comes to enterprise-level applications, much of the open source development is very much for profit -- and well advanced.

The development teams of these products are paid, and it is not a business of benevolence. Many of the open source ECM and related business intelligence technologies are right on the toes of "closed source" commercial software. The only difference comes down to license models or exposure to IP.

For ECM, the risk of giving out IP is not tremendously high. Many of the features and functionality are non-patentable algorithms, already known in the development community. For other ECM technologies, such as analytics and optical character recognition, the risk is higher but so is the challenge in building them independently.

One of the most common reasons a company now selects open source ECM is not necessarily to save money but because of their ability to customize and properly trial. Open source provides fewer restrictions for a company to fully evaluate an ECM product before entering into a commitment for licenses or support, thus giving IT departments the required amount of time to integrate.

Instead of "build or buy," the question is now "modify open source or buy?" When integrating ECM technologies, companies can get stuck on a moving target of professional services costs, the level of integration a product provides, and lack of specific functionality. With the open source platforms, organizations with the internal skills available can theoretically more easily take over integration and customize content management solutions to meet their exact needs.

Chris Riley, ECM expertAbout the author: Chris Riley is a recognized industry expert in document recognition, enterprise content management (ECM) and analytics technologies. Currently, Riley is senior ECM & document capture architect at ShareSquared, Inc.; he lives and breathes technology and has built his career on helping companies buy, use and optimize advanced technologies for their business. Riley has 12-plus years of experience in this arena; during that time, he has owned three software companies and received several technology and business awards. He has degrees in business administration, computer science and mathematics, and holds certifications from the ECM trade organization AIIM as an "Enterprise Content Management Practitioner (ECMp)" and "Information, Organization and Access Practitioner (IOAp)." Riley also is a sought-after speaker and educator throughout the content gathering and delivery space. He can be reached at

Table of Contents

Enterprise content management overview: Understanding ECM systems
Five ECM technology trends that can affect your ECM strategy
Disjointed eDiscovery practices exposing companies to legal risk, rising costs
ECM strategy evolves from focus on acquisition to actualization
Expert advice for enterprise content management technology purchases


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