Users see potential benefits, some pitfalls to avoid in ECM projects

Organizations mulling an investment in enterprise content management (ECM) software can learn a lot from veterans of ECM projects. Get useful advice on deploying ECM systems.

From tighter document version control to improved business continuity and speedier disaster recovery, enterprise content management (ECM) software offers many potential benefits to users, according to IT industry analysts and several veterans of ECM projects.

But organizations need to be careful when evaluating, purchasing and implementing ECM software, or else they risk falling victim to some common ECM dangers, cautioned experienced users such as Glenn Cobb, vice president of IT at Tompkins Financial Corp. in Ithaca, N.Y.

Cobb said companies can avoid unnecessary and potentially problem-causing ECM system sprawl by taking steps to ensure that there is some level of consistency between different business units on document types. For example, an organization should consider standardizing on one file format for documents containing budgetary information, he said.

That issue has come into play at Tompkins, a holding company for three community banks and several financial services subsidiaries that all operate independently from one another. “For us, it’s a little tough because the content has to change from institution to institution,” Cobb said, adding that prospective users should take such issues into consideration when they start looking at an ECM implementation.

Restoring order to the document management process via ECM projects
The good news is that when ECM projects go smoothly, the benefits can be plentiful. Cobb said a properly designed ECM system can put an end to the confusion and complications that often arise when workers make copies of – and then modify – important corporate documents.

At Tompkins, “it used to take 10 hours to combine all of the different changes from the different sources,” he noted. “A good ECM tool would have made that seamless because all of the changes would have been version-controlled.”

The exact definition of the phrase “enterprise content management” is often disputed by vendors and analysts with differing opinions on what technologies fit under the ECM umbrella. But generally speaking, it refers to the methodologies and myriad software tools that companies can use to capture, store, manage and deliver documents, images and other forms of unstructured content to employees, customers and business partners.

IT research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. predicts that the worldwide market for ECM technologies will grow from $3.7 billion last year to $6 billion by 2014. Analysts say the rapid growth in ECM demand is being driven by potential benefits that include easier access for end users to archives of unstructured information and an improved ability to comply with information-retention rules and other government and industry regulations. A shared ECM system can also put an end to the inefficient document shuffling that often takes place via email.

Full-function ECM software packages offer everything from document and records management tools to social networking collaboration software and enterprise search capabilities. In addition, there are hundreds of more specialized content management products that are tailored to specific industries or focused on individual technologies, such as Web content management or image management software.

Not so fast: taking an incremental approach on ECM projects
The Retirement Services Division within the Office of the State Comptroller in Connecticut recently completed an ECM project designed to help the government agency get a handle on more than 40 years’ worth of documents and forms related to state pension plans. Much of that content was stored in paper files or on microfilm, making it hard to manage and access the information, said David Wemett, a lead technical analyst who worked on the project.

But despite the expected benefits of automating the document management process via ECM, the project team was careful not to overreach. After implementing the ECM software, Wemett said, the agency decided that it made sense to transfer the existing documents and files into the new system on an incremental basis to ensure the best results.

For example, if state workers came to the Retirement Services Division looking for their historical employment records, that would be the cue for Wemett and his staff to upload the information about those workers into the new system. “We did it more or less on-demand rather than trying to do it wholesale by dumping everything into the system A to Z,” he noted.

Wemett added that the ECM project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without active interest and financial support from his bosses.

“You’ve got to have management buy-in, and the people who actually use [the system] have to feel as though you’re doing them a favor,” he said. “If you don’t have both these things, then you’re really going uphill, and I’ve done some other projects where we really went uphill and wound up stuck there.”

Use of hosted systems in ECM projects is growing, but slowly
Hosted, cloud-based and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) ECM offerings are gradually growing in popularity as well – although not as quickly as their on-premise counterparts, according to Karen Shegda, a content management analyst at Gartner.

“We’re seeing more and more interest from our clients in Software as a Service and cloud-based options,” Shegda said. But hosted technologies currently account for only 5% of the overall ECM market, she added. That should increase to least 10% by 2013, Shegda predicted.

Hosted ECM products can be the right choice for smaller organizations with limited IT resources, said William Poole, senior director of marketing communications at The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nearly 40-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to land conservation.

The San Francisco-based TPL uses a hosted content management system primarily to store, share and keep track of its vast collection of nature photographs and videos. While the hosted offering has allowed TPL workers to focus more closely on what they do best – preserving land – there is still some ECM-related work that needs to be done internally, Poole said. That includes keeping the content files properly updated with meta tags and working with the hosted system vendor when problems arise.

Managing the ECM system “gets more complicated every year” as the amount of content stored in it increases, according to Poole. His advice to new ECM users: “I think that the more dedicated staff you have, the better off you are,” he said. “Be sure that you’ve got somebody who is able to devote an undivided amount of time and attention to the thing and don’t just try and do it on the cheap, whether it’s hosted or not.”

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