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5 important questions to ask potential ECM solution partners

It's critical to select the right enterprise content management partner, so Bob Estes has several questions CIOs should ask around cloud support, data protection, integrations and more.

Large-scale enterprise applications represent one of the single most important investment decisions a CIO is responsible for making. Whether it's a large-scale CRM deployment, an ERP deployment or an enterprise content management (ECM) system, these applications are often used daily by thousands of employees and require a high degree of customization to meet the specific requirements of the distributed enterprise.

Enterprise content and information systems in particular serve as the productivity engine for the modern information worker and have become the foundation for enabling digital transformation initiatives. Because of the specialization and complexity involved in these types of deployments, enterprise IT leaders are increasingly looking to engage with experienced solution partners that possess the right knowledge and technical expertise to ensure they are choosing the right vendor and also help them implement and manage the solution on an ongoing basis.

As someone who has spent the past two decades immersed in practically every facet of the ECM industry, I've seen firsthand just how critical it is to not just choose the right technology to manage enterprise content, but perhaps more importantly, to select the right solution partner to provide the expertise and guidance to customers as they work to modernize their content management capabilities.

ECM: A moving target

The average large enterprise generates a staggering amount of content every day -- from conventional content types such as documents, images and video to transactional data, machine data and a vast sea of unstructured data that presents its own set of obstacles when it comes to indexing, searching and retrieving content. However, the volume, velocity and variety of information that most organizations need to manage, store and protect now exceeds their ability to even marginally keep pace.

Enterprise content management applications were built specifically for the purpose of capturing, storing, managing and delivering a variety of content types to its users. Over the past two decades, dozens of software vendors have brought solutions to market, including tools from large and established vendors such as those offered by Microsoft, IBM and Opentext to a number of specialized and niche applications customized to meet the specific requirements of industries such as the legal and healthcare markets.

The fundamental proposition of an ECM system is that all content has business value, and increasingly, much of this content is also subject to a host of evolving regulatory compliance requirements. For the CIO intent on driving transformative change-the-business initiatives, the focus is now on taking an enterprise approach to managing all of this content -- regardless of how and where it might be stored.

Choosing the right ECM solution partner will depend on a number of interdependent factors, including budgetary considerations, technical consultative expertise, integration with other systems and content sources, data security and compliance requirements, and perhaps most important of all, the solution provider's knowledge of the vendor landscape in general as well as its grasp of the customer's specific industry.

5 questions to ask potential ECM partners

Identifying and vetting an ECM solution partner is both a rigorous and time-intensive process and there are likely dozens of questions which will need to be fully addressed by a prospective solution partner. Having worked with all of the major ECM systems and a multitude of solution partners over the past two decades, what follows below are what I consider to be the five questions that should be given the most weight as part of any comprehensive evaluation.

1. Can the solution partner support a cloud, on-premises and hybrid delivery model?

The cloud has fundamentally changed the way applications and services are managed and delivered to users. While most commercial ECM systems are now offered in a cloud-based model, many highly regulated industries such as healthcare and government are unwilling to host sensitive content assets in the public cloud and will require content management applications that can be offered either on premises or can be split into a hybrid model. In this respect, not only is it important to have the assurances of an air-tight service level agreement (SLA), it will also require that a solution partner can actively monitor and enforce its provisions.

2. What security capabilities does the solution partner have to protect a customer's sensitive data from both insider threats and external threat actors?

Ensuring that your content is protected from both external threat actors as well as insider threats remains a top priority for IT leaders. A 2020 survey of 5,000 enterprise knowledge workers found that cloud-based collaboration technologies and workforce turnover have become major drivers of data exfiltration as insider threat programs fail to keep pace with today's digital workplace. Among some of the key findings related to insider threats were that nearly three-quarters (73%) of employees report they had access to data they didn't create, while 59% admitted they could view data from other departments. As such, enterprise CIOs will need to establish that a solution partner has an in-depth understanding of the security controls that exist within a given ECM application and can also proactively identify and mitigate potential gaps in their content security strategy.

3. How easily can the solution partner integrate an ECM system with other internal or third-party systems?

Just as the "network effect" posits that the value of the network itself increases with every added node or person using it, an ECM system likewise becomes incrementally more valuable as the other applications and content repositories are connected and can interact with it. For instance, the mortgage department of a financial institution might require its ECM system to be able to ingest content (such as lending applications, home inspection documents and notarized forms) from a number of different systems. This means that a prospective solution partner should possess an in-depth understanding of the type of APIs a system employs (i.e., SOAP vs. REST vs. proprietary) as well as the time and effort required to configure and tie these diverse systems together.

4. What specific capabilities does the solution partner provide to help manage and monitor multiple ECM systems?

Further complicating the enterprise content conundrum is the fact that enterprise CIOs are often not dealing with a single ECM application but rather a number of disparate systems supported by an array of software vendors, each with their own service agreements and support structures. According tothe Association for Intelligent Information Management, organizations are wrestling with an average of five different content systems and repositories which often comes about as the result of multiple corporate acquisitions. A prospective solution partner should have its own tools and processes in place to manage and monitor these various systems in a unified manner, providing stakeholders with the system-wide visibility they need to make informed decisions regarding the infrastructure that supports these applications.

5. How can the solution partner guarantee uptime and enforce other key performance metrics as defined in the SLA?

ECM and EIM (enterprise information management) applications have a vast footprint that touches a broad swath of functional roles, departments and other external resources, making it crucial to understand precisely which KPIs should be collected, how those performance metrics will be measured and enforced, the tool sets they use to manage and monitor an ECM system, and what mechanisms they will have at their disposal to proactively mitigate any performance issues as they arise.

As the old proverb goes, "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." For the enterprise CIOs tasked with transforming their content management strategy, it will undoubtedly be a long and sometimes arduous journey. However, with the support and guidance of the right solution partner, it will be made considerably easier.

About the author
Bob Estes is the CEO and president of Reveille Software, a provider of management and monitoring solutions for enterprise content management systems. Over the past 25 years, Bob has successfully launched several early-stage high-tech software companies, including MediaBin Inc., a market leader in brand asset management, which was later acquired by Interwoven, Inc. He has also served as VP of marketing and product management with several Atlanta-based software companies focused on enterprise content management, sales force automation and mobile communications, including XcelleNet, Inc.

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