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Consumerization of IT driving change in ECM software

In the future, managing content will be less about the ECM software you use and more about creating processes and services that enable more efficient work.

Over the past few decades, the enterprise content management market has seen many changes. The rise of the Web, mobile and cloud have all changed the shape of the ECM industry and how it delivers technology answers to problems.

John Newton has not only witnessed all these changes but also has had a hand in guiding the industry. A founder of Documentum and Alfresco Software, Newton was inducted into AIIM's Company of Fellows at its 2015 conference. I recently had the pleasure of talking to him about where the ECM industry has been and what he sees coming next.

The past 10 years

Newton and I started with the biggest changes, and some of the surprises in the industry over the past decade. Newton said that the importance of consumer software in the enterprise was the most unexpected development.

His answer reveals a lot about how the industry has changed. In 2005, Apple was still two years from introducing the iPhone, and Facebook was an application only on a college campus. Predicting how the smartphone and the apps that we take for granted today would drive the development of the cloud was likely something no one envisioned.

Before the iPhone, the technology in the workplace was typically superior to the tech we had at home. Today most people own more advanced technology than they have access to at work. Wearables synchronize with apps on our phones, correlate data with millions of other devices, and provide health advice. It is not uncommon for people to be able to be more productive on their personal iPad than a company issued computer.

The impact of consumer applications themselves is immense. People have raised their standards for usable software and the time required for updates. Enterprise applications now appear clunky and the tolerance for those applications is shrinking. People expect magic in how applications work after experiencing that magic in their home life. Enterprise vendors are left trying to meet these new expectations before they are supplanted by startups, which are bringing the simplicity of consumer applications to the enterprise.

The importance of consumer software cannot be underestimated, and outside of perhaps Steve Jobs, nobody saw it coming.

Looking ahead

The 20/20 hindsight we have now shows how hard it is to predict the future. That doesn't make it less entertaining to make the attempt. Newton, for example, has given a lot of thought to macro trends, the technology driving those trends, and more subtle changes in technology.

Newton predicts that we will stop managing documents and instead manage the business context and processes of which content is just a part. The existing concept of case management fits this mind-set but is too limiting in scope to fully convey the concept.

Today most people own more advanced technology than they have access to at work.

For example, a contract is more than drafts and signed copies of the document. There are the correspondence and supporting material that led to the contract's final state. People and companies are involved throughout the entire process. Together, all that information needs to be managed as a cohesive whole.

Even a sales presentation is simply part of a larger process that is managed by a CRM system. It loses meaning outside that context.

To avoid the pitfalls of earlier efforts to make this concept work, Newton sees the advent of smaller services surrounding content and processes that can be assembled into a broader technology. These micro-services will become the building blocks of business processes and applications. Newton sees business users eventually being able to construct processes using micro-services provided by IT departments and cloud vendors. Resulting applications can then be executed anywhere and allow end-to-end processes to occur on any device.

When Newton was describing it, I was thinking of Legos. I loved to build spaceships and I had a standard design in my head that worked with the Lego pieces I owned. Each build was unique, but it always solved the problem of giving my mini-figures a ship to explore my house.

In the future, Newton sees people building their processes and working in their business constructs. People will not work in an ECM system but in the application that creates and houses a contract, for example. All of information will connect behind the scenes to not only ensure information consistency and quality, but also to deliver needed information to people in a predictive manner.

What now?

Newton discussed what people should do today to ensure that they are ready for the future.

The key change is that organizations need to become more digital. This is more than simply taking paper and manual spreadsheets out of the daily work process. Systems need to talk to one another in a consistent, automated manner. Data needs to flow freely between systems as customers, partners, suppliers and employees all interact with that data from different, and sometimes multiple, systems.

Getting back-end systems working in harmony will prepare organizations for the advent of micro-services. Those services will each interact with different systems behind the scenes. Not having to keep all the back-end systems in sync themselves will give the micro-services the flexibility they need to work.

It will be interesting to watch to see how the future unfolds and how accurate Newton's predictions will be. His vision is well thought-out, but who knows what surprises wait around the corner.

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