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ECM systems: From silo busting to silo bridging

Enterprise content management systems are increasingly powerful, not as centralized repositories, but as middleware for other information and apps.

Remember when enterprise content management software was the newest, most powerful weapon in the information management arsenal? (It's OK if you don't; it was a long time ago.)

Back then, enterprise content management software (ECM) represented the merging of several previously separate technologies, such as imaging, document management, archiving and workflow. Individually, each enabled organizations to take strides in automating the way information was captured, controlled, stored and used -- and operating together as ECM, they are well-proven parts of many of today's information infrastructures.

But there's more to the story.

The original notion of ECM was to wrangle free-range corporate information and corral it into a single, central repository. This was -- and is -- a fine philosophy, but most organizations ended up with multiple repositories, different departments bought different vendors' technologies, or different companies bought one another. So content unification was -- and is -- an elusive target even within the realm of ECM itself.

Further complicating matters is the ongoing and escalating need for formal records management, which was largely outside the capabilities of the early ECM systems and, depending on whom you ask, is beyond today's solutions, as well. And then came the Web, smartphones and tablets, which empowered people as information creators and consumers as never before.

The result essentially was to turn each person into a silo of his or her own and to enable new types of content such as those developed through social media and crowdsourcing. These may be the most innately "un-corralable" kinds of content, and many ECM systems are now struggling to adapt to their presence.

From silo busting to silo bridging

So does this mean the ECM experiment has failed? Not at all. Deploying an optimized mix of content and process technology is one of the smartest things an organization can do to protect and exploit its information assets, even if many of those assets are free-form.

But the continuation and proliferation of information silos means ECM's mission is changing from silo busting to silo bridging. Whereas it once was all about consolidating enterprise content into a single repository and using workflow to move it around, today it's about getting enterprise content -- images, documents, records, webpages, human knowledge, and even the database entries in our ERP, CRM and HR solutions -- to behave as if they are consolidated, and using process automation to mix, match and route the right content to the right people at the right time.

This is the power of interoperability tools like Content Management Interoperability Services, which (theoretically, anyway) allows the original repositories to communicate with one another. And this is the power of metadata management, which (theoretically, anyway) allows the mapping of the descriptors applied to specific bits of content from one silo to those in the others when more direct ties cannot be forged.

If you're one of those for whom ECM has lost its luster as a cutting-edge technology, consider that its most important mission has evolved. No longer a function of repository and workflow, it is now a macro-middleware of sorts, and to this observer, therein lies its true power.

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