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What is the future of ECM?

ECM isn't dead; it has evolved from a technology into an approach. Learn about the history of the ECM and look forward into the future of ECM and content services.

Many analysts have pronounced ECM as dead, but the future of ECM is still bright.

ECM is not dead; it has simply evolved beyond its origins. Just as it emerged from the convergence of multiple technologies 20 years ago, it has continued to evolve from a technology platform into an actionable plan to manage content.

Today, ECM is the development and execution of an enterprise content strategy, not the deployment of software. The lessons from the past few decades have pushed the industry to the point that there are multiple technologies and approaches to delivering on the goals of ECM. Taken as a whole, they represent the future success for the management of content across the enterprise.

The history and success of ECM

ECM arose out of the convergence of technologies that had started to become common in enterprise infrastructure in the 1990s:

  • Document management (DM)
  • Records management (RM)
  • Web content management (WCM)
  • Digital asset management (DAM)

That list grew longer with every new content technology that emerged over the next decade. Every vendor strived to have a top-to-bottom platform, regardless of the needs of their clients. It was a race between vendors to have the most comprehensive set of features. Their goal was to sell their entire stack, even if an organization was only looking to solve a single problem. Vendors sought to convince customers that if they bought more capabilities than they thought they needed, they would be better positioned to address other needs as they arose.

Those were big promises that often did not work out. When customers and vendors addressed an existing business problem, ECM worked well for transactional content, such as invoices and case processing. When customers bought technology as a hedge against future needs, things did not go as well.

The race to include every content-related feature came at a cost. Vendors neglected the growing user experience issues that limited adoption for collaborative use cases. Any product that did not involve a custom user interface designed around getting the job done was unlikely to be successful.

Additionally, WCM technology evolved faster than the average ECM could keep track. The typical two-year major release cycle failed to account for the standard two-year internet generation. Web 2.0 already had its winners before ECM vendors determined how to support those capabilities. More nimble open source WCM vendors such as WordPress and Drupal became the default because they evolved as quickly as web technology.

Several ECM vendors tried to compensate by acquiring a new WCM vendor every three to four years. It was a waste of resources for the vendors to simply check a box on an analyst report. Eventually, ECM dropped WCM from its scope because the technologies and the user base of each had grown apart. Unfortunately, the more focused definition of ECM didn't translate into more success.

ECM vs. content services

The death and rebirth of ECM

In 2017, Gartner declared ECM a term of the past and began referencing content services platforms (CSPs) instead. CSPs are simply ECM platforms with a good set of RESTful APIs that focus on document and records management features. While not a new concept, this formalized the evolution and transition that professionals had been seeing for a decade.

While the concept of a CSP is very straightforward, its mindshare in IT executives was, and still is, limited. An ECM challenge from 10 years ago is the same challenge today. The way to solve it is the same: a strong content platform serving business-centric -- that is, transactional -- content to applications specifically built to meet the needs of the mission.

CSPs do not address other content challenges as effectively. This is because ECM evolved to address a specific need that it is well suited to meet, transactional content. The problem organizations face is that for an ECM strategy to be complete, it still must address collaborative content. All the content in business applications such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and email still needs to be discoverable and useful for weeks or months after users create it.

This is a challenge that has not changed over the decades. The only change has been in the technology being thrown at the problem.

Should content services replace ECM?

This is a question that is discussed at industry conferences in depth. The simple answer is no. CSP and ECM are not equivalent terms. ECM works to address all content. Content services only covers transactional content, which is a small portion of the total challenge.

Content services does deserve its own slice of an organization's IT infrastructure spending. A CSP is well-suited to solving the challenge of managing transactional content that supports multiple processes. There have been solid success stories from organizations that have taken this approach. Those organizations used a service-based approach to build an infrastructure -- and one of those services stores, delivers and manages content. Those organizations are not only successfully using CSPs, they are doing so in a way that makes sense in the overall system architecture.

A final reason that CSP won't replace ECM is that CSP manages content in the context of solving a specific problem. ECM looks more broadly at all the content in an enterprise and seeks the appropriate level of governance, regardless of the type of system in which the content resides.

What does ECM look like today?

ECM today is an approach, not a single technology. It may not even be possible to acquire all the necessary technologies from a single vendor. A suite of ECM technologies includes:

  • Content services for transactional content
  • Collaborative workspaces for people to work together
  • Archival systems for old content
  • Federated records management to manage records across the enterprise systems

Content lives in multiple places. In the past, this was because consolidation was expensive. Additionally, groups created their own repositories that met their needs better than the available shared spaces. Today, even without putting a modern content infrastructure in place, the vast array of legacy systems in the average organization ensures multiple systems.

Looking forward, multiple repositories will be a defined part of an ECM strategy. Content needs to be surfaced where people work, and no one system can support that effectively. Content services are a good option for transactional systems.

ECM today is an approach, not a single technology.

However, that approach doesn't work in collaborative platforms. In theory it does, but history has shown that when managing content within a collaborative system is the focus, the user experience suffers. This results in collaborative systems people do not use and content being stored somewhere else.

Barring a revolutionary new technology, that challenge will not be going away in the next decade.

What's the future of content management?

The future of content management is the managed dispersal of these technologies. Organizations will look to understand where their content resides and seek to reduce redundancies. Plans and strategies will continue to shift from dwelling on content problems to business problems that happen to involve content.

CSPs will continue to support digital transformation efforts, enabling the effective management of content. Federated records management tools that can manage the content in place -- rather than consolidating it -- will arise. This will become even more effective as machine learning tools learn how to classify records without human input.

Multiple technologies working together, by design, will be the hallmark of ECM for the next decade. Organizations will not be forcing products into the ECM toolset. Instead, they will work to make the different ECM tools serve the platforms that address the mission.

This approach delivers results and doesn't require everything to change at once. Organizations can move at a pace that meets the needs of their employees and customers.

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