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No one cares about ECM (Part 1)

February 2, 2010

“No one cares about ECM” is something I find myself saying a lot these days to clients, and although it always elicits laughter, I say it earnestly. Of course it’s not true of the project team—after all, they’re spending a lot of time and money to improve how content is managed at their organization. However, in terms of the larger organizational context—the C-level folks who will ultimately pay the bill for a successful ECM program—there’s little else they could actually care less about (except maybe records management, which is a good follow up joke to the previous one).

This is not to say that the implications of how content is managed at an organization aren’t important to CXOs, but rather that ECM in and of itself, disconnected from the larger business contexts in which it operates, doesn’t make sense to the majority of executives. Basically this is because folks at higher levels of an organization think more in terms of what directly impacts their business than abstract (albeit important) capabilities or processes.

Given this, the primary reason I tell the project team that “no one cares about ECM” is to make sure they all understand very early on in the engagement that unless they find a way to make the CXOs at their organization care about ECM, their efforts will ultimately fail. Without top down support from the highest levels of an organization, the kind of change required to do ECM well (and improve the way content is managed day-to-day across an organization) is, if not entirely impossible, then overwhelmingly unlikely.

However, once the project team understands that CXOs must care about ECM (and this is a pretty easy leap for them to make), I break the news to them: “CXOs will never care about ECM.” Full stop and dead silence. “ECM is a means and not an end,” I go on, “a way to reach a goal and not that goal itself, valuable to the organization only insofar as it supports, enables, and furthers the work of the organization,” i.e., the products and services it provides to its customers.

In this way, ECM is like a web service that enables customers to buy products on a web site. Would a CXO intrinsically care about this web service? Definitely not. And even if an IT person explained what the web service did in plain English and the CXO agreed that it was important, what the CXO would really care about is not so much the web service itself but what the web service enables, i.e., selling products to customers.

The job of the ECM project team, then, once they realize that no one at the C-level cares about ECM, is most definitely not to try really, really hard to get their CXOs to care about ECM. Instead, they need first to focus on understanding how managing content properly improves an organization’s ability to more effectively, efficiently, and profitably deliver its products and services to its customers—which is what all CXOs care deeply about and spend most of their time trying themselves to understand. Second, they need to articulate the improvements ECM can deliver…in language that makes sense to CXOs.

This last point, communicating the benefits of ECM to CXOs in terms that are compelling to them, is to my mind the most important element of planning a successful ECM program. All the data gathering and analysis, all the visualizations and road maps are important too, and must be in place to ensure success. But absent substantial justifications for ECM spend that are compelling to executive leadership, the project team may as well pack it in before they begin, because no one is going to underwrite a multimillion dollar, multi-year initiative that reworks core operational aspects of a business without good reasons to do so.

In my engagements, then, I try to have the “no one cares about ECM” conversation as early as possible—ideally immediately after kickoff—because it gets the team focused on the real goal of the engagement, which can easily get lost amid the interviews and benchmarking, the surveys and statistics that consume so much energy and time early on. The project team at the very beginning of the project must be encouraged to do what is almost certainly very difficult for them and what they normally have little experience doing: thinking like their CXOs. They must then find ways to reach these executive leaders and get time on their calendar. They must figure out how enterprise-level approval and funding works. And often they must enlist the help of their own bosses (or bosses’ bosses) to do so.

All of this is definitely not what the IT, legal, records management, and compliance types who are normally a part of ECM projects signed up for. But it’s what must be done in order for the initiative to succeed, and so it’s my job to make sure they not only understand it, but do it (and do it well).

In the next post, I’ll turn to some of the ways that ECM’s benefits to an organization can be surfaced and effectively communicated to CXOs.

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