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SharePoint will own ECM

June 8, 2010

I was sitting in a final presentation for a SharePoint 2010 roll-out with a global, Fortune 200 client the other day, and something remarkable happened: there were audible gasps from end users when we demonstrated the proof of concept sites the team had built. Not polite or half-hearted gasps, but real, honest-to-goodness ones…the kind you get the first time you show someone an iPad or Droid Incredible.

I’ve never seen such a visceral positive reaction to an ECM technology proof of concept (have you?), so it got me thinking: could SharePoint eventually become the main player in the ECM space ahead of “big ECM” (IBM, EMC, Oracle, Open Text, Alfresco, et al.)?

I think the answer is yes, for (at least) three reasons.

#1. Big ECM vendors have had 10+ years to make compelling products that business users want to use–and all of them have failed to do so in a sustained way. This is why the vast majority of business users still rely on a combination of shared drives, hard drives, and email for document management and collaboration…even when one or more ECM systems are in place and available for use.

#2. Big ECM is retreating, and fast. Their strategy has gone from ignore to compete to coexist in three short years. The story goes something like this…

When MOSS came out, ECM vendors dismissed it as a bubble-gum system, a less-ambitious Lotus Notes that could never compete with the robust features and functionality of “real” ECM systems. Once MOSS exploded, however, they scrambled to promote their own SharePoint-like tools (e.g., Quickr, CenterStage). When these didn’t make headway against SharePoint’s expansion, they shifted to a 70/30 coexistence model: we’ll handle the serious ECM heavy lifting while SharePoint can take care whatever lightweight, front-end ECM is left over. Today, they’ve shifted even further to more like a 30/70 coexistence model: I know you folks want to use 2010 for all your ECM needs, but we do a couple of core things that 2010 can’t, so you still need to use us.

Given the jump 2010 represents over MOSS (and in light of the response I’ve seen from real users to a real implementation), I think the next three years will see big ECM leaving whole swaths of the playing field to SharePoint and retreating into niche areas, like imaging and heavy transactional workflow…and praying that Microsoft doesn’t decide to go after these areas for future releases. (See Lee Dallas’ predictions for 2010 for a different, although not incompatible, perspective on this issue.)

#3. Microsoft has done a good job (wittingly or unwittingly) of reflecting core user needs in SharePoint and ignoring features and functionality that fall outside these needs. The big ECM vendors (and, honestly, many of us consultants who work in the ECM space) have been arguing against SharePoint based on the ideal set of  functionality an ECM application should deliver to be best in class. But this is the wrong way to look at the problem–at least if end-user adoption is important to you…and we all know how much of a challenge end-user adoption has been for ECM applications. The right way to look at it is to ask the following series of questions:

  1. What business activities could be improved by managing content better?
  2. Which of these are mission critical or ubiquitous (or both)?
  3. Which of these could be improved by the use of technology?
  4. What is the least amount of functionality we can include in the technology and still deliver meaningful improvement to the in-scope business activities?

Then, you build an application that solves for #4 and roll it out.

It’s important to remember that no application is perfect or meets all the needs of every user. Successful applications meet the most important needs of the target users…and leave the rest for other applications to meet (if they can). You can see this at work in the difference between growing in and growing out. 37signals, a Chicago software design company, tells a great story about their flagship product, Basecamp:

Now that Basecamp is 2.5 years old, we’ve been getting some heat from a few folks who’ve been with us since the beginning. They are saying they are starting to grow out of the app. Their businesses are becoming more complex and their requirements are changing. They want us to change Basecamp to mirror their new-found complexity and requirements.

We’re saying no. And here’s why: We’d rather our customers grow out of our products eventually than never be able to grow into them in the first place.

Now, what Microsoft is doing with SharePoint is not identical to what 37signals does with its products, but I think they both share a strong focus on a core set of users and their needs in order to drive the most efficient (and successful) delivery of features and functionality.

The final word

At the end of  the day, SharePoint 2010 does two things really well that make it my pick over big ECM in the long run:

  • It meets end-users on their playing field, not the vendor’s (or IT’s, record management’s, legal’s, etc.)
  • It gives end-users a compelling, transparent user interface/user experience

And every week it seems like I bump into another Fortune 1000 company deciding to go with SharePoint 2010 as their main ECM system for everything but imaging and heavy duty workflow. When the honeymoon’s over, will they use a big ECM system to augment 2010? I think this is very likely in the near term. But longer term, especially after SharePoint 2012/2013? I think it’ll become less and less likely with each release that organizations will need to augment SharePoint with the big ECM products on the market today.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2010 11:33 am

    MOSS is an excellent platform, but has three issues that will slow down its penetration deeper into the market:

    1. It is sluggish. A bit slow. This annoys end-users. Acceptance issue.
    2. It has a new terminology and way of working (links and document libraries) are not easy for older employees to pick up. Acceptance issue.
    3. Web services are complicated. This annoys programmers. Development issue.

    Adam

  2. June 8, 2010 11:46 am

    Adam,

    I agree with you that MOSS definitely has these issues, but what I’ve seen out there is that the benefits MOSS has provided outweigh these and other drawbacks–hence the huge footprint SharePoint has achieved in such a short time.

    With what I’ve seen of 2010 in action, however, the second issue goes away: MS has more fully incorporated UI/UX elements both from Office and from common web design elements (like left nav tree pickers and filtering) that resonate more immediately with users.

    It’ll be interesting to see how MS deals with the other two, particularly if they try to push BPOS for 2010, because hosted SharePoint has been a bit underwhelming for MOSS to say the least.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Cheers,

    Joe

  3. Scott C permalink
    May 20, 2011 4:44 am

    The biggest issue moss has in my opinion, is it’s lack of reliable disaster recovery for large solutions, or the ease of rolling out updates. If you want to update the solution at some point, and you’ve added list columns, or new views for instance, migrating the data to the new deployment is a nightmare. Especially if you’ve used any fields that reference items via guids.

  4. David B permalink
    May 1, 2013 10:09 am

    Joe,

    No disrespect, but I couldn’t disagree more. End user adoption is one piece of the overall puzzle and I agree a very important one. But that comes from good training along with a good UI, without training and supporting user help guides, it’s useless.

    But the ability of the underlying system to meet the needs of the business is even more important. SharePoint is just not capable, records management fail, intuitive e-mail management fail, content repository fail, (to name but a few examples) and unless you custom build it, it will not work.

    That’s the fundamental issue in my book, for small to medium size businesses, SharePoint as an ECM system will be the money pit of your IT systems. If you customize it you will have to hire developers, or keep development consultants on retainer, to keep it running. When you upgrade you run a real risk of breaking your processes; if you are using this for business critical work, how long can you afford to be down while your staff or those highly paid consultants figure it out?

    I could go on and on about this with other points about why it’s just not ready for prime time as an ECM system.

    • May 2, 2013 7:26 am

      David,

      You should check out the latest post I did, which revisits this one and updates my thinking: http://bit.ly/12YGyFE. Definitely addresses your thoughts better than this older post.

      Thanks for jumping in!

      Cheers,

      Joe

Trackbacks

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