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SharePoint’s radical disruption of ECM

August 5, 2010

I recently kicked off a series of posts on my other blog, The Intentional Leader, that looks at the leadership challenges presented by the health care crisis facing the U.S. As part of this effort, I’m reading Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Prescription, an in-depth analysis of the U.S. health care system. And while this isn’t the place to undertake a full review of his work (that’ll be coming shortly as part of that series), I did find some of his thoughts on disruptive innovation applicable to recent developments in the ECM marketplace, especially around the success SharePoint has enjoyed since the release of MOSS.

In a previous post (SharePoint will own ECM) I shared my thoughts on why Microsoft was poised to become the major player in the ECM space in the next few years. Part of my argument was based on the marketplace trajectory SharePoint has been on since the release of MOSS. As I said in that post:

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 of 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.

This trajectory shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the history of product development, Christensen would say, because it’s a textbook example of a disruptive innovation in the marketplace.

When a disruptive technological enabler emerges, the leaders in the industry disparage and discourage it because, with its orientation towards simplicity and accessibility, the disruption just isn’t capable of solving the complicated problems that define the world in which the leading experts work.

Christensen, p. xlvii

This is exactly how big ECM responded to MOSS initially, and, Christensen would add, it’s the reception that disrupters like Boston Consulting Group, Bain Capital, Bloomberg, Amazon, Fidelity, Toyota, Target, Skype, and others faced from the dominant players upon their entry into the marketplace (p. 27).

And SharePoint’s success following its first $1B, blockbuster of a year conforms to a predictable pattern as well.

Always, the technological enablers of disruption are successfully deployed against the industry’s simplest problems first. They then build commercial and technological momentum upon that foothold and improve, progressively displacing the old, high-cost approach application by application, customer by customer.

Christensen, p. xlvii

This was true of Apple, Nucor, Cisco, Target, JCB, Toyota, and now Microsoft with SharePoint: 2010 builds on the functionality established by MOSS and gained through acquisitions like FAST to tackle a bigger set of ECM features and functionality. And if SharePoint continues on this trajectory, it will have effected a shift from ECM as a specialist domain, practiced by experts using expensive,  centralized tools to ECM as a commodity, practiced by average end-users using less-expensive, decentralized tools.

In this, SharePoint wouldn’t be so different from the computer, which has traveled a similar path from mainframe to minicomputer to personal computer to mobile devices and tablets; or telecommunications, which has gone from the telegraph office to the home phone to the mobile phone; or any of the other disruptions Christensen presents in Chapter 1 of his sprawling work.

In the end, and whether or not SharePoint and the ECM market shake out as I’ve imagined in my posts, I think as technologists we can learn a lot from Christensen and the literature on innovation he builds on. We often get bogged down in features and functionality, in capabilities stacks and best practices, in vendors and tools, completely forgetting that the real value of ECM is whether or not it helps users tackle the jobs they need to get done.

As ECM practitioners, we need to embrace the fact that our products and services will ultimately stand or fall on how well we enable our users/clients/partners/customers to do the jobs they need to do.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2010 3:46 pm

    While only slightly more relevant than Knowledge Management the end will be the same: the goal is not to manage this stuff but to facilitate its free flow.

    SharePoint is not architected for anything to freely flow. Don’t take my word for it, listen to someone passionately get to the heart of the issue with SharePoint — it lacks relevant context: http://blip.tv/file/2804449

    • August 27, 2010 6:46 pm

      Thanks for the comment and the link to the video interview–I hadn’t seen it yet, and I think other folks here will benefit from it as well…

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