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A tale of two cities

September 15, 2010
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In the past year I had the opportunity to work with two clients, both almost identical on paper, but on the ground and up close almost 180 degrees away from each other.

They were both located in the same region, in the same industry, with roughly the same number of employees and size of customer base, the same general technology profile; and on top of all this, both shared very similar organizational cultures.

Both had made their first foray into ECM five years ago by hiring us to do an assessment of their current state capabilities and recommending a go forward plan. Both had thanked us, and we moved on, not working with them again until recently, when both asked us to help them assess their progress, revisit their plans, and adjust accordingly.

As I worked closely with each of these organizations, helping them assess and build out their enterprise content management (ECM) programs, I was shocked to find just how different these two almost identical organizations could be.

After we left the first organization five years ago, they had jumped in with both feet procuring an ECM platform, getting more than ample funding not only for a top-notch platform but for the operating budget for care and feeding going forward.

In the second organization, in contrast, they decided that procuring an ECM platform was too big (and expensive) a fish to fry and turned instead to structured data, building out an information management department from their already existing data warehouse team. However, they did create a records management program, which they staffed modestly (one person at first, two and a half by the time we reengaged with them).

If I asked you to guess which of these two organizations was better off in terms of their ECM capabilities, which was more mature in terms of how they deliver value to the business, odds are you would pick the first—heck, that would be my best guess, too.

What I found was the exact opposite: the first organization, despite its robust, fully funded and supported ECM platform, was struggling to consistently deliver value to the business and to have the business recognize the value it was delivering.

The second organization, although they had no ECM platform in place, and despite the fact that they were a lean, work off the side of their desk crew, were known for delivering great value to the business, even if end-users grumbled about how slow or clunky (or non-existent) ECM technologies were.

With no platform to support, their jobs consisted entirely in doing work that provides value to the organization—otherwise, what would they be doing?

But in the first organization, their jobs consisted first and foremost in making sure their ECM platform was up and running, stable, and up-to-date with patches and upgrades. Beyond this, there was no time (and more importantly no vision) for much else. They delivered features and functionality, and it was up to their end users to determine how to solve tangible business problems with them…and what the measures of success might be.

In the second organization, with no features and functionality to deliver, their sole focus was on their end-users’ problems, because if they’re not solving them (or at least contributing to the solution), then what else is there for them to do? With no ECM platform, they had nothing else to offer but their help in solving business problems, which should be the essence of any technology program, after all.

There is some good news for the first organization: since they already have their platform in place and are funded to support it going forward, they can turn to fill the people and process gaps in their organization and evolve from an application team to a proper ECM program for very little money–after all, they own all the toys, they just need to learn how to play with them effectively.

But there is some bad (or at least challenging) news for the second organization: the ability to deliver business value with no ECM platform is limited, because there is only so much efficiency you can wring out of existing, uncoordinated, disconnected solutions. At some point soon, they’ll have to bite the bullet and make the investment in a proper ECM platform–but the people and process work they’ve been doing will be an excellent foundation to make their chances of success much higher than would otherwise be the case.

In the end, what these two organizations teach us is that an ECM program is more than a platform: tools are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful ECM effort. And given the choice, I’d take ECM with no platform, supported by a business-oriented program office over ECM with a robust platform, supported by an IT-centric application team any day.

What do you folks think?

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