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An ECM state of mind

September 20, 2010

I was reading Word of Pie recently and, as usual, I came across a thought-provoking quote.

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is a strategy for the coordinated management of all content throughout an organization, allowing for people and systems to find and use content from within any business context using platform agnostic standards.

There is no such thing as ECM software or an ECM solution. There are ECM platforms, but they are just platforms. They enable a centralized ECM strategy. In fact, taking the risk of upsetting the boat further, I would just call them Content Management platforms. They have purposes that go beyond supporting an ECM strategy, which itself can be implemented without a platform. Should is a completely different question for another day.

ECM, Wanted Dead or Alive?

Pie (again, as usual) hits the nail on the head here: ECM in the broadest sense of the term is not primarily a tool (or technology or platform); it is a set of enterprise-level activities organized around how an enterprise manages content throughout its lifecycle across all corporate functions.

In light of this distinction, ECM tools are a little like taxonomies: everyone already has them…they just may not have very good ones. Whether you like it or not, the folders in place on your shared drive and the site structure of your unmanaged tangle of a SharePoint implementation are your corporate taxonomy, albeit an organic, likely quite torturous one.

In the same way, managing content is central to how every organization does business, and so every business already has tools in place that help them manage it. Interoffice mail, mimeograph machines, file rooms, microfilm libraries, copiers, shared drives, Access databases, email, thumb drives, hard drives—all of these (and more) are content management tools, albeit rudimentary ones compared to the more advanced tools now available (and rapidly emerging).

However, what makes ECM effective at an organization is not the retirement of these less optimal tools in favor of more advanced tools. In fact, if deploying tools is the main emphasis of an ECM effort, doing so will likely set ECM back substantially at the organization because ECM tools in the absence of the people and process work that true ECM requires are able to accomplish very little.

By deploying tools without people and process changes, we run the risk of playing directly into end-user and organizational tendencies to view tools (ECM or otherwise) as silver bullet solutions owned exclusively by IT that are transparent to end-users, i.e., they enable end-users to keep on doing what they’ve always done, just with more effective technology.

When end-users finally come to their senses and realize that these tools are only as good as the planning and process work that scaffolds them and that the organization must fundamentally change the way it does work day-to-day to fully leverage them, adoption will flat line, end-user satisfaction will plummet, and the overall program that deployed the tools will be viewed as lackluster at best.

In contrast, if an organization approaches ECM primarily as a set of business activities rather than a set of technology tools, the results will be 180 degrees away from lackluster. The focus on transforming how business processes utilize content and how individual employees participate in the content lifecycle produce dramatic results even with rudimentary tools in place.

And the people and process transformation that such an approach to ECM enables just so happens to be the necessary prerequisite for a successful implementation of more advanced tools…so the organization that gets ECM right will not only reap immediate benefits using whatever tools they have now, but also be positioned to adopt more advanced technology in an optimal way going forward.

In my experience, getting my clients to understand this truth is as important as getting them to understand executive decision-making at their organization: without the latter, they won’t get funding or support, and without the former, they won’t know what they’re trying to get funded. But get them both right, and you’ve got half a chance of standing up a meaningful ECM program at your organization.

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