Getting meta about metadata: Connecting content to business transactions, part 2

In part one, I talked about why powerful metadata configuration should be a requirement for ECM solutions. I used invoices as our sample content type to show the value of being able to capture a comprehensive set of metadata. There may have even been a mention of bacon cheeseburgers.

When you have flexible and thorough metadata capture, ECM can do even more than the already compelling storage and multiple-index retrieval story I told in the last post. We can use content for more than just supporting business processes – it can actually drive business processes.

By that, I mean we can start leveraging the content and metadata in the ECM solution to represent, manage, and even process units of work. This creates opportunities that weren’t possible before ECM was introduced – proof that having the right ECM solution means that it’s so more than a repository. Let’s look at five ways ECM can use metadata to transform business processes:

1. Metadata groups related content. An invoice number can locate an invoice…and the purchase order, packing slip, payment, correspondence and other content associated with the transaction, so that every ECM user can see them together. Shared metadata types can retrieve all of the content associated with a transaction, and group it in a user interface so that people can examine each piece of information as they process the payment.

2. Transactional information, such as the person responsible for the status of an invoice, can be stored as metadata. Supervisors can use this metadata to monitor assignments, or find where work is accumulating. Automated processing can also use it to distribute work, and even load-balance by any number of criteria – all by reading and updating transactional metadata.

3. Metadata can be used for processing control. Invoices may not need VP approval for amounts under $500, but do need it for items over $10,000. An automated process can use the metadata type for “Amount” to evaluate this rule to route work to the people needed to handle it. A “State” metadata type might be crucial for an insurance company’s processes, since regulations vary among states.

4. As the ECM system logs changes to metadata, it creates an audit trail that shows where the business transaction has been, when it arrived and who put it there. When an organization needs to design processes that support compliance with regulatory requirements (HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley or even the FDA), this audit trail may be essential.

5. Reporting and business intelligence tools can query and summarize metadata, collecting information for analysis.  How many invoices were paid this month, or generated for a specific business unit? What was the total amount spent with a particular supplier? What is the growth against the same quarter for last year? When the full range of metadata values is available for querying, this robust set of data can show you things about your business, processes and service that you only suspected – or didn’t suspect at all.

Metadata is the glue that attaches content to business transactions, and makes this all possible. When the ECM system has robust metadata capability, is it possible to bring together data, content, processes, and even the management of those processes.

As organizations evolve their ECM strategy to include processes (and not just storing documents), the benefits of having a flexible and maintainable metadata management capability becomes more apparent. Don’t compromise on one of the most fundamental requirements of ECM, comprehensive and flexible metadata capture. The future of your organization’s business processes depends on having captured the metadata they will need. Are you confident that you’ll have it?

Addendum to the previous post:

In my last post, I made it clear that when it comes to metadata, not all ECM products are created equal. I discussed some of the ways this can impact metadata capture and reuse –  limited metadata configurations, limited reuse and sharing of metadata configuration, expensive custom coding for maintenance, and so on. There is one more important point that I neglected to mention.

When I’ve been talking about metadata, I’ve meant first-order metadata, or metadata that is stored in an efficiently machine-readable format. Something that must be understood is that not everything that is called metadata in ECM solutions is created (or stored) equally.

Metadata that is found in an annotation, or in a full-text index, is not as powerful as metadata that is directly associated with a content object. This is because we can’t retrieve or update this kind of “quasi-metadata” easily, quickly, or maybe at all. Substitutes for complete metadata capture such as full-text indexing, annotations, or other mechanisms that don’t store metadata in easily machine-usable formats are not equivalent; neither are solutions that limit your ability to store and retrieve metadata.

Eric Proegler

Ever been at a casual gathering and wanted to talk disaster recovery, virtualization or scalability, but no one else did? You should have called Eric Proegler. He's on the R&D team for the Office of the CTO at Hyland. Eric leads performance testing at Hyland, and is an organizer and past content owner for the Workshop on Performance and Reliability. If you have a question about one of these topics, contact him at

2 Responses

  1. TJGodel says:

    Good post. Beyond the ECM space there is another first-order metadata called microformats which every ECM Architect should seek to incorporate them into their system design.

  2. Microformats could be first-order metadata, depending on the implementation. Architects in content management do have to think about this if they want to participate in the mashed-up future. Thanks for the reference.

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