You Don’t Know How to Define Enterprise Content Management (ECM)? What’s Your Problem?

Though I may be late, it is not a bad time to start blogging about ECM. There has been renewed debate among industry pundits over the definition of ECM. It is time to weigh in with a few thoughts of my own.

I support the view that we should limit the use of the ECM label to describe two, high-level ideas: 

  • ECM is a strategy for getting the most value out of unstructured information assets while simultaneously minimizing the costs and risks of doing so. As a strategy, ECM will remain relevant until computing applications are able to treat content as just another source of data to process 
  • ECM is a market that incorporates a superset of distinct, but complementary, software and hardwaretechnologies necessary to support such an ECM strategy 

The major contributor to the confusion around the ECM label is that, for the past decade, both vendors and analysts have tried to define it as a software application suite or development platform. This has sparked endless debate, mostly fueled by vendor and, yes, even analyst self-interest, about what actually constitutes a complete ECM suite. 

The process is now all too familiar. Pundits attempt to frame markets according to products and acronyms. Vendors frequently overstate their capabilities in order to fit the analyst definition. Buyers can’t easily determine where vendors’ true strengths and weaknesses lie. Enterprises then make bad technology investments that fail to solve their problems

It is time to abandon the notion of the mythical, all encompassing ECM suite. In fact let us avoid evaluating vendors in this market by product definitions altogether. If we are looking to help end-users understand the technologies that make up the ECM market, then we should evaluate vendors and their offerings according to: 

  • The nature of the problems their product capabilities are optimized to solve
  • Their track record solving those problems in the context of specific processes and industries

Forrester Research began to popularize this notion five years ago when they segmented ECM vendors according to transactional, business and persuasive content use cases. Gartner has formally embraced this notion in the most recent Magic Quadrant for ECM (Gartner uses slightly different terminology for their content use cases: transactional, collaborative and contextual).

On his Digital Landfill blog, the always-eloquent President of the Association of Information and Image Management, or AIIM, John Mancini, wondered if ECM was simply a technology in search of a problem to solve. I think the problems, and the capabilities to solve them, are there. It is time for vendor messaging and analyst rankings to preach what is actually done in practice.

Ken Burns

Ken Burns manages the Analyst and Influencer Relations program globally for Hyland, creator of OnBase. He is responsible for keep leading industry analyst firms informed about Hyland’s company and product strategies. He has worked in the ECM industry for nearly 15 years and is a keen observer of the customer and competitive forces shaping the software segment.

3 Responses

  1. I’m glad to see an effort to help validate what many of us in the ECM space evangelize frequently to customers trying to solve this theoretically never-ending concept. While I’m more of a Documentum / SharePoint kind of gal, the more vendors who push the reality that ECM is the concept and now the software, the better understanding companies will have of what constitutes an ECM solution. Bravo.

  2. Doug Bock says:

    Ken,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I offer one minor suggested revision to your second definition.

    ECM is a market that incorporates a superset of distinct, [and often] complementary, software and hardware technologies necessary to support such an ECM strategy

    Also, even terms like “content management” and “document management” are highly contextual, adding to the potential for ambiguity.

  3. Ron Brown says:

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. I agree that software vendors try to define Enterprise Content Management as software or sometimes “a solution”, but the truth is, content was being managed way before software was developed to help manage it. Content was searched for, collected, categorized, indexed, filed, managed, and retrieved, and yes, even security was applied. Libraries are good examples. This is still happening, even in organizations where electronic ECM has been used for decades.

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