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SaaS Content Management – Don’t Forget the Prenup!

In a post from October Alan Pelz-Sharp lamented over the ECM SaaS Dilemma. While his points on technical integration issues are well founded – there is a dimension of the issue that API’s and architecture don’t directly address.

In ages past I was responsible for evaluating content management solutions for a Fortune 50. In the role I would often be approached by business units that had found a hosted content management or collaboration solution tailored to their specific business need. (hosted is what we used to call it – yes – I know the difference) Even armed with an enterprise license of Documentum and eRoom, it was difficult and often impossible to compete with point solutions marketed to very narrow business requirements.

The requirements on the IT requests would invariably be cut and pasted bullet points from the vendor’s marketecture. The cost of entry was so low that it was often within the signing limit of the business unit that wanted the function. In the end, the IT overhead for deploying “supported” capabilities squashed any hope of approval for a “real” project to solve the problem and the business would drive on. Since the priorities, politics and burdens of corporate IT prevented me from taking them all on, the best I could hope for was to make sure the agreement addressed problem I knew would come when the business handed their content over to a third-party.

If the business needs never changed and the companies remained forever stable it wouldn’t matter. The problems with taking on SaaS content management typically have little to do with function. Often times they deliver remarkably well. Sure, there are a lot of “2-Guys in a garage” shops out there, but there are plenty of well funded, well designed solutions that meet the customer’s need – for now. SpringCM is a great example of SaaS content management and even is getting into the mix.

The issue however is that content has a bad habit of outliving the relationship between the customer and the vendor. Getting the content in is easy. The solutions all have bulk loading options. The hard part is getting the content out when the relationship ends. All of it. At one time and with all of the relevant history and meta-data. It sounds simple enough but vendors are in no way incented to make this an easy process. You thought getting out of a record club was hard. (for those of you old enough to remember those) Try pulling seven years of contracts with annotations and approval histories out of somebody else’s system in a form you can use.

Anyone who has replaced a legacy content management system (and is honest about it) will tell you that data migration is the hardest, least planned for component of the project. SaaS doesn’t change this. It makes it worse by surrendering total control of the applications managing your content to someone outside your firewall. There are admittedly some vendors that make this easier than others but before charging headlong into the cost reductive bliss of outsourcing your data management, be careful to understand and legally account for how you handle the inevitable divorce. A SaaS-CM prenuptial agreement if you will.

Make sure the vendors are obligated to provide complete and accessible extracts of 100% of your data in an electronic form and delivered in a manner of your choosing. More than one of the solutions out there will tell you “sure you can get your data out – go through the WebUI and do an export – one document at a time ” or my personal favorite “you can always print and scan it.” Like it or not – Breaking up IS hard to do. Ask Sir Paul.

There are numerous related issues like eDiscovery, legal disposal suspension and regulated records management that are becoming pervasive risks and may make you think twice about SaaS. There are cases where SaaS CM is a good, cost effective option to expand you capabilities. Just be careful that the cost of exit doesn’t make you regret it.

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