The Problem With “E” in ECM – Part I

In the late 90’s it seemed everything was getting E’d.(pronounced like seed) Putting an “E”  in front of everything made it better. eBusiness is better than Business right? I was making fun of this trend in a meeting at a major air line (that starts with D)  and said – “you know – what we really need is eHanagar. That would be better than just a hangar.” Two weeks later eHangar shows up on a spread sheet and it became the name of the shop floor program. I can’t prove the name came from me but if someone came up with it independently it is just as sad.  Times have changed though and clearly “E” in content management at least is in trouble. So what happened?

As fads go the “E” has became passe as the job of bestowing instant techno goodness to any acronym passed on to the letter “i” some time ago.  “E” still had fans even when the upstart “i” gained prominence. “E” transformed from the early “electronic” definition to represent “Enterprise” following the well entrenched Enterprise Resource Planning moniker.  Growing up the word enterprise had only four meanings for me – 1) a town in Alabama 2) an aircraft carrier 3) a spaceship (either on Star Trek or a Space Shuttle)  4) a business.

In the context of corporate IT the term enterprise at some point stopped representing business and simply came to represent bigness. All encompassing bigness that stretches from purchasing to logistics, finance to facilities. Enterprise Content Management moved into the lexicon and those of us that deal in documents,images and other file types  finally had a name for the country we were trying to reach with our business process re-engineering.(remember that one?)

I have heard several people in the industry claim to have coined the term ECM but I really don’t care who it was. Suffice it to say it has been an incredibly useful term. True believers maintain that it is possible to manage all content across an enterprise. As others have observed reality eventually overcomes marketing and many of us have settled into a more abstract view that considers ECM to be a practice rather than a technology. The image of ECM as a destination lingers but as the fog clears it seems we are approaching a very different shore that “E” seems inadequate to describe.

Practicality and the disruptive influence of SharePoint are forcing a retreat to a more specialized view of what we do. We are beginning to talk more about documents again rather than the more abstract concepts of content. Not because the term doesn’t apply but because more than anything no one wants to buy it. The problem with “E” is  not really that it is inaccurate. The problem with ECM is that it is too big to buy but too small to dream about. Once you step out of the tactical realm specific realities of documents, web content and image content within a single business seems constrained. The information world is a much bigger, connected and interdependent space. This new strategic destination is a pan-enterprise concept. To manage content on a global scale across whole industries and economies rather than meager departments across the hall from one another.

This idea does not go as far as Laurence Hart (PIE) thoughts when he coined the term Omnipresent Content Management a few months ago.  I believe the theme of that piece was intended to be farther out in the future.  Developing around us now is a new way of conceptualizing the marketplace. An incremental change in strategic planning and marketing that first re-establishes the identity and classifications of the different kinds of content management before it must step outside of the enterprise and into a global view of the information. One step back before taking two steps forward.

The short view will continue to solidify around the commoditized subcomponents of ECM but the long view will reach beyond the walls of a given corporation to become something new.Conversations and offerings around content and the “cloud” (as if that has real definition yet) is certainly one manifestation of this trend. Perhaps “C” will be the new “E.” Time will tell but in these intervening times ECM is dissolving and reforming into something broader. Specialists in this space need to think strategically about how content reaches past the guard gate rather than just over the cube walls.  The mechanics of storage is the simpler problem but once resolved it is the  monetization of creation, use and consumption of business relevent content across a global industry that will be the greater challenge.

There is always a compelling event that drives such substantive change. The pending death of ECM as a category is that event. A slow death to be sure but nevertheless ECM is being strangled for funding, mind share and relevance. In part 2 we will examine both the killer and the act. How SharePoint is Capturing ECM.

6 thoughts on “The Problem With “E” in ECM – Part I

  1. Excellent article Lee, I really like “The problem with ECM is that it is too big to buy but too small to dream about” – I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head and I look forward to the SharePoint follow up.

    One thing, I’ve been pondering is CMIS. Is there something between your short and long views – the thinking that we’ll find glue for those “commodotized sub components” and that the ECM ideal could become interconnected content repositories based on business process – rather than just all in one bigness?



    1. CMIS is just the latest iteration of the same concept (ODMA, WebDAV, VeniceBridge). The problem as I see it adoption. What’s weird is that companies, and ultimately developers, ignore these wrapper technologies. What’s really bad is that some “hard-core” developers actually ignore them and build their own wrapper technologies. In all the cases where I’ve seen in house wrappers, I’ve never seen one reused.

      Developers need to look back historically at ODBC. Once people started developing to ODBC, database became much easier to work with both in code and in business.

      For CMIS to really take hold developer, both in the ISV community and corporate world, need to make the first step and start working with it. The problem I see it is that we have lots of Documentum, SharePoint, Alfresco, and FileNet developers and very few content management developers.

  2. Thanks for the comment Ian (that was my favorite line too 😉

    CMIS is a great concept and has the potential for changing how we architect systems and it actually contributes to the demise more than slows it. CMIS is a leveler. It reduces competitive advantage and I agree it further commoditizes the underlying infrastructure and encourages designers to think in terms of “enough” ECM rather than “as much as I can use” ECM. The idea of something other than library services being the core of ECM is not itself new.

    Autonomy with IDOL and others have tried to cast search as content management before. I do think BPM can be more successful in achieving some of the goals of ECM than monolithic architectures were. What is the dominant gene then? BPM spans structured and non-structured so in theory its more process than content. The shift certainly supports the value of recent acquisitions of Lombardi and Savvion.

  3. At 5:30 Eastern on Friday, February 12, 2010, I claim to be the first person to use the term CCM (Cloud Content Management). Sorry Lee you had your chance.

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