The Problem With “E” in ECM – Part II – How SharePoint Is Capturing ECM

This is the second installment of “The Problem With ‘E’ in ECM” – Follow this link to read the first post.

When you look at the impact SharePoint has made in the content management arena the metrics are truly astounding. So much so that we now talk about SharePoint as a market unto itself. ISV’s and integrators clamor for attention for their extensions and enablers. Every major ECM vendor has been forced to adjust their marketing strategy around it.

Just where did this multi-billion dollar market come from? This cannot simply be net new business. It is too large, appeared too fast and is too pervasive not to have already been there in some form. I would like to suggest that the market has been there all along just waiting for the right product to come along. SharePoint is capturing the heart of the ECM market.

Denial Is Not A River

The reasons behind SharePoint’s success are poorly understood.  Dozens of articles cite metrics around the product’s wild adoption and inevitably attribute this to ease of use and similarity to Office products. To be honest this is not even SharePoint’s strongest suit.  SharePoint isn’t winning in ECM on technical merit or with requirements when a given customer understands what they want when they say ECM.

From a feature and function perspective SharePoint does little that is unique.  With varying degrees of difficulty this capability can be delivered with most portals and other ECM platforms. For a good critique of many of the areas it falls short and is successful, I encourage you to read Andrew Chapman’s post on 2010. There are products with similar feature sets that offer far better integration and customization options but none of those have been nearly as successful.

Microsoft’s victory is not a technical one but a direct result of their market strategy. They are able to position what began as a less than architecturally ideal content sharing system as the ultimate collaboration tool.  In doing so they have effectively killed a working understanding of content management that has guided an industry for more than a decade.  In desperation, career practitioners in the space challenge SharePoint’s right to call itself an ECM system completely missing the point that the CIO’s writing the checks have already bestowed that title on the product whether they like it or not.

How SharePoint Is Capturing ECM

Three things are key to SharePoint’s overtaking of ECM.

  • They solved the most pervasive problem first – not the hardest
  • They created promoters by letting users believe they control their own data
  • They marketed and promoted the product through IT operations channels

Almost daily I read posts about what SharePoint needs to have in order to consider itself to be a true ECM player. The problem is that ECM is not a product. It is not a system. It is an idea. A collective moniker for various macro use cases around unstructured data. All vendors have broken ECM up within their portfolios to separate offerings for Web Content, Document Management, Imaging, etc. With varying degrees of common infrastructure the components remain separately named and marketed products under common ECM umbrellas for marketing. Vendor consolidation has been driving more of these components under common corporate roofs ensuring that every one that calls themselves an ECM vendor could fill in all the bubbles in the feature matrix.

Solving the Pervasive Problem

SharePoint’s trajectory into the market was different than many others that started with complex process or document management problems. They pulled out of the ECM catalog the single use case that stretched across the broadest swath of corporate workers. They solved for self-managed workgroup file sharing  and proceeded to establish SharePoint as the standard.  In doing so they were pulling the linchpin to the entire ECM ecosystem’s value proposition. Without this requirement, every other use becomes specialized, verticalized, and marginalized to the point where ECM looses the critical mass needed to justify a truly enterprise solution.  The possible exception is records management and only time will tell whether or not SharePoint’s answer to that is sufficient.

The debate in the industry today to redefine ECM apart from SharePoint is becoming increasingly difficult. Suggestions are made that the various pillars of the ECM temple (Doc Mgmt, WCM, etc) are indeed separate and distinct, requiring unique approaches. Any one of the other major players or smaller ISV’s could have and probably did address this pivotal use case. Providing this capability alone did not create the SharePoint market. What did Microsoft do that was so fundamentally different that enabled them to capture this use case across whole companies with relative ease?

Creating the Perception of Control

It is partly true that the UI was better than some of the competition but the key is not that it is easy to use. What really captures the hearts and minds of users is that SharePoint creates an environment where the user maintains the perception of control. This too has been tried before but never has a software company been so successful at getting IT to agree to it.

The perception of control is demonstrated by the business being given the ability to create a site, grant access to, load and organize it without oversight. Without approval. Without IT. The idea that users would actually control their own destiny is an anathema to many within IT organizations. Contrary to popular belief everyone in IT does not want to be a techno-despot, though clearly some do. What they most want is for the phone not to ring.

It’s Who You Know Not What You Know

A fact often lost on software sales, particularly in the content management space, is that IT is very much a two headed beast. Applications and Operations. Applications is the group responsible for in house development, requirements definition and translating the use of technology to the business. Operations keeps the lights on, all night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Operation’s approach to their job is often diametrically opposed to that of their applications brethren.  It is in Operation’s best interest to make sure that no change occurs, because when it does it creates risk and potential failure. Applications organizations justify their very existence through change.

I have observed the struggle for dominance between the two for almost two decades. One side promises constant improvement through modernization while the other assures stability by maintaining the status quo. A healthy business would have a strong and stable organization serving each but many companies are dysfunctional in this regard. Either the applications portfolio keeps things in constantly in flux or the operations arm stalls anything that might introduce risk.

So what does this have to do with SharePoint and ECM? Traditional ECM vendors have marketed very effectively to the applications portfolios for many years. The very spirit of ECM is change. Turning paper into bytes. Physical to virtual. Automating some jobs out of existence while creating entirely new fields requiring technical rather than clerical skills. Change Change Change.

It is this natural disruption that most works against ECM. Any practitioner will tell you that more projects fail in adoption than they do in development. People are slow to change and it would not be uncommon for an operations group to overwhelm an ECM manager with help desk call volumes until he succumbs and they slow or stop the rollout with the few departments they were able to get to before the budget cycle kills the project.

The Fox Watching the Henhouse

The first demonstration  of SharePoint I attended was unusual from the beginning. What was unusual was not the product itself but who introduced it. The product was not demonstrated by an application group but by a manager from an engineering department within operations. Why? This was the same manager that owned the Microsoft relationship in the company. Most of the time his group was focused on Exchange servers, managing CALS licenses and trying to stop a CMS rollout because of a JRE incompatibility.  Here he was positioned as a promoter of technology from a relationship they controlled to satisfy functions that had never been in their charter to deliver before.

With operations driving a pilot common problems with the infrastructure are quickly resolved before ever getting escalated. Is the product that much better? Honesty and research will reveal that there are no fewer problems with SharePoint. There is a difference in behavior though when those responsible for ensuring quality (identifying problems) also have to fix (remediation) what they find to be seen as successful.

There are more mundane technical aspects that plague ECM deployments that simply are not present when the group that owns the tool being deployed is also in control of the user store. There is no single department in any IT organization with greater potential reach than those that manage access and identity (i.e. Active Directory). In most every org chart you will find the SharePoint deployment little more than two degrees of separation away from both AD and the rest of workgroup IT functions.

So Long ECM and Thanks for All the Fish

Traditional ECM vendors face a difficult challenge. It is not that they can not compete with features. They too often fight the battle on the wrong field with the wrong allies. While they try to win with architecture, robustness and ROI, SharePoint seeps into the data center of their customers under cover of CALS and takes the high ground of collaboration and are able to do so because operationally the product “looks” just like email.

Like in all major conflicts, borders and territories will be redrawn. Empires will fall. New alliances will be created. New opportunities like trying to put the genie of unbridled site creation back in the bottle will surface. ECM may not yet be dead but the poison has been delivered and its relevance will ebb away. A solution for the linchpin use case has been agreed upon by many in the market and deployed farther and faster than any similar technology in recent memory.  Recapturing this use case under an ECM banner will require reclaiming not just mindshare but more importantly overcoming the inertia of existing deployments.

What remains to be seen is how effective Microsoft will be at expanding from the beach head they have established into the rest of the ECM territory. For now imaging and other ECM classifications are largely partner add-ons to the SharePoint platform (e.g. Knowledgelake)  but it seems doubtful that Microsoft will remain content with that, eventually increasing its feature set to incorporate these functions into their core offering.

Finally, what has most changed the debate for the industry is that you can no longer escape the “why not SharePoint” question. Due diligence demands that it be addressed and often for companies the only a good answers are found in specialization of content related systems. SharePoint forces us to redefine vendor strengths and weaknesses as well as our own value to organizations. So for promoters of the content management disciplines and vendors alike let the pursuit of relevance begin.

In the next installment we will address the willing accomplices in the assault on the E in CM. “Why C is the New E

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