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The Problem With “E” in ECM – Part III – Why “C” is the new “E”

This is the third and final post in the Problem With “E” in ECM Series. In the first I outlined why “E” representing enterprise has lost its meaning and usefulness when discussing content management in all its flavors.  In the second installment I discussed how SharePoint has captured the ECM market as we knew it. In the last I will call out the acronym that I believe will be the true successor to ECM in the content management lexicon.

Despite the  growing popularity of describing SharePoint as a platform it will not be able to perpetuate ECM  in the marketplace and promote itself as the solution for all ECM use cases. As I argued in part 2, SharePoint has effectively deflated ECM and cannibalized its business proposition by capturing the workgroup file sharing segment. Certainly the acronym ECM will survive and likely continue to be touted but over time the formalization of ECM platforms will fade.

The business cases for large-scale implementations of content related applications to improve efficiency still exist. Organizations will be seeking new solutions for these problems and answering old questions as aging systems loose viability.  Architects and technology leaders, despite the bravado and declarations of innovation enmasse seek the safe answer. The answer to the problem that is so widely accepted that it won’t threaten their career even if the project goes horribly wrong.  SharePoint has enjoyed this preferred solution status but the honeymoon will come to an end.

SharePoint 2010 will improve the product’s technical capabilities but upgrades more than any other event in a system’s lifespan erode the confidence and tolerance of a community by exposing the deficiencies daily operations avoid. While SharePoint as a brand is forever attached to every implementation, regardless of the application’s purpose, the number of installations alone does not elevate it to the status where platform begins to meld with strategy.

For Content Management – Cloud(C)  is the New Enterprise (E)

Recently there has been a semantic whirlwind in the blogosphere around ECM. Arguably most of the positions are essentially correct when you assume the perspective of the proponent. Depending on the point of view I can agree that ECM is

It is all of these and more.

The underlying question in this series has been whether or not the term ECM is on the decline. If so what caused that decline and finally what will expand to fill the mind share gap created by a retreat from ECM’s past glory. One doesn’t have to look far to find the answer.  Cloud has become the penultimate buzzword in the tech industry and the impact to the content management debate is undeniable.

At the risk of falling victim to the voracity of certain bloggers who suggest Cloud Content Management is a semantically flawed term, it is important to note that it is no less flawed than enterprise as a market qualifier.

Cloud is just as vague as Enterprise

I can think of no better example of intelligent unintelligibility (rule #2) than the word Cloud. The very word itself represents something amorphous, without definite form and far away in the heavens. Information technology has a habit of co-opting words from the real world and applying them to undefined entities in its own domain.Server “farm” for example. This method is theoretically supposed  to help people grasp a new concept but more often it is used to confuse and bewilder the pseudo technical into submission.

Enterprise at the beginning meant business and was applied across IT to establish broad scope but even a logical abstraction like this lost meaning over time. Cloud unfortunately doesn’t even have the benefit of a previously established business context. In fact it is only one step removed from the term we have always given to ideas without substance – vaporware.

How often as a child did you look in the sky on a summer day and imagine the shapes in the clouds to be animals or other things from daily life. You can have an equally amusing time assigning random characteristics to cloud technologies – and you will be in good company. Everyone is in the business of gazing into the clouds and seeing what they want to see. Why should Cloud Content Management be any different.

Cloud is as poorly understood as Enterprise

Just as enterprise content management began as a conceptual extension to document management, cloud oriented technology is grounded in solid thinking. There are well accepted characteristics of cloud based architectures that are fairly stable. Characteristics like multitenancy and elasticity. The problem is far too many practitioners in the content management space are not effectively dealing with or articulating the issues specific to the method. Consequently legacy architectures are often remarketed as cloud ready when they simply are not.

Enterprise was no different.  Some vendors have reached the point of being a true enterprise platform. Many though just put the label on the website betting that the functional use cases are not readily distinguishable from workgroup scale solutions. They then pray no one really takes them seriously and tries to deploy at that scale. The irony is that most are successful with this strategy because advancement of supporting technologies (SQL Server,MySQL, et al.) has supported the expansion and most customers succumb to the weight of change management before they reach the point where the software fails.

Cloud and ECM are just design patterns

If I think of building an application that is dependent upon content in the simplest terms, I have a basic decision to make. A decision on persistence. How am I going to store the data? For the front end developer there may just be a simple services based api that abstracts the storage layer but somebody somewhere has to decide where to put those bytes.  Various requirements affect the dimension of the solution like security, volatility, throughput, retention, and distribution. Other factors that are never written down like political expediency, funding trends, past performance of the project team and who the CIO plays golf with will all factor into the final decision.

On premises or off. Private or public. Proprietary or open. Choices.  Cloud content management represents the aggregation of a set of choices that fit into a model. The model for many reasons is gaining in prominence and is poised to overtake the traditional safe choice of on premise, major player ECM proprietary software – including SharePoint.

Good arguments have been made that cloud content management cannot follow enterprise content management because one speaks to a location whereas the other is clearly a strategy. This is undeniable but vendors have always marketed ECM as both. They unfortunately will find it  increasingly difficult to market products limited to the enterprise as truly strategic.

Enterprise in the mind of the buyer is often confined to the walls of the business. Businesses realized years ago there simply wasn’t enough room within their walls to keep all of the physical files they were generating and moved to imaging. Now almost twenty years later we are in the same place, virtually speaking. There is simply too much data to manage effectively within our own data centers.

The move from E to C will not happen over night and will not eliminate the other flavors entirely. The market is expanding at such a rate that the variety of solutions must expand and the language will inevitably move with it. The enterprise tier might even grow in terms of architectural footprint but the safe answers for buyers, architects and vendors alike will eventually evaporate from the Enterprise pool and into the Clouds.


In the unlikely event you feel compelled to read more on the topic I have listed below a select few of the interesting blogs and articles involved in the most recent ECM semantic debates. enjoy.

ECM or Document Management &  ECM in the Pantheon of Content Management @piewords

The Case for Killing ECM & Taxonomania @pmonks

Is the “E” Good @leecsmith

E is for Enterprise  @mcboof

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