I have been asked the question several times over the last few weeks what I think the future of ECM looks like. Jeroen VanRotterdam (CTO, VP of Engineering EMC IIG) is in the middle of his own series about the future of documentum management (Part 1) and I encourage you to take a look. He begins looking at the very nature of a document itself. I am taking more of a market oriented approach.
To understand where we are going I believe we need to understand where we have been. I have written on this topic many times and it is interesting (for me at least) to go back into the archives and see how my own opinion has evolved. All of the ECM is dead posts get tiresome and this is not one of those. If anything it falls more in the camp of ECM never should have existed in the first place.
Ancient History – Y2K and The Rise of ECM
As I consider the last two decades it has occurred to me that the rise of the consolidated ECM platform was more about outside forces and buying tendencies than it ever was about a real business need for consolidated ECM. For those that remember it, the Y2K mishegas was a huge drain on attention and resources. This was true not only for IT but for the business in general. Real or imagined the threat was everyone’s top priority and it absorbed a ridiculous amount of budget.
It is not unreasonable to think that the panic spending to add two characters to every date field might very well have been the pin that popped the internet bubble of the late nineties. That said, the focus on that and nothing else created an enormous backlog of demand for other improvements across the IT landscape.
After the world inconveniently failed to end, in the name of efficiency consultancies drove a strategy to consolidate user demand (projects) into horizontal platform acquisitions rather than specific vertical initiatives. Makes sense right? For content this meant that if it walked like a doc, queried like a doc or even contained more than three words it must be a doc. It is all content so why not manage it in one monolithic solution.Check the box and the CIO moves onto the next category. (supply chain, HR, etc.)
ECM was an idea that grew out of the electronic document management / imaging projects of the 90’s. As web and other categories began to emerge the thought was that it should be possible to create a one size fits all. Web content, invoices, statements, word documents, source code. If it is a file then it should be managed in the same product and governed by the same set of policies and controls. Nice idea but expensive and deceptively complex. Few took it on at first. It took the Y2K budget dam breaking to make people take that kind of investment seriously and ECM takes flight.
My contention is that without that flood of money and desire to aggregate requirements that would satisfy pent up user demand en masse, ECM as a market category would never have gotten off the ground at all. In technical terms this is ancient history – so what? The so what is really about what’s next.
ECM and The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
The “cloud” in all its ambiguous glory is driving certain events that affect how customers and vendors alike must approach content system evolution.
The changes are summed up in the following four terms.
I am using this term to represent the eventual goal which is the dematerialization of capability from on premise system(s) and reconstitution of that business function in the cloud. This is more than data migration. This is about moving whole business functions to the cloud and not necessarily within a single service. Shared content as an asset to be leveraged across the enterprise is the key part of the message for ECM. Difficult enough when it was all in one data center. Take for example a procurement process that stretches across three different cloud solutions.The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle oversimplified says that you can never precisely know both the position and momentum of a particle. While we like to believe it is possible to know the “truth” about content and data in the middle of a process it becomes increasingly challenging, especially when managed across disparate services. Even if you have a consolidated AP solution as an end target there is no guarantee that all the players in the supply chain that get you to that invoice deal with that content in a similar manner. Vaporization of systems in the end though is not an event but a process unto itself. This process will continue to create stress not just for ECM but in all horizontal approaches to IT capability.
This market fragmentation plays out in the rise of nimble smaller companies that focus on one area, iterate quickly, accelerate feature adoption and expectations and ultimately sheer off a segment that had previously been consolidated to a few big players. There is no better example than the history of web content management. These continue to pop up like weeds but it is unlikely that you will see the sort of consolidation we have with dominant players being bought up by the larger players in tangential markets trying to fill check marks in Gartner’s ECM qualifications. Relationships yes but not wholesale absorption.
Vendors like to call enterprise content management systems sticky. What they really mean is that once your are in one it is almost impossible to get out completely so sticky works if you think of the the La Brea tar pits as a baseline. All good things do come to an end but it happens over time. New projects will move to cloud alternatives but until the on premise systems and their data age out completely there will be a need to bridge the two in order to remain compliant. This is a problem that for some spans a decade. Some hybrid archival or integration approach must be accepted because there is just too much to move in a cost effective and regulatory acceptable manner. You will have a foot in both worlds. As difficult as this is for customers, it is more so for vendors as the economics of deals are so different.
Data in some form out lives the systems that produce it. The same will be true as ECM platforms continue to fragment. The new consolidation will be less focused on the point of origination and move to the final resting place of the data. Critical requirements shift from author experience to analytics. From library services to retention and governance. All of these features have been important but the “center of gravity” for business needs that justify buying such platforms changes.
We are unlikely to see the sort of horizontal architectural consolidation of content management capability again in any single vendor portfolio. What that means for the major players is obvious. Continued creation of specialized selling channels that evolve into self sustaining businesses. Acquisitions will continue but the aforementioned fragmentation and the various categories disparate rates of change will limit interest in architectural consolidation of product lines.
For customers the continuing challenge will be to make sure that their IT investment strategies plan for the less exciting but often more expensive logistical challenges of re-materializing data and processes in the cloud context. The cost drivers for moving to cloud remain but the rate of vaporization is paced more by companies ability to reconcile processes across service providers.
ECM then as a horizontal platform becomes less important than the individual provider’s ability to accommodate changing feature sets required by hybridization.
For the emerging cloud players the implications are profound. The Enterprise File Sync and Share market itself is a fragmentation of the ECM proposition better realized in today’s mobile platforms. Some providers though seem intent on recreating the horizontal ECM feature set in the cloud. This approach only survives long term if the horizontal integration pattern across consuming business services survives as well and that remains to be seen.
The future of ECM as a career is certain though. There will always be a need to understand the business value in the relationships between content, processes and the people that manage them. At the end of the day this is the primary value of ECM practice. The message and market needs to embrace the reality of fragmentation and understand that consolidating the management of process and policy mandates neither a single technology, methodology or business model.