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For ECM Solutions it’s Configuration versus Customization

For years I’ve been in discussions where the conversation bounced between “build” versus “buy: decisions for a ECM (Enterprise Content Management).  Before 2000, managing any large collection of documents, either to a specific business case or all documents, meant building your own document management system or buying an existing document management system.  Over the years, the conversation has moved away from the generic managing a large collection of documents to managing specific types of document collections; accounting, compliance, legal, personnel, etc.  Some vendors still want to talk about build versus buy.

I think we can all agree that building an ECM platform from scratch, with all the proprietary and open-source solutions out there, is a wasted effort.  Solving content problems has become about the “last mile.”  It’s not “Build versus Buy” but “Configuration versus Customization.”

ECM Is a Platform

I’ve shared my thoughts about ECM being a platform and not a solution.  So let’s start by looking at two definitions from Gartner:

A solution is an implementation of people, processes, information and technologies in a distinct system to support a set of business or technical capabilities that solve one or more business problems.

Enterprise content management (ECM) is used to create, store, distribute, discover, archive and manage unstructured content (such as scanned documents, email, reports, medical images and office documents), and ultimately analyze usage to enable organizations to deliver relevant content to users where and when they need it.

For years, I have seen end customers looking to manage specific business documents.  It was IT that recognized they needed to solve these separate business problems with a single platform.  This created the IT goal for a single ECM a platform.  Without visibility of existing business solutions, IT usually won the decision.  Today, business solutions and their capabilities are becoming more visible.

Now let’s look at how far we get after spending $100,000 on an ECM platform or a business solution to solve a specific business problem.

Customization (The ECM Platform Story)

Suppose you’ve spent your $100k on an ECM platform.  Now it’s time to get started building your solution.  The versatility of most platforms means that the options are endless.  You can manage large complex problems like managing new drug submissions to managing employees’ personnel documents.

Without a preconfigured solution, the discovery is up to the deployment team.  The solution needs to have roles created, document type defined, document keyword identified, and workflows need to be created.   Ahead are weeks to months of discovery to define your solution.

The Software to Services ratio or Services vs. Solutions ratio comes to play.  This ratio states that for every $1 a customer spends on software they will spend an exponential value of dollars to get the solution they need.  In the early days of ECM/ EDMS, this ratio was roughly $6 to $8 in services for every $1.  Today, vendors are trying to get to $1 to $1.  In reality, most deployments are between $4 and $2 in services for every $1 in software.

Even this number gets skewed if the focus is on rate cards rather than skill sets.  Cheaper rates aren’t always better.  The service dollars used in the comparison needs to look at the team’s experience in both the platform being used and the solution being developed.  Finding someone that understands both the technology and the business problem is worth the potentially higher hourly rates.

Configuration (The Business Solution Story)

Now suppose you’ve spent your $100k on a business solution.  Now it’s time to configure your solution.  The solution is already focused on the specific business platforms.   The most common roles, document type, keyword, and workflows have already been identified and created based on best practices from several other customers.  Your specific deployment may need some configuration but most of these solutions are ready for this.

These configurable or low-code solutions get much closer to a $1 to $1 services vs. solutions ratio.  The services team already understands not only the technology but the business problem as well.  The consultant joins your configuration workshops not only understanding what the different configurations are but often what those changes will mean to the business.

The real challenge here is making sure that the configurable solution is really configurable.  That a solution already exists and that’s it’s not just a collection of “best practices from prior engagements.”  An early stage strawman proof of concept should be an easy effort with a configurable solution.

The New Content Solution Reality

With a little digging, customers looking to manage business problems can find solutions that are already to meet those business challenges.   A few of these options come from ECM platform vendors themselves.  Some others come from the ECM vendor’s partners.  Many more solutions come from the business user ecosystems.  For instance, here’s what I found in Legal Contract Management.  The decisions to solving content challenges can include less custom code and more configuration.

In the long run, I believe that the business solutions vendors and ECM platforms will come together through partnerships and mergers.  Just look at Records Management and Imaging Solutions which were once separate solutions and are now part of the ECM platform.   Or look at Oracle, which offers both a relational database to solve any data problem and specific business solutions like E Business Suite or PeopleSoft.

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