Enterprise content management (ECM) and business process management (BPM), while separate technologies, often overlap. As a result, some organizations struggle with understanding whether they need an ECM solution, a BPM solution or both. This article takes a look at the options.

ECM or BPM?

Recently, I came across quite a few interesting posts on Enterprise CMS (ECM) and Business Process Management (BPM) dematerialization -- or ECM & BPM cross-cutting. While some of the leading pure play BPM vendors are claiming that 'they have an ECM container in-built and take care of content management needs', almost all leading ECM vendors also offer a BPM engine and it can take care of   an organization's content centric business process/workflow needs. So it is not very difficult for customers to be confused while making their tools/technology decision for managing content and process using one or the other.

I had touched upon some specific area(s) related to this in one of my previous articles Integrating an enterprise CMS with BPM -- A strategy for bridging the gap. I also see, I have been quoted in the article Closer look where BPM and ECM collide. I would like to take a stab at detailing my stand on this subject. This is absolutely my independent view point and not to promote or demote any specific kind of product stack and readers have every right to agree or disagree with me.

In general any tool/technology decisions will be driven by some of the following factors:

  • The business problems the customer want to solve and feature set the customer is looking for.
  • Current tool/technology stack the customer has already opted and has running for several years on the customer's premises.
  • Size of the implementation -- scaling and other non-functional aspects like integration, ease of use etc.
  • Standards -- the specific implementation the customer wants/needs to adhere to.

Now let us try to examine some business/tools/technology situations that are close to reality and that we often see in customer's premises.

[Editor's note: Also from Palash Ghosh: Enterprise Content Management & Business Process Management in the Cloud]

The Route to Enterprise Content Management

Most of the large organizations (Fortune 500 and so on), are already running their matured Enterprise CMS solution on a pure play ECM product/platform provided by leading ECM vendor (not by BPM vendors). Any organization (including SMB) that is looking for new ECM centric platform or planning to consolidate their old disparate ECM platform to a new ECM platform, I suggest they should look for a pure play ECM solution provided by ECM vendor.

Now why so? The simple reason is that an organization's content management needs do not stop at uploading and versioning documents; rather they start from there. Any standard ECM product will have content management features along with other capabilities like Indexing, Digital Asset Management, compliance, Records Management, robust security, content integration, content collaboration, archive, other non-functional aspects and this list will go on.

Organizations sooner or later realize they need these add-on features as they mature. So it is even very hard to imagine a content engine provided by a BPM vendor will be able to suffice to store and manage content with enterprise scale for these organizations as they grow. Now the question remains what tool should they use for their business process management needs. Well, probably it is not very difficult to answer.

In that context, I will take a closer look at the processes the organization likes to automate -- is it purely content centric? If the answer is yes, then you may want to use the BPM tool that already comes with most of the ECM vendors. BPM engine that come with leading ECM vendors are world class and, interestingly, these BPM engine are also either compliant with BPMN 2.0 or constantly worked on to be compliant with BPMN 2.0.

Though the fact remains that organizations still may need a human centric pure play BPM engine or an integration centric BPM engine to satisfy business needs (Have a look at the architecture pattern/integration options available to bring ECM and BPM under same umbrella: Integrating an enterprise CMS with BPM – A strategy for bridging the gap.)

The Route to Business Process Management

Now let's look at other side of the story. Why are these BPM vendors are even providing in-built containers for managing content? Not necessarily all companies (especially SMBs) are running their best of breed ECM solution on top of an ECM platform provided by a pure play ECM vendor and neither they have plans to do so in near future. While automating their process, these organizations still may need to deal with content on a small scale.

So a BPM solution with content needed within a process can still use a BPM tool's content management container in specific business situations. You may not need a fancy enterprise scale ECM platform in a student on-boarding business process for an educational institution to store the student registration form (PDF). Can the ECM container provided by a BPM vendor stand alone and fulfill enterprise scale, feature rich ECM for organization? Probably not in general (we are not discussing exceptions here, if any).

You may see a few organizations (SMBs) that are using a BPM provided ECM container to manage content because of their nature of adoption -- they took a process (BPM) first approach and soon realized that content is also playing a significant role in the process and they stuck to that. Or it may be the case that  they do not need enterprise scale ECM features for their organizations. This does not dilute the fact that BPM provided ECM containers may not be able to meet ECM needs for those organizations that are looking for robust, feature-rich and matured content management solutions.

If you really look at this cross-cutting subject from vendor perspective, I would say leading ECM vendors can still claim that they will be able to automate customer's processes using a BPM engine they provide if the process is content centric. To automate human centric or integration centric processes, organizations need to consider either a pure play BPM or an integration centric BPM (either from same vendor providing the ECM platform or a different vendor all together).

For a large organization, it is not uncommon that multiple BPM suite(s) of all three different flavors (Content centric, Human centric, Integration centric from same or different vendors) are running and processes are integrated with the ECM platform on an as-needed basis. There is a talk that IBM will consolidate their three BPM products (Lombardi -- Pure Play/Human centric, P8 (FileNet) Process Engine -- Content centric, WebSphere Process Server -- Integration centric) and will have a just one BPM offering. Time will tell.

Seeing the complexities/feature-set involved in an ECM product, it would be very difficult for a pure play BPM vendor to provide enterprise scale ECM -- if not impossible or impractical. Another trend in the industry seen in the recent years, is leading vendors repacking/branding their core product suite (ECM, BPM, BAM) and selling it as a ‘Case Management Tool’.

Final Thoughts

So there is no rocket science here and not one architecture/tool/solution will fit all situations. It is absolutely based on a business, tools/technology situation on the ground. But it is clear from above discussions:

  • If you are already running an ECM platform and need a pure play BPM tool for managing human tasks, you may not like to store your content in content store provided by the BPM engine, rather keep utilizing your unified content store for better compliance, governance and manageability. Architecture options are available for integrating ECM and BPM platform. You can learn about these options more ‘Integrating an enterprise CMS with BPM -- A strategy for bridging the gap’.
  • ECM containers shipped with a BPM tool can be used for a specific need to support small scale content need for a BPM solution especially when an ECM platform is not available in customer's premise. This ECM container provided by the BPM vendor may not be used or treated as an enterprise scale ECM platform.
  • A BPM engine that comes with a leading ECM vendor is definitely of enterprise class, but tightly coupled with its content repository for some cases and is mostly utilized for content centric business processes. Customers only looking for content centric workflow can stick to a BPM engine thar comes with an ECM vendor.
  • If you are looking for a new ECM platform or you are planning to consolidate your disparate ECM platforms to unified one, you must evaluate and look for a pure play ECM product.