Effective business decisions depend on having the right information at the right time. The use of content management systems across enterprises to manage information suggests that most companies agree.

Getting the right information to make the best decisions, however, is becoming increasingly difficult as levels of both structured and unstructured content increase daily. The goal of agile content management practitioners is to resolve that. Let's have a look.
 

While it is likely that users of enterprise content management systems will have come across the term Agile ECM before, a great deal of confusion still exists as to what it actually means. This is principally because it is a term that many vendors use to describe their Enterprise CMS products where it does not actually apply.

Working towards a better understanding Agile ECM we will define it as enterprise content management functionality combined with business process management that enables users to access and integrate content quickly and efficiently into business processes. The key ideas here are easy access to content on the one hand, and better business performance on the other.

In a blog post last September Alan Pelz-Sharpe of analyst firm The Real Story group dug into the concept. One important element we focused on was the link between agility and iterations. In Alan's words:

In a truly agile development environment, one learns through an iterative process, whereby a team (or a group of teams) collaborates and continually reviews progress, correcting the path toward the final goal. Enterprise CMS needs to be more like that.

The Cost Of Information

While most enterprise CMS systems were developed to manage content, the proliferation of unstructured content entering enterprises from email, social media, blogs and wikis means that important information is often not available to decision makers without a considerable amount of searching.

Speaking about the issue in an IBM-sponsored webcast last June, Melissa Webster VP for content and digital media at IDC points out that search is not enough. It is costly and does not always produce the right content.

IDC in its Information Worker Productivity Study 2008 – 2009 attempted to quantify how much the act of finding information is actually costing enterprises.

 

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IDC also quantified how much the inability to find the right information costs.

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To resolve this, the right content needs to be able to find the right user without them having to go searching for it. The inability to do this is the result of the lack of automation of content enabled or business processes.

Combining business process management and enterprise content management systems to address these problems is known as Agile ECMs.

BPM Characteristics

Before looking at Agile ECMs, it is important to understand what a Business Process Management (BPM) system is. As a term it is often used to describe systems that are not truly BPM systems. However, when Gartner recently published its list of ‘Cool BPM’ vendors for 2010, it clarified what it understood them to be.

BPM software or suites automate business processes and achieve the dual goals of best performance and enhanced efficiency. A BPM suite must include 10 areas of functionality:

  1. Process execution and state management engine
  2. Model-driven composition environment
  3. Document and content interaction
  4. User and group interaction
  5. Basic connectivity
  6. Business activity monitoring (BAM)
  7. Simulation and optimization
  8. Business rule management
  9. System management and administration
  10. Process component/registry repository

General Agile Characteristics

Last year's Agile ECM webcast concluded by outlining what the key functions of an Agile ECM are. The problem, contributors agreed, is not so much one of too much content, but one of unlocking information that has been siloed across the enterprise and which is inaccessible to information workers that need it.

Agile ECMs, they agreed, are characterized by four principal capabilities that produce this level of efficiency:

  1. Ability to build reports, share information and to make information flow smoothly
  2. Making applications and information available
  3. Integrating content and processes
  4. Flexibility within the system

ECM v Agile ECM Features

While that may be what we thought ECMs did, most are still at a transitory stage and have not achieved true agility. A brief comparison between features shows this:

Traditional ECM Agile ECM
Information locked in siloed repositories Standards-based open repositories
Passive,unknown content stored in repositories Content automatically integrated into processes
ECM limited to content management Tools for taking business intelligence from
Difficult to adapt to changing business Easy to adapt to changing business
Business process maintained by IT departments Processes maintained by all with little training
Lengthy deployment cycle Quick deployment without changing entire system

Additionally -- and of increasing importance -- Agile ECMs make compliance demands easier to fulfill by making information more accessible.

Research by IBM indicated that finding information for litigation proceedings is the largest uncontrolled cost in corporations, with 28% of companies surveyed estimating that it would take more than a month to find the requested information.

Agile Enterprise Content Management Systems

There are a number of ECMs in the market with agile characteristics -- and many more that claim to sport them. Let us look at four examples.

IBM and FileNet

FileNet is IBM's Agile enterprise content management platform. It integrates content with business process management and compliance functionality.

FileNet Business Process Manager was one of the core reasons why IBM went through with the FileNet acquisition in 2006. The BPM Manager is a case-management oriented app with support for Web 2.0 features like mashups and widgets.

An Agile ECM Marketing Video from IBM (Warning: It may make you want to chew your leg off.)

Currently in v4.5.1 it includes a number of features that enable the easy and flexible deployment of content focused process applications that are at the core of an Agile ECM:

  • Web 2.0: A mashup based framework with extensible widgets so that both business and IT staff can create interface elements that provide easy access to key content.
  • BPM suite: Consists of integrated tools that enable process design, improvement and development.
  • Flexibility: Automation and streamlining of complex processes to mange workflows applicable to repositories across the enterprise.
  • Process Analytics: Process Analyzer, Process Monitor and Cognos Now! Limited Edition for real-time monitoring and integration with business intelligence tools.
  • Business Rules: Interacts and integrates with business rules engines for application of complex business rules for intelligent and agile processes.

Laserfiche and Agile ECM

Lasefiche (news, site) has also developed an Agile ECM, which it demonstrated at last month’s Gartner Business Process Management Summit.

It enables organizations to create custom workflows that offer localized flexibility in streamlining business processes while enhancing centralized control over content standards. These workflows automatically perform specific tasks based on activity occurring in Laserfiche as well as other applications such as GIS, ERP, CRM and others.

However, with SharePoint 2010 on the way, interoperability with it should help Laserfiche make in-roads in a market that is dominated by IBM’s FileNet.

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Lasifiche Combines with SharePoint for Agile ECM

The integration with SharePoint extends Laserfiche’s Agile abilities by offering support to developers who need to control content, extend collaboration and tailor specialized business processes to departmental needs. Capabilities include:

  • Access to content from SharePoint pages
  • Records center for storing SharePoint information in Laserfiche repository
  • Search of content stored in both Laserfiche and SharePoint repositories
  • Custom workflow activities, including SharePoint-specific activities

But it is the LaserFiche Workflow where features expected of an Agile ECM are really apparent. It enables organizations to automate standard, collaborative business processes, such as approvals or routing based on business conditions. Most importantly, it transforms static Laserfiche repositories into dynamic repositories that ensure business processes are performed consistently and efficiently.

Nuxeo And Agile ECM

As an open source ECM vendor, Nuxeo (news, site) falls firmly into the category of Agile ECM providers. While not specifically marketing itself as such, Nuxeo’s enterprise platform (EP) provides exactly that.

Companies that need customized content applications, or vendors looking to embed an ECM into their products can adapt EP very easily. Its core services are available for custom applications under standard and LGPL open source licenses with all components providing services which can be configured without writing any code.

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Nuxeo Enterprise CMS Platform Architecture

And what of Nuxeo's Agile ECM features?

  • Standards Based: CMIS support across platform and packaged applications including DM and DAM. Also works with flexible range of operating systems and application servers.
  • Content integration: Easy access of content in collaborative applications and simple user-driven mashups/dashboards with integrated workflow templated for repeatable actions.
  • Business intelligence tools: Metadata extraction tools for repository population as well as batch imports and integration with capture and extraction tools.
  • Business User Control: Collaborative team workspaces, discussions, wiki, simple web pages, blogs all in context of project or functional area.
  • Easily Modified: Granular/modular architecture allows plug-ins to be dropped in for quick customizations.

Agile Alfresco

Alfresco (news, site) is another open source Enterprise CMS vendor that could be classified as Agile. It released version 3.2 in January allowing for cloud-based deployments, streamlined email management and archiving and enhanced team-based content collaboration, as well as providing the only supported open source records management tool certified to the u.S. DoD 5015.02 standard. Alfresco is also known for such things as light-weight REST interfaces, Facebook integration and general mashup friendliness.

And last week, it also released Alfresco Community v3.3, which also comes with CMIS 1.0 support.  Amongst its Agile features are:

  • Standards-based open repositories: Alfresco was first to release a CMIS repository and argues that this will change the Enterprise CMS industry in the same way SQL did databases.
  • Easy-to-use framework: Shared drive CIFS interface, integrates natively into MS Office through the SharePoint protocol, has RSS support and, through Alfresco Share, a dynamic content feed similar to Facebook.
  • Content integration into BP: Alfresco has powerful pre-built workflows and also simple workflow rules for end users.
  • Collaboration tools: Simple deployment and configuration of ‘mini-apps’ like expenses app, holiday request forms app, by power users through Alfresco Share with possibilities for sharing content and integrating content into projects.
  • Easy Modifications: Dynamic Scripting, and rules and configurations that are stored in the repository mean a live system can be updated in a controlled, audited way without a shutdown and restart.
  • Adaptable: Power users can use rules and Alfresco Share to enable them reconfigure their dashboard as simply as Google Gadgets or Facebook.

Is Your Enterprise CMS Agile?

Agile ECMs are transforming the access, quality and amounts of information that users across the enterprises can use in their business activities. Designed for quick implementation and for easy access to content stored in different repositories CMIS support looks like it is to become a defining feature.

If characteristics like automatic content integration with business processes, flexibility to adapt to changing business conditions quickly, quick and effective information sharing across the enterprise and open repositories are important to your enterprise, then an Agile ECM is probably the best option.

However, when your company goes shopping make sure you bring a list of Agile characteristics with you and pin your vendor to the wall with them. Research for this piece has shown that many vendors throw the Agile word about as a marketing tool for ECMs that are not Agile at all.

Agile means flexibility -- the flexibility to go to a different vendor when the one you are dealing with tries to  pass off a damp squib as a full-flight Agile ECM.