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Enterprise File Sync and Share (EFSS) is a disruptive technology that burst into the information management space a few years ago.

Workers worldwide were quick converts because they were tired of the big, difficult-to-use proprietary enterprise content management systems (ECM).

As more workers started using EFSS, more and more analysts and vendors began to discuss the possible demise of ECM.

But is that really possible? Compared to ECM systems, EFSS has relatively little functionality.

The Issue

Sure you can send files around the enterprise. You can even send files beyond the firewalls to colleagues, customers and anyone else that strikes your fancy with a speed and abandon that leaves IT managers quaking in their boots.

But can this technology replace ECM? Yes? No? Maybe?

The jury is still out, and the issue still generates a lot of debate in the enterprise IT industry. There's strong support for both sides of the argument, based on  the many statistics and research papers produced by vendors, trade associations and independent research organizations.

To get a better idea of what's happening and how this debate is likely to end, we asked a number of people in the industry for their thoughts.

The Question 

Will enterprise file sharing systems replace ECM?

The Answers

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, Research Director for Social Business at 451 Research

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Pelz-Sharpe has overall responsibility for the coverage of social business technology and trends, including social collaboration, compliance and legal, marketing and sales automation, and integration. He has more than 25 years of experience in the IT industry, working with a wide variety of end-user organizations and suppliers around the world. He was formerly a partner at The Real Story Group. Tweet to Alan Pelz-Sharpe.

Every so often in an industry analyst's career something comes along and disrupts a market in a way that none of us expected. File sync and share did just that a few years ago.

Initially posited as a consumer tool for sharing photos, in almost no time the use of these tools was growing at a viral pace throughout the enterprise. Of course tools for managing files are nothing new. 

We have more than 20 years of document management system development behind us. But Document Management and ECM tools only solved a part of the problem because they only dealt effectively with truly mission critical files. 

Those files represent only a small percentage of the digital landfill that hit our organizations. Most files simply don't require or justify the tight controls of an ECM system. EFSS systems provide simple enough file management and of course bring true mobility to formerly tight controls on premise files.

The ease of use of EFSS combined with the mobility elements continue to have huge appeal for end users and these systems are here to stay. But they are unlikely to dislodge ECM implementations any time soon.

What they do dislodge are legacy File Servers and SharePoint installations. EFSS provides a dynamic alternative to these clunky and relatively static predecessors.

ECM as market may not grow spectacularly in the future. But an effective ECM implementation is in fact a highly configured, process driven business application.

They are customized applications built to automate and control specific business activities. EFSS are not an alternative in these situations, though over time some will build out more functionality to at least gain some parity. ECM is not sexy, but it is important and won't be going away anytime soon.

Alex Gorbansky, CEO and Co-Founder of Docurated

Thumbnail image for 2015 3 5 DP formatted alex gorbansky.jpgGorbansky was previously CEO of Frontier Strategy Group (FSG). Before that, he was a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, where his work focused on the natural resources sector.  He also worked in strategic positions with Loudcloud and EMC. Tweet to Alex Gorbansky.

File sharing systems were originally meant to offer the simplicity and ease of use missing from many ECM products. In fact the messaging used by Box and other players sought to position ECM as a dirty word and their own products as the great new hope.

That was five years ago. Fast-forward to today and the file sharing landscape has become incredibly crowded and commoditized.

As a result, vendors are looking to add value and capabilities beyond basic storage.

This includes building out advanced workflow and tagging capabilities and other highly specialized features typically seen in the ECM space. So ironically we see file sharing tools becoming the very products they told customers to move away from in their early days.

While in the short-term file-sharing tools will not replace ECM entirely, they will eat into some of the use cases and therefore budgets. Over the long run, file sharing solutions like Box will directly compete with some of the established ECM tools.

Ken Burns, Market Insights Manager at HylandThumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Ken Burns Hyland DP.png

Ken Burns is the Market Insights Manager at Hyland, creator of OnBase. He is responsible for research and intelligence relative to competitors, market segmentation, strategic positioning as well as cross-industry trends related to ECM, BPM, case management and related technologies. He has worked in the ECM industry for nearly 15 years. Tweet to Ken Burns.

To assess the likelihood of EFSS systems displacing, conventional ECM solutions in wholesale fashion, it’s helpful to clarify one’s assumptions about ECM products. ECM systems will be displaced by EFSS systems if you assume that:

  • Collaborative document authoring and publishing components of all ECM systems provide the same depth and mix of general purpose and specialized functionality
  • Collaborative document authoring and publishing represents the core competency of all ECM systems

The repositories of transaction and case-driven content management solutions are a commodity devoid of sophisticated capabilities for leveraging metadata, events and business logic to enable people and systems to use content files and associated information assets in a highly dynamic and contextualized fashion.

The content management interoperability specification (CMIS) is an effective integration method for EFSS systems to enable BPM suites and enterprise applications (e.g. ERP, CRM) to leverage content assets in transaction and case management scenarios.

If you feel as I do, that these assumptions are inaccurate, then the idea of EFSS superseding ECM no longer seems inevitable but, rather, implausible. Instead, I see the relationship between EFSS and ECM as complementary and one that will primarily play out in three ways:

ECM providers will develop or acquire EFSS capabilities to serve as integrated extensions to an existing offering. Extensions will typically be multi-purpose but tailor to use cases the ECM product addresses most often.

Conventional ECM providers will develop or acquire EFSS systems to serve as standalone, “destination” product that add value as part of a product portfolio. Again, destination products will typically be multi-purpose but tailor to the vendor’s target markets.

A range of consumer grade and specialized EFSS offerings for heavily regulated environments will continue to co-exist alongside ECM in the enterprise. For the past two decades, ECM suites have evolved largely by combining and absorbing existing technologies from adjacent markets. EFSS doesn’t threaten to end that evolution — it holds far more promise as a means for it to continue.

Greg Milliken, Vice President of Marketing at M-Files

Thumbnail image for 2015 3 5 DP formatted Greg Milliken.jpgMilliken brings 20 years of management experience in a variety of technology companies to his role, where he oversees worldwide marketing initiatives. Before M-Files, he served as CEO of Alibre, a 3D CAD/CAM software vendor, and was Vice President of Marketing for Knowledge Revolution, an  engineering software vendor acquired by MSC Software. He also co-founded AccelGraphics, a 3D graphics hardware provider that launched an initial public offering after only three years and was the eighth fastest growing public company in Silicon Valley in 1997. Tweet to Greg Milliken.

EFSS won't replace ECM. But they are part of the disruption in the ECM landscape.

Business users are gravitating to file sharing and sync platforms (whether sanctioned by their employer or not) because these tools are typically more accessible and easier to use than those provided by their company for managing documents and other business information.

However, file sharing solutions often lack the robust ECM functionality required to meet demanding security, workflow and compliance requirements for many enterprises.

The 'Holy Grail' of information management is to provide a more user friendly and collaborative workplace with easy file sharing capabilities that enable access to content from anywhere, at any time and on any device without trading off true enterprise-class information management and control capabilities.

This ensures that security and compliance mandates are addressed, while also providing features that address deeper business needs, such as business process automation and version control.

Both enterprise-class information management solutions such as ECM and file sharing services will continue to adapt and evolve.

But what’s for certain is that the proliferation of low-cost, and even free, file sharing and sync platforms is driving the cost of storage to new lows.

The ability to add value and differentiate will be increasingly based on more advanced capabilities to actually control and manage information and processes, rather than simply storing and sharing files in the cloud.

Lubor Ptacek, VP, Product Marketing at OpenText

Ptacek  has worked with big names in the past like EMC,Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 2015 3 5 DP formatted Lubor Ptacek.jpg Documentum, Vignette and Novell. He joined OpenText in 2008, where he leads corporate-wide marketing functions including product marketing, corporate messaging, thought  leadership, and technical marketing. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Association for Intelligent Information Management (AIIM). Tweet to Lubor Ptacek.

No. The popularity of file sharing and synchronization tools is a symptom of the ongoing tensions between the types of tools that users want and the tools that the enterprise needs.

Users are looking for simple tools that are easy to use and get the job done.

Their requirements are much simpler than the enterprise. They want compelling experience, high performance and no training requirement, which means that the feature set has to be minimal.

Enterprises need control and accountability. They need security, information governance, integration to other systems and a rich feature set.

The first wave of EFSS tools catered purely to users but now vendors are working to shift the buying from individual users to the enterprise procurement. They are calling on companies with significant amounts of user and offering them an enterprise license.

Once that happens, the enterprise will have much more say in what features get into the next version.

The EFSS systems will start adding enterprise types of features and essentially start evolving into ECM products. Most of the EFSS systems won’t make that transition and they will perish along the way.

In the meantime, the ECM vendors simply add EFSS as a feature to their ECM platforms, which is what we have already done at OpenText.

Title image by Asa Aarons Smith/all rights reserved.