The fragmenting Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems market has file share vendors eager to take the place of production-ready ECM suites. But agile and effective as they may be, file share applications fall flat when compared with an Enterprise CMS for securely managing content.

The ECM Market

The publication of Gartner’s annual Magic Quadrant for ECM and Forrester’s ECM Wave over the past two months brought this question back into the spotlight.

Both research papers showed a market that is fragmenting with vendors forced to cater to the needs of customers looking for cloud and mobile functionality to meet business needs.

For Gartner, the market is growing at a rate of about 7 percent per year on the back of demands by users for mobile and cloud capabilities as well as functionality targeting specific verticals.

Forrester also pointed to a growing and rapidly changing market as vendors are forced to provide functionality that corresponds to enterprise productivity rather than compliance needs.

It too predicted that the growing impact of smaller vendors will undermine the dominance of the large, established players.

If the conclusions of the research seem dramatic, Hyland’s Analyst Relations Manager, Ken Burns, agrees that there is massive change happening in the current market.

Hyland, you may recall, earned a spot in Gartner’s Leader Quadrant in the Magic Quadrant  along with EMC, IBM, Microsoft, OpenText and Perceptive.

We spoke with Burns to get his perspective on what, from his vantage point in the Leader's Quadrant, is happening in the market.

Agile Vendors Rise

Burns is not a pessimist, he simply calls it as many people see it. The market he says, is being driven by smaller agile, vendors that are developing case-specific content management functionality for enterprises.

Many of those enterprises, he says, have been struggling under the weight of larger, heavy, custom- development platforms that offer far more than is needed, but which have dominated the ECM industry until recently.

Both Gartner and Forrester have been tracking these changes for years so their respective reports are useful in that they reflect the way that enterprises are buying ECM software.

However, the reports are limited in the conclusions they can draw. The problem, Burns says, lies with the number of vendors in the Gartner Magic Quadrant this year -- 23. With numbers this high, the range of technologies the reports cover is vast.

[The Magic Quadrant] is still a tough document to use for a lot of people because there are different technologies designed to support different use case scenarios that are represented here. The result is that you have a lot of different products like Microsoft SharePoint which is more a collaboration platform than an ECM platform, so it is in the quadrant for different reasons than other vendors. Alfresco is in the same position, but is not quite the same as Hyland or Documentum or Perceptive ...”

So while the research reflects what is happening in a general sense, Burns says that to understand what is really happening you have to look beyond the headlines.

ECM in the Cloud?

The first thing to be said about the ECM market is that larger enterprises are now looking to buy their ECM in much the same way midmarket organizations do. They have moved away from the traditional long-install, complicated systems that have traditionally been used in larger enterprises in search of more agile systems:

We think that large enterprise are looking to buy more like midmarket organizations. They are looking for systems that can be installed much more quickly, modified much more quickly, and which reflect end-user roles and how they work …”

Does this mean cloud computing and ECM in the cloud?  Over the past two years we have heard much about the way ECM is heading for the cloud — look at Documentum as an example — but Burns says that it’s important to distinguish between ECM cloud computing and the practice of deploying ECM applications in the cloud.

One thing that I find frustrating about some of the predictions of ECM moving to the cloud, is that they don’t distinguish between the different types of content technologies. Cloud computing represents software or platforms that are of the cloud.

This includes the purists’ definition of Software-as-a-Service (i.e. multi-tenant software hosted on public cloud infrastructure). Many collaborative content technologies are of the cloud (e.g. web conferencing, email, instant messaging, team collaborative applications and enterprise social software).

What the process-oriented vendors like Hyland and others are doing is deploying or hosting dedicated instances of ECM applications in the cloud. In reality, multi-tenancy is ill-suited for process-oriented ECM solutions. Unlike a CRM system or file sync and share applications, process-oriented ECM software platforms must be customized to support an exceptionally wide range of different usage scenarios.

Process-oriented ECM solutions are also routinely integrated with other enterprise applications. While this is often accomplished in the cloud, there are also instances when integration introduces complexities than many organizations don’t feel are worth the effort to tackle.

Bold predictions garner more attention but, realistically, I’d say we’re looking at a hybrid world. Dedicated instances of process-driven ECM solutions will either be deployed on premises, in the cloud or as a combination of the two.

ECM Suite Overkill and File Sharing

There is also a problem with overkill. All of the suite vendors currently operating in the market produce suites consisting of a collection of technologies, but none of them can solve all business problems.

This has led to suite-fatigue, Burns says, which stems from the fact that ECM vendors have been trying to provide too much functionality to users, without looking at what users are actually trying to achieve.

For a long time, most of the big suite vendors have been trying to force production-class systems onto everyone’s desktop. Those suites, however, were not designed for the simple content manipulation that most users need:

The days when OpenText, or Documentum sold 15,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 seats into an enterprises were curtailed when SharePoint arrived because most people don’t need the kind of functionality that the big ECMs were providing. Now SharePoint is under threat from the likes of Box, Dropbox or others, because it too does not offer the simple kind of functionality that people need."

As a result, many users are turning to file sharing and syncing applications to carry out some of the basic collaboration functions that they expect to get with ECMs, but the difficulty or cumbersomeness of ECM suites inhibits use in many everyday case scenarios.

That said, there is considerable confusion among users about the difference between ECM and file sharing:

A lot of the confusion is coming from vendors themselves. When I look at full production ECM and file share, we are talking about two completely different animals. With our own OnBase, for example, the content that is stored there is are not the kind of content that could be farmed out on a network file share. The documents we manage are business document and have a purpose within enterprise processes; that’s the reason they are retained as documents of records."

There is a role for file sharing and syncing applications in the ECM space, though. Specifically in instances where secure file sharing is needed:

Think of Intralinks, Workshare or when you are looking at the secure sharing of a file for mergers and acquisitions, contract management or something like that. That’s where I see sharing becoming an extension of ECM. But the other stuff -- the Box, the Huddles, the Dropbox -- that is a market for the more casual user of content, and that’s a good thing, because we don’t all need the advanced applications that the big ECM vendors are providing."

One final point on this that is worth noting and which we have seen on many occasions in the past, is that many enterprises need to plan their content strategies, regardless of the technology they are using.

With the emergence of new technologies for collaboration and communication through social media and networks, for example, enterprises are rushing into deployments for fear of losing out to their competitors.

However, many don’t stop to ask whether they should implement them or not, or even whether they are ready to implement them. This results in the implementation of technologies that create a whole other set of problems, before the initial problem of managing content has been resolved.

Many organizations have moved along and started implementing these technologies without having solved the problems that the older systems were brought in to solve. I can think of a number of very large, international e-businesses that behind the scenes are still very much paper-based businesses.”

ECM and Business Applications

In the middle of all this is Hyland, known for the development of ECM for the health and insurance verticals, which is also changing its approach to ECM.

Instead of trying to build a suite that does everything, Hyland is using its platform to build specific and targeted business applications, which are layered on top of its platform and have, as a result, access to all of the content contained in the platform:

It’s not a case of building an ECM solution anymore, but rather lets create a HR onboarding solution built on the ECM system, which is what we have always really done, but which is now what the market is also demanding."

Business users, he says, are looking for something to solve specific problems while IT departments are looking for platforms that can carry out repeatable processes.

End users know what they want specifically. We are trying to provide a balance between giving IT a repeatable platform to repeat certain processes but also to provide functionality that can be applied to a specific problem area. Users want to see process-specific functionality, so we are going to be heading in that direction; a platform to build applications on, rather than just somewhere to put content.”

How the jostling between content management vendors and file sharing vendors actually plays out over the coming year remains to be seen, but combining the two, as Burns points out, makes sense from a user’s perspective. Whether it makes commercial sense between vendors in an already tight market remains to be seen.