This topic has to some degree been a theme in many of my posts over the last 18 months, but given how often I'm asked to speak to this in my day-to-day travels -- and given the amount of churn it causes among us pundits and prognosticators on both sides of the fence -- I figured I'd address it head on here in a single post.

In a Nutshell

The short answer for why SharePoint will almost never be your sole enterprise content management (ECM) system is that, simply put, the vast majority of organizations have ECM needs that go beyond what SharePoint on its own can deliver. Full stop.

I know this is going to inspire a lively debate, so let me try to frame that debate ahead of time by explaining in more detail just what I mean.

SharePoint's ECM Shortcomings by Industry

First let's consider some of the more advanced ECM needs that go beyond what SharePoint can do grouped by industry:

  • Financial Services, Banking, Insurance: high-volume transactional workflow, e.g., account opening, claims processing, billing, underwriting, etc., high-volume scanning and indexing
  • Energy and Natural Resources: engineering drawing management, construction project management, supply chain management, asset management
  • Manufacturing: engineering drawing management, supply chain management, asset management
  • Construction: engineering drawing management, construction project management, supply chain management, asset management
  • Pharma: clinical trial management, regulatory submission, quality and manufacturing
  • Government: DOD compliant records management, high-volume scanning and indexing

SharePoint's ECM Shortcomings in General

Second, beyond these industry-specific cases where SharePoint on its own doesn't cut it, consider the following advanced ECM needs that cross all industries:

  • ERP archiving: storing, managing, and making accessible the documents associated with ERP-enabled processes, e.g. , procure to pay, order to cash, etc.
  • Employee Lifecycle Management: storing, managing, and making accessible the documents associated with the employee lifecycle, e.g., job descriptions, hiring materials, onboarding documents, performance review data, separation documents, etc.
  • Customer Relationship Management: storing, managing, and making accessible the documents associated with the customer lifecycle, from the sales process through service, maintenance, and end of life
  • Contract Management: storing, managing, and making accessible the documents associated with the contract lifecycle, from the sales process through contract negotiation and execution, to contract administration, renewals and renegotiations, to contract completion/termination
  • Records Management: being able to systematically manage paper and electronic records throughout their lifecycle, from creation to disposition, in accordance with the corporate records retention schedule

SharePoint with Add-ons is not SharePoint on Its Own

I can hear the responses that are brewing out there now: Joe, you’re being intentionally provocative (again). SharePoint can do all of these things -- there's an ecosystem of 1200 plus partners that have made a living (many of them a very healthy one at that) helping SharePoint do all these things and more. Just own up to the fact that SharePoint is a grown-up ECM system just like the big three already!

I don’t disagree with any of this. It's all true and I help many clients navigate the sometimes confusing waters of the SharePoint partner ecosystem to find solutions that deliver value for their employees. However, SharePoint with add-ons is not SharePoint on its own. It is SharePoint doing what it does best -- i.e., solving for the bottom 40 percent of the ECM capabilities continuum -- being used in conjunction with other solutions that solve for some portion of the remaining 60 percent. See Figure 1 for a visualization of what I mean.

Enterprise CMS, Information Management, SharePoint Will (Almost) Never Be Your Sole ECM System

Figure 1: ECM Capabilities Delivered by Platform Type

Understand Your Partner's Risk/Value Profile

For the sake of argument, let's pretend that SharePoint plus add-ons can be considered a single platform: i.e., SharePoint. Couldn't this "single platform" be an organization's sole ECM system? Wouldn't it be an attractive option, since almost everyone has SharePoint already and this option prevents them having to get in bed with the big ECM vendors, with all the headaches that that brings?

I don’t think so, at least not for the Fortune 500. Here's why.

SharePoint with an add-on or add-ons is no different from a portfolio management standpoint than having SharePoint plus Documentum, OpenText, IBM, Hyland, etc. In fact, in some ways it's worse, because rather than having two large, global vendors to manage (Microsoft and one of these three), you'll almost certainly have a hodge-podge of smaller, less stable vendors to manage, each of which will have smaller R&D budgets to keep pace with upgrades and new versions, less ability to fend off acquisitions, and greater tendency towards product strategy shifts that could leave your organization holding the bag.

Given all this, if I'm a Fortune 500 company, would I be more likely to save money in the short term by adopting a SharePoint plus partner add-on strategy that increases my overall IT portfolio risk or to accept higher costs in the short term (and maybe even longer time to value and reduced functionality) in order to decrease my overall IT portfolio risk?

In general, I’d put my money on the latter, because for a US$ 10 billion, US$ 50 billion, US$ 100 billion, US$ 300 billion company, the difference in cost between US$ 100,000 and US$ 1,000,000 is a rounding error. But the potential negative impact to a business from having a core operational activity like engineering drawing management or high-volume transaction processing supported on a niche product from a small vendor -- who may fail to keep pace with SharePoint upgrades, change product direction, get acquired, go out of business, or become redundant due to new capabilities provided by future versions of SharePoint? It's huge, bordering on catastrophic.

As you might expect, reality is always messier than we can predict, and the use of SharePoint as an ECM system is no exception. The most common portfolio decision I've seen post SharePoint 2013 is to have SharePoint, add-ons, and a big ECM platform (or three). This is a response to both the complexities of ECM needs at most large organizations as well as the historical development of most IT environments (due to federated buying, acquisitions, reorgs, etc.).

What reality isn't, however, is SharePoint as the sole ECM system in large organizations.

The Final Word

Ok, so there's my reasons for asserting that in the vast majority of cases, SharePoint won't be the sole ECM system in play. For most larger organizations (i.e., in the Fortune 500, maybe even Fortune 1000), the answer to what ECM system should I use will almost always be SharePoint and big ECM with maybe some add-ons.

I know you all have some strong opinions on this, so sharpen up those pencils, jump in and let's get the conversation started!

Editor's Note: Welcome back as a regular contributor, Joe! To catch up on an oldie but goodie by Joe, see SharePoint: Get it Right the First Time