head in hands, make it go away
Please, pretty please, can we stop having this conversation? PHOTO: Allan Rotgers

One topic filled the halls, the hotel lobby and the bars at the AIIM Conference in Orlando earlier this month: Gartner's pronouncement that ECM was dead and that it had been replaced by something called Content Services.

I'll discuss some of the other many takeaways from the conference below, but first I thought I'd deal with this big elephant in the room.

Enterprise Content Management: What's in a Name? 

AIIM is the de facto Enterprise Content Management (ECM) industry association. It coined the ECM term back in 2000, and it has evolved the definition in the years since. 

If you look at the history, it appears Gartner never liked the term, and it took some time before it used the term in its own research reports. 

There's probably good reason for this as it was never a term or concept meant to be used by industry analysts to segment the software industry. ECM was a term meant to encompass the many facets of managing the lifecycle of unstructured information across an enterprise. 

When I entered the ECM field in 2004, the definition focused more on the technologies. To my mind, the later definitions, especially the 2010 version, speak more to the challenges of the field with their focus on the strategies and methods behind ECM (as well as the tools).

To me, ECM describes the overarching strategy or concept of operations for managing unstructured information. Technology is of course important, but is just one third of our traditional view of implementing technology into an organization: People, Process and Technology. 

The industry has long debated how important the definition is. Does the end user community really care about our academic debates, as long as their mortgages get scanned, their documents can be found and their processes get organized? 

I often err on the side of the pedant in these discussions. Language is powerful. It provides the basis of communication, and, at least within the industry, we must agree what we are all talking about, or else how will we communicate in simple and unambiguous terms to our target audiences of non-techie business people? 

ECM Is Dead, Long Live Content Services?

So why the storm in a teacup over one Gartner analyst's blog post? 

Well I am in the highly cynical camp that considers it a well-crafted headline meant to drum up some business. “The Death of ECM and the Birth of Content Services” was meant to generate hits (and provoke lots articles like this one) and drive people to the Gartner site and services.  

If you actually read the article, the telling line is this one:

 "ECM is now dead (kaput, finite, an ex-market name), at least in how Gartner defines the market."

At least in how Gartner defines the market. Gartner can define the market how it likes, no problem. It does not however make ECM dead as a concept, as a strategy or as a set of methods for managing content lifecycle — it just makes it defunct as a way Gartner segments the industry. 

The post continues to define Content Services as the replacement term. This really annoyed some people, who noted AIIM was involved in developing the CMIS standard, one of the various mechanisms which allow any given technology platform to expose its repository and functionality as a service. In many people's opinion, content services is a subset of features within ECM — and so we have travelled full circle.

Get to the Point

You may quite justifiably be asking, so what? 

Well I think the fact that AIIM members have been involved in considerable dialogue on this topic indicates a number of important things. 

We are an interested, and passionate community. We believe in evolving the industry, we are capable of measured responses and reasoned argument, and AIIM as a body is constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of its membership, which include both vendors and practitioners. 

Indeed, John Mancini, AIIM’s Chief Evangelist, suggested in his conference keynote that perhaps we stop talking about ECM and start using the term "Intelligent Information Management." So perhaps the next step in the evolution of our organization is to become the Association for Intelligent Information Management?

Other AIIM Conference Takeaways

There were many takeaways from the many sessions, round table discussions, conversations at vendor’s booths on the show floor and the many good chats I had over a beer with industry colleagues, including:

Continued Interest in Information Governance 

Based on two round table sessions packed to overflowing, information governance is of great interest to everyone from big enterprises, small to medium businesses, to the federal government. This was another topic area which showed the importance of the use of language, definitions and common understanding. 

Oh, and did I mention it's hard? My own presentation on my organization's journey with SharePoint governance had a full room. People are still interested in this subject because their organizations continue to have issues here.

Enterprise Search Is Also Hard

In another packed and interesting round table session, very few organizations of any size appeared to have a fully resourced "enterprise search team." The general consensus was everyone is still deeply unsatisfied with search in general. 

We Haven't Come Far with Information Categorization

A great session on information categorization, metadata and taxonomies showed people still struggle with these concepts in the same way as they did at my first AIIM conference, 13 years ago. Auto-categorization technologies have come on in leaps and bounds, but they remain no panacea.

ECM Will Never Take the Lead

A session on the future of ECM reminded us we can never rely on our organizations being enlightened enough or having enough money to do information management for the sake of it. 

Yes, we know good information management can provide all sorts of organizational benefits, but ECM never leads — and it never should. Information Governance, Information Management and ECM strategies must be business led. We should focus on the value add involved in solving business problems. The seemingly endless desire for broad-scoped "digital transformation" initiatives confirm our ideas have value, and will continue to provide us with a seat at the table.

The Force Is Still With Us

Finally, having previously written on the information management deficiencies of the Galactic Empire, the First Order and the Rebel Alliance, I have to give kudos to Andrea Chiappe for her awesome presentation, "5 Key Strategies Taken From Star Wars," complete with inflatable lightsabers for the audience, and even TIE Fighter shaped bullet points! 

The force is strong with that one ....