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Any discussion about the future of enterprise content management must include cloud content services — they're the glue that binds your multiple business applications together PHOTO: rawpixel.com

Joe Shepley recently published an article about the types of enterprise content management solutions we can expect to see in the future. 

The article brings up many great points, but it left out a key driver for the future ecosystem: Cloud-based content services.

No, this isn't an ode to Gartner. Content services have been around since the CMIS (content management interoperability services) standard was released last decade.

Cloud-based content services are the answer to the lingering question large organizations face: what to do with all of the content the many business-focused applications produce?

Teaching an Old System New Tricks

All of the content from these business apps needs to be integrated, otherwise they will turn into pockets of information throughout your organization. This involves a few approaches. For apps like contracts management the answer is simple: you buy contracts management software with open APIs. But for most other business solutions, the answer is a custom user interface (UI) that provides a solid user experience (UX) built on an established database and content services to manage information.

Unfortunately one of the legacies of on premises ECM systems is the widespread use of out-of-the-box UIs. The most successful systems use either heavily customized versions of the default UIs or custom UIs built with the closed APIs that typified the first wave of ECM releases. 

Over time, vendors released new, more open APIs, but most businesses didn’t change their approach. The initial closed APIs eroded their trust, which was unfortunate because APIs provide the best approach to tackle large content problems.

Well documented, open APIs allow any system to quickly turn an ECM platform into the content database you need. Just like a traditional database, you can automate business rules. Automation helps ensure proper information governance — the bane of most projects due to their negative impact to the UX and costs.

The Cloud Edge? Scalability

On-premises ECM vendors are limited by their (in)ability to scale. Some of the challenge lies in the complexity of clustering all the layers of software in the data center. This can be done, but it isn’t a task for a novice or even intermediate systems administrator.

Even less fun is when you need to expand the cluster at a later point. The documentation always says it will be "easy," but reality is always different. This applies to the supporting database and the storage infrastructure as well. Simply put, large on premises system are hard.

Cloud-based systems simplify this process. Scale is available when you need it, and while you pay for the scale, not having to worry about building it too large on day one saves money. Being able to grow it when needed, quickly or slowly, is a blessing. Finding and maintaining that balance from day one through day 1,001 when on premises requires a lot of monitoring and work.

Which Vendor to Choose?

So yes, Shepley's cloud/SaaS ECM category clearly includes this, but he neglected to discuss why people would choose ECM in the cloud. After all, ECM on premises hasn’t been a smashing success. The difference is content services provided at scale, a focus on the UX that has historically been absent in the industry, and advance, open APIs that make leveraging them as platforms a much simpler undertaking.

As to which vendors to use — I'll resort to Shepley's default response: it depends. You need to research and choose. Every vendor is perfect for at least one company. Shepley listed a few vendors in his article worth exploring.

In the cloud-based ECM space, you can choose between two directions. In one direction, you deploy your own to Amazon. Many vendors have cloud-ready packages worth evaluating. This doesn’t eliminate all the scaling, but relieves a lot of pressure.

The other category is SaaS. This handles the scale issue, but many vendors are still filling out their depth of functionality. Of course, with any SaaS solution, you will get an evolving feature set so consider if they meet your current needs and if they can meet your future needs when you are ready. 

Do your research. You might want a solution that serves multiple purposes. During any evaluation, remember the open API is what matters: it prevents your system from becoming a silo of information. Talk to developers who have used the system to validate the API is as good as everyone says. Finally, make sure the vendor understands what records management is and the importance of information governance.

And then go forth and conquer.