There’s lots of talk about how Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is dead or dying. Some say it’s a vendor category coined to give a name to bloated, one-size-fits-all software products that eschewed a real understanding of user requirements in favor of a Swiss Army Knife approach that sought to be everything to everybody -- and wound up being truly useful only to a handful.

Others say that it’s a specialist creation, coined by consultants and industry talking heads to make it easier to promote their own expertise, drum up traffic for their blogs, and sell more services to clients.

Yet others say that ECM is a once-useful domain that’s outlived its usefulness. It made sense once upon a time, but the new modes of content creation, sharing and consumption have made it obsolete alongside systems of engagement and record, information lifecycle management and the rest.

I think all of this has more to do with a narrow focus on semantics than anything real or substantive. The way I see it, organizations do only four things: manage financial assets, manage physical assets, manage human assets and manage information assets. ECM and all the associated alphabet soup of acronyms (RM, RIM, IG, ILG, ILM, IM, EIM) are simply a variety of ways to put a label on managing information assets properly (or at least better).

Given that, to talk about it as dead or dying is just plain silly. Organizations of all types will always need to manage their information assets well and, like diet and exercise, the day will never come when they can forget about it and get back to business -- managing information is at the heart of doing business.

A Better Way to Think About It

I tend to look at the issue of the death of ECM in terms of the four boxer shown in Figure 1, which is a standard way to map out services to marketplace demand.

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Figure 1 – Services Mapped to Marketplace Perception vs. Operational Difficulty

Typically, a new domain (or the services created to address it) start out in the top right, i.e., the marketplace perceives the domain as difficult or challenging and the domain is in fact difficult to provide services for (a.k.a., brain surgery). An example of a domain currently in this quadrant would be the internet of things.

Over time domains more to the left and down as practitioners get more adept at addressing them and the marketplace gains experience with it. Eventually, domains that once were cutting edge, brain surgery endeavors become commodities -- easy to deliver, low value activities.

The Evolution of ECM

Taking this framework as a starting point, we can plot the evolution of ECM against the four boxer as shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2 – ECM Mapped to Marketplace Perception vs. Operational Difficulty


Learning Opportunities

ECM, from its origins as document management in the 1980s, has long been considered brain surgery by the marketplace, which makes a certain amount of sense. After all, for years it was primarily concerned with digitizing core business documents (e.g., mortgage applications) and automating the processes associated with them (mortgage application process). High value, high risk, high reward.

And as it evolved beyond its document management roots to address electronically stored information more broadly at the organization, the marketplace continued to place a high premium on it -- even when practitioners got more adept at addressing it in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But in the mid-2000s, the marketplace perception of ECM began to slide downwards, due to a few factors.

  1. ECM software had been promising the end to content challenges for some time yet had mostly failed to deliver.
  2. Microsoft hit the nail on the head with SharePoint in 2007 and delivers “good enough” ECM capabilities to the masses.
  3. New domains like the cloud, social collaboration and mobile begin to disrupt the ECM space to the point where the marketplace begins looking for new ways to think about managing information.

For my money, this is at the heart of the “ECM is dead” discussions more than any real change in the importance of managing information for organizations.

The More Things Change

This should be a familiar tale to those of you who’ve been around the block. We could plot any number of domains on this same trajectory: knowledge management, enterprise search, web content management, etc. None of which is to say that these domains (or the fundamental business issues they address) aren’t important, just that as buzzwords, the marketplace has grown tired of them and moved on.

But when we strip away the buzzwords and focus instead on the varieties of managing information to achieve business results, we see a very different trajectory.

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Figure 3 – Managing Information Mapped to Marketplace Perception vs. Operational Difficulty

Over the last three decades, regardless of domain or buzzword, the marketplace continues to value managing information better and, as practitioners, we’re getting better at it. Part of getting better at it, I suppose, is refining our language, and so maybe the steady stream of new and decaying buzzwords is an indication of the health of the discipline rather than a distraction or background noise.

The Final Word

Of course, it’s not possible to settle the issue of the death of ECM in a single blog post -- or ever, probably. But hopefully this glimpse into how I see the marketplace has offered a new perspective on not only ECM, but the wider context of managing information. And I’d love to get a good conversation going about all this, so if I’ve gotten it wrong, you’ve gotten it right, or you simply want to heckle, jump in and get things started!

Title image from Monty Python and the Holy Grail