I ask this rhetorical question because an old colleague of mine asked me a similar and connected question recently. He is working on an ECM implementation and a new senior manager asked him why their organization could not "just use file shares and a search engine?"

Which to be honest is a reasonable question for someone to ask. If we are proponents of Content Management strategies and technologies, then we should be able to answer it should we not? If someone asked you this question in your organization, how would you respond?

Answering the Question in your Organization

Your response would hopefully be contextual, based on the business needs of your particular organization. If for example you have millions of legacy documents with no, or very little metadata on them, will indexing them using an “appliance” type search engine solution make a big enough difference to justify the cost of implementation?

If we are examining the larger end of the SMB market, or examining large enterprises, we find that the "file shares and search engine" approach does not really scale. This is especially so if the organization concerned is not churning out physical products, but has a large percentage of 'knowledge workers' who are creating the intangible assets of the 'information economy'.

Editor's Note: You can read more from Jed including: Perspectives: How CMS Fits in an Enterprise Collaboration Environment.

How Does ECM Fit In?

So how does ECM fit in with our response to that "why can't we just......" question ? Well I am a proponent of ECM as strategy so I don't think of ECM as meaning monolithic product suites, but as the AIIM definition suggests, as the strategies (as well as the technologies) for managing the creation, storage, usage and disposal of information assets.

If your organisation has different types of information created for different specific target audiences, these different 'content types' might have different lifecycles and other unique attributes. This is the difference between web content, business documents, organisational records etc. Often a particular content item may cross many of these artificial boundaries.

Strategies, Policy and Procedures

As such I believe it is critical to define strategies and the policy and procedures that flow out of these strategies for managing all your different content types across the whole enterprise. So in my opinion ECM is about taking a holistic view of managing your unstructured information -- as opposed to the highly structured information in the rows and columns of database systems. I know CM systems use databases too, but I think we can agree that there is a difference between a Word document, a graphic image for the web or an email and the well structured information held in your ERP or CRM systems.

In the graphic below I put Knowledge Management at the top, because I assert that you cannot have Knowledge Management without good information management, and therefore an ECM strategy should be part of your Enterprise Information Management strategy which in turn should be linked to your Knowledge Management strategy (oh oh - what do you mean you don't have one of those either........).

The graphic shows processing data and applying context turns it into information, and applying personal context and your own experience can turn information into knowledge.


ECM strategies and content management technologies in the hierarchy from data to knowledge

File Shares and a Search Tool May Not Cut It

Although there are many reasons why using File Shares and a Google Search Appliance (for example) may simply not be good enough, you need to concentrate on the ones that will resonate with the manager asking the question. This might include:

  • You have really complex metadata requirements and using a CMS will help manage the metadata (which by the way, will improve the search results).
  • You have a whole set of users who's business process requires them to make connections between items, and they prefer to browse structures not search (a CMS with a web interface that can leverage the metadata to provide different views will help with this).
  • You have many file shares, in different geographical locations and with highly complex permission structures ( a CMS can help to consolidate the content and simplify the security).

I am sure you can think of many better hypothetical examples based on your own experience, but the graphic below is one I have used to illustrate the complexities and where ECM can fit in an Information Management and Knowledge Management context.



In any organization there are going to be many reasons why you should not just default to using file shares and throwing a search engine over the top of them. It would be easier to explain why if you had an Enterprise Content Management Strategy that lays out those reasons and the benefits you will realize by taking a different approach. If you don't have an separate ECM Strategy, it might fit within your Information Management Strategy, or your Knowledge Management Strategy if you have them.

Just to finish off, let me be really clear that I am talking about ECM as strategy, not one uber-ECM 'system' based on a single enterprise repository and single vendors 'product suite'. You might have lots of repositories and many products, but oh, there is another good reason to have a strategy that lays down how they all work together !

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