Quick Start Guide to Enterprise Content Management Usage Patterns and Solution Options

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Planning and rolling out enterprise content management (ECM) for your organization can quickly get bogged down and complex unless you streamline the process early on. If you can define a standard ECM portfolio with clear “routes” for supplementation and other customization, this process will be much easier.

For example, you might segment your company’s content usage patterns and portfolio into four basic types: Basic ECM, Standard ECM, Collaborative ECM and Specialized ECM. Later, you might want to add a few more types to address your high volume imaging, business process management (BPM) and long term advanced archiving/records management (RM) needs. Then you can plan to use SharePoint to address some of those patterns, and maybe other ECM systems (e.g., EMC, IBM, OpenText, etc.) to address the remainder. Perhaps you only need SharePoint.

By now we’re up to maybe six usage patterns, which may be too complex for organizations that are trying to get an ECM program rolling. If you want you can get fancy later, but it’s usually wise to start with a simple set. I recommend just these three: Non-ECM, Collaborative DM and Structured Process ECM. Use these as buckets as you assess your current state, and see if you can fit most of your processes into just these three usage scenarios.

ECM Usage Patterns

Here’s brief description of the three patterns:

  1. Non-ECM This is simply file sharing and storage without any management or controls. It may well be the default pattern for much of your critical content, although it's inadequate for sharing and securing high value, high risk information. Note that this isn't “basic document management” with library services -- it’s really just file management like you get with your shared drives or basic sync and share services.
  2. Collaborative document management (DM) for internal departments and project teams This pattern involves Microsoft Office centered work focusing on documents and work-in-progress (WIP) which require more control than is possible using shared drives and email. This pattern is probably found across most of your departments, but is less prevalent in today’s process and transaction focused administrative areas (such as accounting and procurement) or line-of-business areas (such as loan processing, insurance claims processing, underwriting, etc.). 
  3. Structured Process ECM This pattern requires tightly controlled content management (I sometimes call it “core ECM”) to support structured business processes.

The following sections provide more details on the capabilities of each usage pattern, the typical best fit for each, and the benefits of the tools used to address each.


In your organization’s current state, this may be the pattern for all content in shared drives, hard drives and email -- including much content that is high risk and value, and requires better management.

Non-ECM Capabilities:

  • Simple file storage and retrieval
  • If cloud-based, it offers the user the ability to store files in a cloud-based storage area that provides only basic functions, like login security
  • Provides no ECM-related functions such as version control, check in/out, workflow, etc.

Non-ECM Best Fit and Benefits:

  • Best fit: low-value, low-risk content left after migrating higher value content to other ECM solutions
  • File shares are easy to use
  • Reduces the use of email for file-sharing

Collaborative DM for Departments and Project Teams

In your organization’s current state, this is the pattern most appropriate for much of the content in SharePoint and some that is in your other ECM systems, if you have them. But SharePoint is probably not being used effectively enough to address this pattern across your company, and some of your ECM systems may lack some of the capabilities required for this usage pattern (such as good workflow and adequate records management).

Collaborative DM addresses Microsoft Office-centered work focusing on documents and WIP.

Collaborative DM Capabilities:

  • Provides individual, team and activity based DM document-centric collaboration capabilities, focusing on providing a common virtual environment to easily share information and interact on a particular task, project or activity
  • Provides records management beyond simple retention and disposition
  • Supports collaboration for creation, updating and finalization of content (typically a single document or piece of content, such as a proposal or project plan)

Best Fit and Benefits

Learning Opportunities

  • Best fit: internal departments and teams that need to share and collaborate on Office documents
  • Adequate for most DM requirements including search, document-centric workflow, light RM and intranet web content management
  • Simplifies the process of distributed teams working together
  • Minimizes or eliminates the use of email for file-sharing
  • Enables teams to control their collaborative spaces (limits IT involvement)
  • Ensures that collaborative artifacts are in a managed repository


  • Microsoft SharePoint (cloud or on-premises) is the leader in this space; most organizations use SharePoint for at least some portion of their collaborative DM needs
  • Note that success is highest where organizations have strong governance over site provisioning and usage
  • Traditional “core ECM” platforms have tried to address the collaborative DM scenario but have not been widely adopted or used. Their interfaces are typically too complex for general purpose DM, and the configuration and deployment effort required is high

Structured Process ECM

Solution for patterns requiring tightly controlled content management (“core ECM”) to support structured business processes. This pattern does involve “process or transaction worker” capabilities in contrast to Collaborative DM, which only involves “knowledge worker” capabilities.

But don’t be misled: Structured Process ECM also involves knowledge worker capabilities if the content must be tightly controlled and the process is structured. A typical example is the author-review-approve process involved in writing and maintaining policies, procedures or product specifications -- particularly when the documents must link to or integrate with outside systems (like enterprise resource planning (ERP) or product lifecycle management).


  • Addresses high value, high risk content typically involved in structured processes
  • Includes production capture, imaging and workflow (often on “fixed content”), and also often involves integration with business systems like ERP
  • Production capture includes the ability to ingest a large variety documents from multiple channels, classify and extract data, and export documents and data to downstream systems
  • Production Imaging includes the ability to index, manage, store and display large volumes and varieties of potentially complex document images
  • Workflow includes the ability to design, manage and automate the execution of business processes that typically involve some human interaction
  • Includes granular enterprise RM and security

Best Fit and Benefits

  • Best fit: high-value, high-risk processes that involve core line of business systems (e.g. ERP)
  • Reduces paper handling and reduced labor
  • Increases processing speed
  • Decreases errors; higher accuracy
  • Enables fast, reliable and easy access to documents, using the familiar business systemuser interface (e.g. ERP)
  • Auditable business processes with greater visibility, improving efficiency and facilitating regulatory compliance
  • Provides highest levels of RM granularity


  • The "core ECM" space has undergone considerable consolidation, with a fairly small set of vendors providing viable enterprise class solutions for a broad set of ECM capabilities. Even fewer have a strong focus and footprint in your vertical industry (e.g. financial services, manufacturing, etc.) and tight integration with line-of-business systems
  • The most relevant vendors include the usual suspects -- OpenText, IBM, EMC -- but also Alfresco, Hyland, Perceptive and M-Files, among others
  • The leading vendors in this space offer hosted options (private cloud), but are still trying to gain traction in the market for their cloud offerings

These three patterns can establish a solid ground for any organization to build a dedicated ECM program on. From here all that's left is to assess any further needs and supplement as becomes necessary. 

Editor's Note: Read more from Richard in How to Succeed at Mobile Content Management

About the author

Richard Medina

Richard Medina is co-founder and a Principal Consultant at Doculabs. Doculabs is founded on three simple principles: objective recommendations, analysis grounded by benchmark data, and a specialization in content-based applications.