The Why of ECM Failure and the How of ECM Success

The 'Why' of ECM Failure and the 'How' of ECM Success

7 minute read
Lane Severson avatar

This past week I met with the General Counsel and CIO of one of those increasingly rare organizations that has absolutely no enterprise content management (ECM) technology, but is now embarking on building an ECM program. This program will not only include rolling out a technology project, but will also include all of the people and process elements required to use the technology to serve the business. Not surprisingly, they want to get it right. They asked me: “How often are these programs successful?”

“Successful? Well, that depends on what you mean by success.” That’s what I started to say. I explained that success is measured differently by different organizations, and that was where the GC stopped me. She wanted the bottom line: What’s the prognosis, doctor?

Based on 20 years of industry data, we can say that nearly 50 percent of all ECM programs fail just from a technology perspective. And of the 50 percent that succeed, half of those fail to really provide value to the business.

The GC wasn’t shaken. This obviously wasn’t her first rodeo. But she wanted to know why so many programs failed and what her team and her partners in IT could do to make sure that they ended up in the 25 percent that successfully implemented systems and provided actual value to the business. As she put it, “Failure is not an option on this project.”

Why do so many ECM programs fail? And what makes the top 25 percent so exceptional?

Why Do 50 Percent of ECM Programs Fail?

ECM programs fail for many of the same reasons that all technology projects fail. But it’s instructive to list out these reasons for failure if we want to avoid them in the future.

The Leadership

We all know that projects need top-down leadership. But in some cases that support is the CEO saying, “We need better information management, so go figure out a strategy.” Then, when the strategy is put together and s/he sees the investment that’s needed to fix the problem, s/he decides to spend the company’s money elsewhere.

Other times, executive leadership doesn’t realize that transforming the information management practices of an organization will take three to five years, and they get fixated on other problems that need to be addressed. So they pull funding or resources from the ECM program.

The Program

ECM is 70 percent program and 30 percent technology. So it’s critical that someone be running the program and that they have a group of stakeholders involved. This can range from as formal a structure as an ECM Center of Excellence (COE), to as informal as an ECM best practices group. But it has to exist at some level. This team also needs to establish a rock-solid communications and training program before ECM functionality gets rolled out, to help ensure end-user acceptance and adoption. And there needs to be a staged approach to the implementation, so that at any point the project can be declared a success.

A big-bang approach ends up in the failure bucket 99 times out of 100. Finally, I would note that some of our most successful information management clients didn't get funding for software, and instead have spent all their time developing good information management habits in their organization. This approach can help bridge the content management gaps until a technology solution can be deployed, while also providing the foundation for that future ECM solution.

The Technology

I just said technology is only 30 percent of the ECM equation, but understand that the wrong product for your organization can stop you dead in your tracks. In the early years of ECM, when the options were wider and the products far less mature, choosing a bad vendor was a big problem. These days, the solutions have pretty much reached functional parity and the vendor landscape has stabilized around a small number of solution providers.

When we look at how ECM technology fails now, it’s likely to have more to do with IT buying a Ferrari when it only wants to perform maintenance on an old Toyota. The Ferrari is a great car, but it takes a lot of care and feeding. On the other hand, you can change the oil in your Toyota once a year and drive it for 10 years. You need to know if your organization’s ECM requirements dictate Toyota- or Ferrari-type functionality, and how much you are willing to take care of it.

The 25 Percenters

Remember, out of the 50 percent who deploy ECM technology effectively, only half are providing the business with the transformational experience that they’re looking for. It’s one thing to provide a service to the business so they can manage their information better. It’s a totally different thing to be a strategic partner who drives value on their behalf.

Learning Opportunities

Here’s what to do to make sure your ECM program helps you be this kind of a strategic business partner:

Provide Value

A big-bang deployment of ECM is a sure way to fail. But measured “vanilla” application rollouts will fail to impress your business partners. Programs that succeed are the ones that build good relationships with the business, take the time to understand the value chain and then build applications that the business perceives as valuable. Excellent programs do this in a way that ties back to executive management’s corporate goals.

Be Sustainable

A lot of good IT shops provide value to the business by treating each request for a new application. A better way to serve the business is to develop a methodology for attacking 80 percent of your organization’s ECM needs with template applications and then working with the exceptions on a case-by-case basis. 

This doesn’t mean that you just provide the business with an expensive bucket for documents. You need to identify the common needs across functional groups within your business and then build applications that are specific to most of those needs. The needs in most of your back office functions will likely be similar with some minor “local” needs.

There are a lot of good IT teams out there that provide too much customization. Best-of-breed organizations develop a catalog of these template offerings that they can roll out efficiently. Changes or custom work needs to be addressed with the business and potentially charged back as an additional cost.

Plan to Fail

The irony of successful programs is that they plan for failure. At some point during your program you might lose funding, or executive support, or key personnel, etc. A successful program plans for failure in two ways. First, it chunks up projects in short, independent increments. That way, when you need to just tread water, you can point to those successes you have achieved. Second, the people behind good programs understand that a lot of the work they need to do doesn't require much, if any, capital resources. You can continue to push forward policy and procedure work even if there aren’t dollars for rolling out new applications.

From my perspective, these are some of the keys for success. What do you think? Are there glaring omissions? I would love to hear other elements of successful ECM programs from the community in the comments below.

Title image by Denis Kuvaev /

About the author

Lane Severson

Lane Severson is a Managing Director at Doculabs focused on Digital Transformation and Content Management. His work focuses on aligning the goals of technology and business leaders to drive value for the Enterprise.

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