You Will Never Get Enterprise Content Management Right

We all seem to want to solve it narrowly, tactically, with concrete steps we can begin taking today, making progress step by step until we’ve got ECM down. We think we need to find the right systems, or migrate this or that swamp of content from where it is to a better place, or get our user interface more intuitive. And then, with that heavy lifting done (and the promised land reached), we can run and maintain our optimized ECM environment on and on into the future, delivering value to our overjoyed stakeholders, who shower us with accolades and $25 Starbucks cards as tokens of their eternal gratitude.

I’m being tongue in cheek to make a point: for many years now, it seems like we’ve been approaching ECM as a discreet goal to be accomplished rather than an ongoing strategic capability. I believe this stems from the fact that from the 1980s to the early 2000s, managing our documents and content better meant deploying systems to help digitize and then manage them. So even when we eventually became aware that technology alone wouldn’t get the job done, we expanded our horizons to include people and process, but maintained the discreet, beginning-middle-end approach to ECM we used when we were technology focused.

And today, even though the term ECM is hopelessly quaint compared to information management, lifecycle governance, and the rest -- and even though talk of programs is all the rage -- I still see most organizations approaching the problem as if it could be fixed once and for all if they could only find the right mix of projects, technology, and governance.

And yet organizations continue to fail, despite the wide availability today of mature technology, best practices for every aspect of ECM, and a saturated market of expert practitioners eager and ready to bring their expertise to bear on whatever ECM challenges they might face.

Another Way to Skin the Cat

So what’s the solution?

I think the way out of ECM failure requires a paradigm shift: from discreet, beginning-middle-end approaches to an approach that fosters the management of documents, content, information (whatever your preferred term is) as a strategic, enterprise-level capability, the goal of which is to continually transform the way the organization works for the better.

In this way, managing information can take its place alongside the other three core, strategic enterprise capabilities that make up what all organizations do: managing financial assets, managing physical assets and managing human assets.

When we do this, questions like how do we get ECM right stop making sense: would you ever ask how do we get enterprise financial management right? Or physical asset management?

Organizations certainly want to do financial management, asset management and human capital management well, but the idea that somehow we just need to get it right and move on is utterly foreign to these disciplines -- and it should be to information management disciplines as well.

The Final Word

Looked at from this perspective -- managing information well will always be a problem, in the sense that living a meaningful life is a problem, i.e., the goal isn't the goal, it’s the way there that’s the purpose. The goal of doing ECM well is not to get it right once and for all, it’s to foster an ongoing attention to how managing information impacts an organizations core value chain activities and then to work continuously to improve it.

When you do this, you’ll have periods of successes and failures, of smooth sailing and rough seas. But overall your ECM efforts will tend to add value rather than drain resources and the overall effectiveness of your organization will rise year over year.

Title image by hobvias sudoneighm (Flickr) by CC BY 2.0 license