Making decisions during times of uncertainty is challenging to say the least. This will particularly ring true for any organization currently looking to make progress with enterprise content management (ECM).

The current ECM vendor landscape is in turmoil. It's no longer clear who should be considered a leader and I strongly believe, given this turmoil, that the question should be less “what vendor should I use?” than “how should we approach ECM at the enterprise level?”

So what follows are my prognostications for what direction ECM is heading and the path I see as the way forward for any organization making its way in today's complicated landscape. 

The ECM Vendor Situation Today

First, a look at the vendors.

OpenText’s acquisition of Documentum cast the future of both solutions in doubt: the latter because it seems clear the only motive for purchasing an entirely duplicative software stack is to milk maintenance revenue and the former because OpenText has a poor record of managing acquisitions even smaller than Documentum. So there's a real danger it will collapse under its own weight with Documentum now on board.  

And the prognosis for IBM, with its FileNet and Content Server offerings, is not much better. In the last 18 months, IBM has rolled ECM software under the Watson umbrella, assuming (quite rightly, given a long enough time horizon) that artificial intelligence and big data analytics are where ECM is headed. 

The problem is the market isn’t in any way ready for this vision to become reality. Most Fortune 500 firms struggle to do old school, document-based ECM, let alone AI-enabled, big data-driven content management. 

Witness the abject failure of IBM's 2016 ECM conference: renamed “World of Watson,” end users had no idea it was the old Information on Demand/Insight show — and didn’t show up. Combine that with the mass exodus of its most seasoned ECM sales folks, and you don’t have a recipe for success.

The Coming Next Wave of ECM Solutions

Given this state of affairs, it would be convenient if a whole class of new ECM vendors were ready in the wings to pick up where big ECM has fallen off for the enterprise. But while a number of up and coming vendors are worth a closer look — Everteam, Newgen, M-Files, Veeva, etc. — none of them have yet achieved the market penetration and solid presence of the legacy big three.

This doesn’t mean these vendors aren’t ready for prime time. They just haven’t had the chance to prove themselves on the Fortune 500 stage in the US — but that time is coming soon. 

In the next 18 months, we’ll see a rising number of enterprise deployments of these upstart vendors replacing traditional big ECM. And when they do, it will make ditching the big three for another option seem much less radical. 

But we still won't have a silver bullet for ECM. The same people, process and technology challenges will still exist as was there for IBM, Documentum and OpenText. The difference is they will represent the coming of age of the next wave of ECM solutions and the waning of the current big three.

The Right Way to Approach ECM

In my last article, I outlined what I see as the right way to approach ECM given the current vendor landscape. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, the future of ECM belongs to some combination of Office 365 and the up and coming cloud / software as a service (SaaS) vendors — despite which vendors rise to the top or sink to the bottom.  

Learning Opportunities

More and more of the bottom 40 percent of content (measured by value and risk) will fall to OneDrive for Business and SharePoint online. The 50 percent of content in the middle will fall to cloud/SaaS vendors, who will increasingly structure their solutions around vertical business applications rather than horizontal enterprise platforms. The top 10 percent will likely remain in legacy ECM systems, because it makes the most sense or because it’s prohibitively expensive or difficult — or a combination therein — to move it out.

Your 18 to 24 Month Plan

If I’m right about this, here's what your organization should be doing for the next 18 to 24 months. 

Sort your content into two buckets: the content that can go into Office 365 and the content that can’t. For the content that can, clean it up. Remove junk, stale and ROT content (which will likely be between 40 to 90 percent of what you have today). Move the remaining content to a lightly structured Office 365 environment, i.e., five to eight core metadata fields, a few enterprise SharePoint templates, augmented with “white glove,” customized SharePoint sites for the higher value/risk content.

For the content that can’t, split it out by business process. Then find the cloud/SaaS applications that can address those business-specific scenarios with an adequate level of functionality. You might be thinking, “this sounds like heresy, because you’re recommending an approach that will likely yield lots of disparate systems for managing business content … won’t this be a nightmare?” 

Yes, in some ways it will be a nightmare, but in other (more important) ways, the value delivered by this approach will far outweigh the potential downside.

Think about it. What overall value do the “one ECM system to rule them all” approaches deliver today? Without attempting to speak for every organization that’s taken this approach, I’d say I’ve seen very little value overall. And I don’t think transposing it to “one cloud/SaaS vendor to rule them all” would deliver any more value. 

But breaking ECM down into component business processes and deploying vertical applications to deliver value against each of them holds the promise of real value creation, despite the challenges posed by the resultant proliferation of systems. 

The End Goal Is in Sight

I'm not another consultant trying to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt, rather, the opposite. I believe my approach to the current state of ECM is optimistic, practical and liberating. 

Once you fully embrace this approach, you’re on the road to (finally) being in a position to deliver business value with ECM. Which given the last 15 to 20 years of ECM, would be a real accomplishment.

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