Ankur Laroia
Ankur Laroia of Alfresco

Enterprise content management (ECM) might be dead as a market segment, but the pace of innovation and change within the content management industry has been dramatic. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be interviewing industry leaders from IBM, Veeva, Microsoft and others to hear their thoughts on the changes taking place in the content management industry. We'll start with Ankur Laroia, who is head of Solution Strategy for Alfresco, an open source ECM platform.

Hitting an Inflection Point in Content Management

Severson: It’s an exciting time in the content management industry. Businesses are adopting capabilities like cloud, open source software (OSS), machine learning, as well as innovative ways of working, like DevOps and Agile, to experiment and deploy new solutions more quickly. It seems like we might be at an inflection point where we start seeing something that could legitimately be described as transformational. What are you seeing in the industry that gets you excited these days?

Laroia: We live in exciting times. Globalization, hyper convergence and the cloud have made disruption of traditional business models by smaller, more tech-savvy players possible. In 1975, around 17 percent of the market value of the S&P 500 was attributed to “intangible assets” by firms’ own published accounts. By 2005 this had risen to 80 percent and is holding steady. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading U.S. companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University. Today's rate of change, he says, "is at a faster pace than ever." Foster estimates that by 2020, more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies that we have not yet heard of. Given this backdrop, organizations will have to transform or die. Not “grow or die,” but transform or die.

Severson: When I think about the issues that come up every time I talk to a client, information security and customer privacy are at the top of the list. And there’s still concern in a lot of organizations that using OSS and cloud platforms are less secure options. What do you tell folks to help them understand how secure these platforms are?

Laroia: It is counterintuitive. OSS and cloud are inherently more secure than on-premises deploys. Take the recent breaches that have happened just in this quarter: all are on-premises deployments. That’s not to say that Cloud or OSS are bulletproof, as there is no substitute for good IT governance. The beauty of OSS is there are tens of thousands of engineers and developers in the community looking at the code; when exploits are found, they are typically found by more than one person or entity. At Alfresco, we have an active community of over 34,000 developers that are in and out of our code on a daily basis. Some of our Fortune 50 software companies don’t have 34,000 employees, much less that many talented personnel in their engineering ranks. That said, Alfresco maintains strict rigor and control over what capabilities are incorporated into our enterprise versions, as those are rigorously tested and hardened. Alfresco is trusted with superscalar, exascale deployments.

Severson: Another concern I hear over and over again in relation to OSS is there’s no product roadmap. So on the one hand, you had better have some killer developers in house. And on the other hand, you are at the whims of the community to get product updates. It seems like this is a myth that just won’t stay debunked. Can you try and put the final nail in the coffin?

Laroia: Another great point. I alluded to this in my answer to the question above. Think of the community as a flywheel, where innovative ideas are tested; disruptive models are minted; we release community builds at a much more aggressive pace. In our model, only the best ideation survives and gets incorporated into our enterprise version(s). Unlike others, we also have one of the best information management engineering teams on the planet that collaborates on innovation with our enterprise customers, as well as community engineers and developers. In a sense, here, we get to have our cake and eat it too.

Related Article: Open Source vs. Proprietary Software: There Is No Clear Winner

Moving Past the Content Services Hype

Severson: Gartner claimed last year that ECM is dead and "Content Services" are the way of the future. In my mind, ECM has always been a strategy that had a variety of technologies that supported it. But semantics aside, where do you see a content services approach providing value to the industry?

Laroia: Content services is a neat concept if one goes beyond the marketing hype. In order to achieve the benefits afforded by a content services strategy, one needs nimble content services that were architected in this century, not 20-year-old bloated cores with layers and layers of wrappers that provide compatibility with newer capabilities. Cloud and an open, modern content services architecture make this possible.

Related Article: Are We Really Having the 'ECM Is Dead' Conversation Again?

Severson: A huge failure of content management projects in the past was the focus on just archiving a final copy of a piece of content after the business process was over. We talk to people all the time who haven’t gotten value from their investment in content management. But the magic happens when you combine flexible process engines and a scalable archive, doesn’t it?

Laroia: Absolutely love how you put this, Lane. It resonates deeply with me and here’s why. One of my customers, who is a Senior VP at a Fortune 20 global bank said to me, “When our intellectual property is at rest, it costs us money and it can also be perceived as a liability. That same IP in motion makes us money.” 

I couldn’t have said it better myself! That is a core value proposition of having an organic, wholesome platform where process, content and governance services inter-operate seamlessly with each other and other applications within the ecosystem. Process services is the vehicle by which intellectual property can be monetized.

Severson: Let’s get a little speculative, I know you are a visionary guy. We can imagine a world where artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a common part of the toolkit. So what would a really good AI working in concert with all of these elements of content management we’ve been discussing look like?

Laroia: The fundamental ask of the knowledge worker hasn’t changed in the past decade. It has been “Please give me the information I care about, at the time I need it to get my work done.” It seems like such a simple ask, and yet, as strategists and practitioners, we appreciate the nuances required. With the advent of AI, especially AI engines in the cloud that leverage deep learning networks, we can curate, inventory and provide context to intellectual property that’s trapped in legacy siloes. Leveraging AI engines to also identify redundant, obsolete and trivial data is quite useful for a litany of reasons, both business and technical.

Severson: Any parting shots or burning topics that I didn’t ask you about?

Laroia: I will return to Foster’s premise that companies that don’t transform will die. We are seeing that phenomenon manifest itself in the broader market, and we also observe companies becoming quite selective about the organizations they partner with as they undertake transformative endeavors. We are experiencing lots of resonance with our partners in the business as we communicate the value of a wholesome digital business platform that’s open, modern and scalable.