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PHOTO: Sharon McCutcheon

Content systems in recent years have tended to fall into two standard buckets: transactional content or collaborative content. Transactional content is best defined as all the different flavors of case management content, such as a loan application. Collaborative content represents all those project documents you track during your day-to-day work.

Two decades ago, both of these would have been folded under enterprise content management (ECM). While theoretically useful in understanding the commonalities between content systems, ECM failed from a practical standpoint. Gartner dropped the term and went with Content Services, emphasizing that enterprises should be consuming content in other enterprise applications.

The problem is people have been trying to divide things up based on how technology solves content problems. But people don't look at their content problems in that way — they approach it through the lens of content types. There are three basic types of content within an enterprise: collaborative, archival and transactional.

Collaborative Content: Most Likely to Get Lost

The first type of content, collaborative, tends to live in Slack, Teams, email and any other system people use to collaborate. Most of these systems manage content as an afterthought. The systems instead focus on optimizing the way people work together.

This is the market ECM vendors tried to chase when designing their user interfaces 10 years ago. The problem was they always put content at the center of the problem. Fifteen years ago, eRoom found the right balance, but it wasn’t designed to scale with its success, leading the company to collapse. We’ve been looking for an application with the right balance ever since.

These days, collaborative content is the content most likely to get lost over time. It builds up in such quantities that organizations no longer know what they even have. These systems often add features such as categorization and efficient storage as after-thoughts, which is a particular problem in successful ones, which grow faster than they can organize their content. Eventually, organizations are left with large collections of archival content.

Related Article: What Role Content Services Play in the Workplace 

Archival Content: Where Old Content Goes to Die

Where collaborative content derives from active collaboration between people, archival content is all the content an organization needs, thinks it needs or is simply afraid to dispose of blindly. Archival content systems is where old content goes to die.

Two primary content types are stored in this system. One is content from retired ECM systems. The other is all the content gleaned from file shares and collaborative systems which people over-loaded with content.

The goal in the archival system is to identify, categorize and decide when an organization can safely dispose of the content. An automatic metadata classification tool is typically key in helping sort the good content from the bad, not to mention removing all the duplicate content. Records managers rely heavily on archival content systems, as do those looking to determine what happened before they started their job.

Related Article: Why You Need a Data Archiving Strategy

Transactional Content: Accessing Content via Proxy

The last content type is transactional content. Content services is the prevailing architecture for supported these content systems, thus allowing people to work in the enterprise system in question. These systems could be a CRM, ERP or a custom-built case management system. While similar to collaborative systems in that these systems let people work in an interface built for the problem at hand, the system stores content externally from day one.

Most ECM vendors have evolved into content services providers. When done right, people aren’t using content services directly. They only know the business systems they're working in has all the data they need along with a few documents attached. A key feature here is that multiple systems may be interacting with the content within each case, or other business construct, and they all stay in sync through a well-defined content infrastructure.

Organizations may use these same systems for archival content due to their ability to scale. The difference is that in archival systems, people access the content directly through the content system’s user interface. With transactional content, people access the content via proxy. The transactional content system typically only has a login for each business system or process that is accessing the system.

Related Article: Content Services Threaten to Repeat the Mistakes of Our ECM Past

A Three-Fold Approach to Content Management

Of the three, the hardest challenge today is addressing collaborative content. Building a system that supports the collaboration of people, especially now that no one is in the same location, is very much a work in progress. Collaboration vendors typically consider content the easy part of the puzzle to solve later. Unfortunately, later tends to be too late.

When looking at the content problems in your organization, it is important to evaluate the different types of content and address them accordingly. The solutions may use some of the same infrastructure, but the way in which people interact with the content will vary. You need to be aware of the patterns of usage and the standard traps encountered when dealing with each type of content problem.

Remember, there is no one size fits all content solution for every organization. There isn’t even one for a single organization. There is likely a rational need for two, three, or even four content systems if you consider web content management (WCM). Organizations need to learn the differences and approach each distinct problem with the appropriate content solution.