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PHOTO: Dmitry Ratushny

I just finished reading Joe Shepley's article about how Office 365 is primed to pick up the enterprise content management (ECM) pieces. It raises a few great points but it misses several things happening in the industry today. I think the article can best be summed up in Shepley's own words, “Office 365 looks really good on paper.” I want to take a minute to clarify a few things, and acknowledge how some realities on the ground will impact the promises in the slide decks.

Related Article: Office 365 Is Primed to Pick Up the ECM Pieces

ECM Is Not a Success

Shepley's correct, ECM has been a failure as a whole. I’ve said as much. When I gave a keynote at an AIIM conference several years ago, I pretty much called out everyone, including myself, for this failure. The conclusion I shared was obvious: We needed to do something different.

But what? That was the unanswered question. 

I said we had to stop scoffing at new technology and approaches because we didn’t have the history of success on which to stand. Since then, I’ve reflected on the successes I’ve seen that weren’t technology or staff focused. The content management system has not been a strong predictor of success. People have been a strong indicator, but there are a finite number of those people.

What I realized was my most successful projects had custom user interfaces. When I looked at other successes around the industry, it was by focussing on making it easier for people to work, not meeting a specific regulation, that made the difference. When we took the time to build a user experience around addressing how people do their job, we found success more often than not.

ECM vendors ignored user experience for a long time. But Box and Dropbox proved that people will put their content into a central repository if it fits into how they work. Both companies kept their interfaces simple, which helped people accomplish their primary task: saving a document where they could find, share and protect it.

Building those custom interfaces took developer skill. Sometimes implementing a feature that was built into the content management system was complicated or impossible as the early APIs were limited and bulky. As different CMSs evolved their APIs, we learned how to more efficiently build the mission-focused front-ends. In the current evolution we call this approach content services. Eventually even Gartner caught on to this approach, a decade after the industry named a standard after it (Content Management Interoperability Services, CMIS).

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

The Office 365 Promise

Let’s get back to Shepley's premise that Office 365 is going to become the choice for ECM.

I’ve deployed Office 365 to an organization. I use it to get things done today. It is a solid system. As a former CIO I will let you in on a secret: the big draw is the email. Most enterprises had already moved to Exchange so moving to a cloud version where storage limits were higher, the functionality was commoditized, and the migration is already written is an easy choice.

Shepley mentioned portfolio rationalization. He is exactly right. CIOs love this. It makes life easy to manage one less vendor and one less integration point. It is very appealing to roll out all the Microsoft tools. They are integrated, there is one set of accounts to manage, and deploying all the tools is pretty easy once everyone has adopted email.

I’ve seen this level of tool pushing before and it rarely works well. The push of Microsoft Teams instead of Slack burned a lot of bridges. Teams is getting better but everyone will always have that bad taste in their mouth.

We don’t need recent experiences to tell us this. Just look back at the first two decades of ECM where the user experience was dictated by the solution picked by IT. For smaller firms and departments, things will probably work out fine. For larger ones, there will be challenges.

Related Article: Will Microsoft Teams Hammer Yammer?

The Right Tool for the Job

Forrester has the right idea: there are two types of systems, collaborative and process-centric. They label these with the more accurate “Business Content” and “Transactional Content” terms, but the key difference holds. One set of systems excels at sharing and collaborating on content. The other set excels at supporting, and sometimes implementing, content-centric processes.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft rates well in the collaborative side of the house. It should. Office 365 is a good fit. Also, not surprisingly, it doesn't rate as well as many other vendors on the process side of the house. While you should never use analyst ratings to pick a solution, reading them can demonstrate Office 365’s relative strength in tackling each of these challenges.

The process side is where content services live to serve. It is that same side that falls into the more traditional ECM bucket.

Related Article: Forrester Names 6 Leaders in Transactional Content Services Wave

Fitting Office 365 Into the ECM Universe

So is Office 365 picking up the pieces of ECM? It's picking up the collaboration space just fine. It will also handle the basic document management for small to mid-sized firms that use Office 365 for email.

Where it won’t fit, for now, is the large-scale content services applications. And for those who believe that those are just hype, I can tell you with absolute certainty they aren't. That approach to delivering on the promise of ECM scales, delivers faster and is making success a lot easier (as long as you focus on the user experience).

Is it perfect? Not yet. We are still learning. I can tell you this though. I have clients who are slowly starting to get a handle on those petabytes of information. By the time Office 365 could meet those needs on paper, I’ll be able to point to a large number of organizations that have finally reached their ECM goals by taking a step back.

And putting the user experience first.