broken pottery on a windowsill
PHOTO: Daniel Tafjord

How long have we had "real enterprise content management" (ECM)? Let’s be generous: even though electronic document management started in the mid-1980s, for argument’s sake, let's say 2000 (around the time that FileNet and Documentum rose to prominence). That’s 18 years. 

And in all that time — nearly two decades — not only have we failed to realize AIIM’s paper free office, but we’re seemingly no closer to managing our "born digital" content stored on shared drives, email and other unstructured systems. The result being that most large organizations maintain terabytes (some even multiple petabytes) of unmanaged content on their systems, underwriting (for the most part implicitly) the huge risk associated with this content.

Add to that the dismal percentage of big ECM installs that are reported to have gone well — a recent AIIM survey reported 50 percent of respondents still primarily using shared drives for document management (and in Doculabs’ experience, the percentage is closer to 90 percent) — and you have to ask: will big (or even medium-sized) ECM ever succeed in solving the content management challenges of most large organizations?

For a number of reasons, I think the answer is a resounding “No.” And I think the main reason for this is that Microsoft, with everything it’s doing to develop (and peddle) Office 365, is poised to dominate the ECM space at most large organizations over the next five years. From basic document management and collaboration, to more specialized capabilities like workflow, records management, e-discovery, file analytics and digital loss prevention (DLP), Microsoft is rapidly evolving Office 365 to provide these (and other) capabilities to not only “good enough,” but also market leading levels.

Let’s look at some of the key reasons why Microsoft is well poised to capitalize on big ECM’s lack of success over the last 18 years and what the world of ECM might look like in the next five years.

Related Article: Viewing Information Management's Evolution Through an Office 365 Lens

The Great Office 365 Content Land Grab

The vast stores of unstructured content that have been amassing at organizations since the mid 1990s will only be moved to the cloud once (at least in our lifetimes). And, while five years ago, the final resting place of this massive trove of content was up for grabs (Box, Dropbox, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, big ECM cloud solutions), today I think the answer is clear: I predict it will all (or at least 90 percent of it) land in Office 365. Whether SharePoint online, OneDrive, Teams, Exchange, or something as-yet-to-be-named that Microsoft cooks up, I’m certain all this unstructured content will one way or another wind up under Microsoft’s control.

I had a client today tell me that, if Microsoft had provided a vision of where the company would be today three years ago, they wouldn’t have spent $5 million on big ECM. But three years ago, Microsoft was only concerned with ensuring all the unstructured content at organizations would end up in Office 365, not the functionality Office 365 provided once businesses got there. With that concern out of the way, Microsoft can finally start to discuss the functionality.

Related Article: Is Office 365 Going to Eat Your Lunch?

Office 365 Functionality

Content Governance

Some of the first capabilities Microsoft provided in Office 365 were around governance: email management, records management, and e-discovery — a smart move, as managing content to meet regulatory requirements is a critical hurdle to overcome. And while Office 365 is not a market leader in any of these spaces, Doculabs’ experience with its clients and others is that Office 365 is “good enough” to support these functions. So if not today, in the near-enough term it will make investing six or eight (or nine) figures in other solutions untenable. 

An organization that bought a market leading solution for content governance today, e.g., records management, would spend at least 18 months getting that solution up and running … by which time, Office 365 should be functionally equivalent with no spend beyond the E3 or E5 licenses they already paid for.  

Related Article: Microsoft's New Advanced Data Governance: First Impressions

Workflow

I’ve heard from three clients in the last month that the Microsoft workflow tools provide 85 to 95 percent of the capabilities provided by specialized workflow tools. Were these clients managing millions of transactions a month on these workflows? No. But they were business critical processes, e.g., asset management for energy companies, customer service workflows for financial services, etc.

And given the long timeframes and high costs of developing these workflows in more traditional systems, why wouldn’t most clients hold fast with what they have and wait until Office 365 provides the workflow tools they require rather than doubling down and spending more on these specialized systems? The answer in most cases is that they’ll do just that, and that Microsoft will own the “good enough” workflow market, much like they already have the “good enough” document repository market.

Related Article: How to Improve Business Processes With Office 365

Portfolio Rationalization

The name of the game for CIOs is cost containment, because the less it costs to keep the lights on, the more budget they (theoretically) have for strategic projects that deliver real business value. No matter how you judge my take on the specialized capabilities of Office 365, it’s hard to argue that going all in on Office 365 doesn’t provide a significant level of portfolio rationalization (and the follow on cost reductions associated with it).

We can debate whether this is a real or illusory cost savings (given the complexity of IT cost accounting), or whether, once we calculate the true total cost of of moving onto Office 365, we actually gain the ROI we predicted, but the fact remains that, at least in the short term (and in the terms most commonly used by corporate finance) Office 365 looks really good on paper. And, as sad as it may be, “looking good on paper” is what keeps most CIOs employed. Add to that the fact that the cost of leading point solutions in domains like document management, file analytics, data loss prevention, e-discovery and the like, and it’s hard to imagine any reasonable CIO holding out for very long against the Office 365 juggernaut.

What Do You Think?

There’s a lot more to say on the topic of the future of big ECM, Office 365 and information management — maybe we’ll get to some of that in the comments to this post. But for now, hopefully this overview of where I see the ECM market heading has given you food for thought and some fresh perspective on the ECM challenges at your organization.

Editor's Note: To read a response to this piece, see: Office 365, ECM Savior? Not so Fast