birght idea or a lightbulb?

What Comes Next for ECM? Transparent Systems

6 minute read
Mike Alsup avatar

The future of enterprise content management (ECM) is coming, and it is going to be hard for many vendors to keep up.

My friend John Mancini, Chief Evangelist of AIIM, recently described his vision of ECM’s future

Inspired in part by the rash of acquisitions and consolidation in the market in 2016, Mancini foresees ECM moving into a “System of Understanding.” His perspective on the past and future of ECM (as seen in the table below) put into focus several issues I’ve been grappling with and resulted in this question:

“What if the future is more like the past?”

Mancini's View of ECM of the future: Systems of Understanding
ECM past, present and future according to John ManciniJohn Mancini/AIIM

A Vision of ECM's Future

In my version of this chart, ECM would move not to Systems of Understanding, but to Transparent Systems. 

(Editor's Note: Mancini's point of view changed as well. More on this below)

These Transparent Systems will include the following elements:

Technology Drivers

Everyone has devices.  Business continues whenever, wherever. Technology isn’t a driver, it is an enabler and an anchor.  

The cost of migrating legacy ECM technology implementations is what keeps organizations from moving to new ECM solutions. 

The technology drivers Mancini sees as shaping the future — Hadoop, noSQL, analytics, cognitive computing, business intelligence — will have no meaning in the future. Almost all technology will be in the cloud, and subject matter expertise and user and administrative governance will act as the foundation of the ECM industry.  


The tidal wave of information is accelerating. Companies enlist multiple ECM repositories to handle this, creating further problems rather than solutions. Nothing can be found, managed or governed.  

In the future, organizations will store their content mainly in Amazon Web Services (AWS), Office 365/Azure or in Google. Microsoft and Google are competing to create unified object environments (Document, Voice, Email, Viewer, etc.) in Google Drive and in Office 365/Azure.  

All other solutions will be too expensive, too cumbersome, not coordinated or integrated enough, or not compliant with rules like GDPR or data sovereignty. Issues related to cross-repository authentication, privacy, security and identity management will only get more complicated.  

Business solutions found in platforms like Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, Workday, etc. will negotiate separate truces with these content platforms.  

I once read that Microsoft has more servers in each of its 32 global data centers than SAP has on the earth. If SAP, which purportedly manages over half of the gross domestic product of the earth in its enterprise resource planning systems, can't compete at scale, how can OpenText or MicroFocus or Box?  

The question will become “Why don’t you move everything or leave everything in Office 365 or Google or AWS?”  

I predict the concept of organizations taking content out of Office 365, especially email, in order to govern it will cease to be a useful concept in 2017. Leave the repository driving to us.  


Simplicity and consistency will be the two goals here. Once all information is consistently and transparently tagged and managed, extracting insights and relationships will be so much easier.  

Information Managed 

Paper is convenient to read and is easy and lightweight to carry, but it has no place in the future. 

Wet signatures will give way to digital signatures. Information management will be a transparent, policy-driven background activity.  

Information is a subset of data. Systems will consistently apply tags across all object types. No one will ever consider archiving email to manage it again. 

Nothing on paper will be a record, unless viewed as an antiquity.  


Distinctions like information professional or knowledge worker carry no more meaning than water-consuming humans or electricity-consuming humans.  

These meaningless distinctions will be put aside in favor of people — just people. We are all information consuming and producing humans.  

Process Focus

Governance and IT as processes will (mostly) disappear from view for users. 

Processes are functional, as in Finance or HR or Engineering. Tools support processes, and governance is a transparent background element of these tools. Subject matter expertise in Finance or HR or Engineering includes information management administration and configuration.  

Learning Opportunities

IT Role 

IT's role (as it currently stands) will dwindle to almost non-existent. IT in the new age is akin to plumbing for water or electricians for electricity: it might be complex on the backend, but organizations don't want to think about it. 

Plug in and it works, except most of the work is done by cloud-based services and it is all wireless and William Gibson-ish. In the future, IT will handle administrative configuration and monitoring, not technology integration.  


Usability applies to the choice of apps (manly productivity) employees work with — and if it isn't usable, they will not work with it. 

Today's concept of usability focuses on the absence of choice. In the future, it will be about choice. Governance will move to a platform function, unrelated to usability, rather than an app function.  


Legal, HR and Business Departments will collectively decide what content needs to be governed from a privacy, access and retention perspective and will transparently enforce these rules at a content/tag level.

Containers and templates will automatically (and transparently) apply governance policy. 


There will be fewer solutions and the solutions that still exist will be akin to applications on iPhone or — applications residing on a platform. ECM or repository platform solutions face almost certain obliteration. Microsoft, AWS and Google are the competitive platforms.  

Transparent Systems Are Already Here

With all of this in mind, here is my revised version of Mancini's chart:  

revised version of ECM's Future: Transparent Systems

So what do I mean when I say "Transparent Systems"?

We can find examples of transparent systems that have existed for a few years now. Amazon’s One Click ordering is one example and another is how products you view on websites result in those ads that stalk you across the web.  

Transparent systems aggregate a multi-faceted understanding of who you are and what you are doing, in order to cater to you and to your organization’s requirements and governance policies.  

Microsoft's introduction of the Security and Compliance Center in the E5 tenant of Office 365 is the manifestation of its version of a transparent systems governance vision. 

Based on my discussions with Fortune 20 companies, this approach will cause a large number of them to (at minimum) question why they should classify, archive or manage content retention outside of Office 365. How can ECM vendors, whose business models depend on convincing large organizations to archive content outside of Office 365, contemplate survival in this world?  

While the solution may not be perfect today, the vision is unstoppable.

Joe Shepley did a terrific job describing the industry's reaction to and dilemmas surrounding Office 365's growing capabilities and cloud governance vision in his recent article, “Is Office 365 Going to Eat Your Lunch?” 

My follow up article will focus on how other vendors and partners can survive and prosper in this new world.   

Author's Note: I shared this article pre-publication with Mancini. He told me his thinking and that of AIIM generally changed as a result of our conversations. An upcoming white paper and his recent presentations have moved away from 'Systems of Understandings' for reasons similar to those I describe in this article.

About the author

Mike Alsup

Mike Alsup is chairman and founder of Gimmal, a Houston-based company that develops solutions for content governance and records management products inside SharePoint. He began his career with Accenture and Booz, Allen.

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