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OMG! ECM is OCD for LOB!

We are obsessed! It dawned on me the other day, when I was trying to write up a requirements questionnaire for a client who is implementing an archiving system.

When I say “we”, I mean the ECM professionals. You need to have a good deal of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) to be in the ECM business. Whether we are records managers, archivists, consultants, document managers or process designers.

We love things being neat. We love organising information. We obsess about making sure that everything is captured and has a place to go. We love our folders and hierarchies and fileplans. We put labels on everything: We tag and categorise, and add metadata. And then we make lists, and lists of lists, to be able to find stuff. We need rules to abide by, and ideally we like to make the rules ourselves. And we like things that repeat and work the same way every time. We want to know who is who and we are paranoid about security, in case someone sees something they shouldn’t. We need things to be predictable and under control and we don’t like exceptions.

Doesn’t that sound like OCD to you? Come on, admit it. I dare you to try and convince me otherwise…

Now, is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. The business and to a certain degree the law, needs this kind of rigour and precision. Vast amounts of information would be forever lost at the bottom of the sock drawer, if we didn’t organise things properly. Decisions would take a lot longer and any kind of auditability and transparency would be questionable. The get-on-your-bike-and-see-where-it-takes-you approach does not work in business. Correct? Well, maybe…

ECM is on a collision course. The world of tight controls and neat labels fundamentally contradicts the free Enterprise 2.0 spirit of collaboration and social media. Blogs, wikis, Twitter and Googlewave are there to allow everyone to jump in and do their bit. In real-time. There are very few imposed rules. The blending of personal opinion and work interaction is encouraged. Traditional barriers and organisational structures (from the department to the whole corporation or even across industries) are torn down in favour of exchanging ideas and learning from each other. We don’t have to preserve everything. It’s OK for information to end up in a heap, where analytics can find insights that traditional ECM discipline couldn’t. It’s OK for large communities of common interest – very much like Open Source software – to contribute, correct, expand and share knowledge for the benefit of the common good. It’s OK to have ad-hoc processes that define themselves reactively, based on contextual priorities instead of prescribed recipe.

All of this seemingly anarchic chaos, is revolutionising information management and knowledge sharing. But it has also created a lot of anxiety for most of us OCD types, who still think in terms of folders and hierarchies, and metadata and labels and disposition dates. Will there be a new generation of “free-style” ECM to cater for this? Will we end up with two Information management disciplines – “tightly managed” and “freeflow”? Will the legal and regulatory systems move with the times or shut their eyes pretending the change is not happening? Only time will tell…

But next time you are thinking of architecting an ECM environment, don’t assume that your neat little boxes and clearly labelled compartments will be there forever. They will not!

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Are Content Analytics turning the grubby ECM worm into a butterfly?

Colleagues that have known me for a while, have all heard me bemoaning the use of the term “unstructured” to describe text-based content. Without boring you again to tears, my main issue is that the ECM industry has been largely treating content files as amorphous “unstructured” blobs, ignoring the rich value that is locked inside these content objects.

For the last twenty years or so, ECM systems have been providing a cocoon, where documents and media files have been stored, preserved, secured, archived and generally left to their own devices. But we have been focusing in protecting the whole container, the box, based on the label it has outside and only looking inside the box, one box at a time.

There is change afoot! 2010 looks set to be the year of Content Analytics, which promises to finally unlock the value that is locked inside our gigantic festering ECM repositories. And if the early success signs of IBM’s new Content Analytics software is anything to go by, we are starting to witness a fundamental transformation in the way content is leveraged in large organisations.

Much in the same way that Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence transformed the bland data storage provided by databases in the mid-90s, Content Analytics is today bringing natural language processing, trends analysis, contextual discovery and predictive analytics to the “unstructured” world.

Purists will argue that these algorithms are not new and, to a certain extent, that is true. However, this is the first time that we are seeing these technologies applied easily, (i.e. with off-the-shelf products, without the need of a PhD statistician or linguist by your side…) in real commercial applications, to solve real business problems: Car manufacturers avoiding recalls with early fault trends analysis; Pharmaceutical companies recognising equipment failure trends much earlier; large multi-nationals saving millions in litigation fees, etc.

The ECM industry may still be thriving, but in terms of innovation it has reached a plateau that makes most of us uncomfortable (or complacent… depending on your point of view). Basic content management functionality is being commoditised with CMIS, OpenSource and SharePoint leading the charge. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the natural maturity curve for any 20-year technology sector. We’ve created a very big ECM cocoon and we’ve filled it to the brim with content worms. It’s time to innovate again!

Making no apologies for the crass analogy (it is March after all and, allegedly, spring is coming…), Content Analytics are starting to finally poke the cocoon, making the value of content slowly emerge, transformed from archived fodder into real business insight.

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