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ECM is dead. Long live ECM…

December 2, 2013 7 comments

It’s Autumn. The trees are losing their leaves, the nights are getting longer, it’s getting cold and grey and generally miserable. It’s also the time for the annual lament of the Enterprise Content Management industry and ECM… the name that refuses to die!

At least once a year, ECM industry pundits go all depressed and introspect and predict, once again, that our industry is too wide, too narrow, too complex, too simplified, too diverse or too boring and dying or not dying or dead and buried. Once again this year, Laurence Hart (aka Pie), Marko Sillanpää, Daniel Antion, John Mancini and, undoubtedly, several other esteemed colleagues, with a collective experience of several hundred years of ECM on their backs, will try (and fail) to reconcile and rationalize the semantics of one of the most diverse sectors in the software industry.

You will find many interesting points and universal truths about ECM if you follow the links to these articles above. Some I agree with wholeheartedly, some I would take with a pinch of salt.

But let me assure you, concerned reader, that the ECM industry is not going anywhere, the name will not change and we will again be lamenting its demise, next Autumn!

There is a fundamental reason why this industry is so robust and so perplexing: This is not a single industry, or even a single coherent portfolio of products. It’s a complex amalgamation of technologies that co-exist and complement each other, with the only common denominator being an affinity for managing “stuff” that does not fit in a traditional relational database. And every time one of these technologies grows out of favour, another new discipline joins the fold: Documents and emails and archives and repositories and processes and cases and records and images and retention and search and analytics and ETL and media and social and collaboration and folksonomies and cloud, and, and, and… The list, and its history, is long. The reason this whole hotchpotch will continue to be called Enterprise Content Management, is that we don’t have a better collective noun that even vaguely begins to describe what these functions do for the business. And finally, more and more of the market (you know, the real people out there, not us ECM petrolheads…) are starting to recognise the term, however vague, inappropriate and irrational it may be to the purists among us.

And there is one more reason: Content Management is not a technology, it’s an operational discipline. Organisations will manage content with or without ECM products. It’s just faster, cheaper and more consistent if they use tools.

As I said, if you have an academic interest in this ECM industry, the articles above are definitely worth reading. For my part, I would like to add one more thought into that mix:

The word “Enterprise” in “ECM” has been the source of much debate. And whilst I agree with Laurence that originally some of the vendors attempted to promote the idea of a single centralised ECM repository for the whole enterprise, that idea was quickly abandoned in the early ’00s as generally a bad idea. Anyone who has tried to deploy this approach in a real world environment, can give you a dozen reasons why it’s really, really a very naïve idea.

Nevertheless, Content Management has always been, and will always be “Enterprise”, in the sense that it very rarely works as a simple departmental solution. There is very little value in doing that, especially when you combine it with process management, which adds the most value when crossing inter-departmental boundaries. It is also “Enterprise” in the sense that as a platform it can support both vertical and horizontal applications across most parts of an organisation. Finally, there are certain applications of ECM, that can only be deployed as “Enterprise” tools: It would be madness to design Records Management, eMail archiving, eDiscovery or Social collaboration solutions, on a department by department basis. There is no point!

That’s why, in my opinion at least, the term ECM will live for a long time yet… Long Live ECM!

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A clouded view of Records and Auto-Classification

When you see Lawrence Hart (@piewords), Christian Walker (@chris_p_walker) and Cheryl McKinnon (@CherylMcKinnon) involved in a debate on Records Management, you know it’s time to pay attention! 🙂

This morning, I was reading Lawrence’s blog titled “Does Records Management Give Content Management a Bad Name?”, which picks on one of the points in Cheryl’s article “It’s a Digital-First World: Five Trends Reshaping Records Management As You Know It”, with some very insightful comments added by Christian.  I started leaving a comment under Lawrence’s blog (which I will still do, pointing back to this) but there are too many points I wanted to add to the debate and it was becoming too long…

So, here is my take:

First of all, I want to move away from the myth that RM is a single requirement. Organisations look to RM tools as the digital equivalent to a Swiss Army Knife, to address multiple requirements:

  • Classification – Often, the RM repository is the only definitive Information Management taxonomy managed by the organisation. Ironically, it mostly reflects the taxonomy needed by retention management, not by the operational side of the business. Trying to design a taxonomy that serves both masters, leads to the huge granularity issues that Lawrence refers to.
  • Declaration – A conscious decision to determine what is a business record and what is not. This is where both the workflow integration and the auto-classification have a role to play, and where in an ideal world we should try to remove the onus of that decision from the hands of the end-user. More on that point later…
  • Retention management – This is the information governance side of the house. The need to preserve the records for the duration that they must legally be retained, move them to the most cost-effective storage medium based on their business value, and actively dispose of them when there is no regulatory or legal reason to retain them any longer.
  • Security & auditability – RM systems are expected to be a “safe pair of hands”. In the old world of paper records management, once you entrusted your important and valuable documents to the records department, you knew that they were safe. They would be preserved and looked after until you ask for them. Digital RM is no different: It needs to provide a safe-haven for important information, guaranteeing its integrity, security, authenticity and availability. Supported by a full audit trail that can withstand legal scrutiny.

Auto-categorisation or auto-classification, relates to both the first and the second of these requirements: Classification (using linguistic, lexical and semantical analysis to identify what type of document it is, and where it should fit into the taxonomy) and Declaration (deciding if this is a business document worthy of declaration as a record). Auto-classification is not new, it’s been available both as a standalone product  and integrated within email and records capture systems for several years. But its adoption has been slow, not for technological reasons, but because culturally both compliance and legal departments are reluctant to accept that a machine can be good enough to be allowed to make this type of decisions. And even thought numerous studies have proven that machine-based classification can be far more accurate and consistent than a room full of paralegals reading each document, it will take a while before the cultural barriers are lifted. Ironically, much of the recent resurgence and acceptance of auto-classification is coming from the legal field itself, where the “assisted review” or “predictive coding” (just a form of auto-classification to you and me) wars between eDiscovery vendors, have brought the technology to the fore, with judges finally endorsing its credibility [Magistrate Judge Peck in Moore v. Publicis Groupe & MSL Group, 287 F.R.D. 182 (S.D.N.Y.2012), approving use of predictive coding in a case involving over 3 million e-mails.].

The point that Christian Walker is making in his comments however is very important: Auto-classification can help but it is not the only, or even the primary, mechanism available for Auto-Declaration. They are not the same thing. To take the records declaration process away from the end-user, requires more than understanding the type of document and its place in a hierarchical taxonomy. It needs the business context around the document, and that comes from the process. A simple example to illustrate this would be a document with a pricing quotation. Auto-classification can identify what it is, but not if it has been sent to a client or formed part of a contract negotiation. It’s that latter contextual fact that makes it a business record. Auto-Declaration from within a line-of-business application, or a process management system is easy: You already know what the document is (whether it has been received externally, or created as part of the process), you know who it relates to (client id, case, process) and you know what stage in its lifecycle it is at (draft, approved, negotiated, signed, etc.). These give enough definitive context to be able to accurately identify and declare a record, without the need to involve the users or resort to auto-classification or any other heuristic decision. That’s assuming, of course, that there is an integration between the LoB/process and the RM system, to allow that declaration to take place automatically.

The next point I want to pick up is the issue of Cloud. I think cloud is a red herring to this conversation. Cloud should be an architecture/infrastructure and procurement/licensing decision, not a functional one. Most large ECM/RM vendors can offer similar functionality hosted on- and off-premises, and offer SaaS payment terms rather than perpetual licensing. The cloud conversation around RM however, comes to its own sticky mess where you start looking at guaranteeing location-specific storage (critical issue for a lot of European data protection and privacy regulation) and when you start looking at the integration between on-premise and off-premise systems (as in the examples of auto-declaration above). I don’t believe that auto-classification is a significant factor in the cloud decision making process.

Finally, I wanted to bring another element to this discussion. There is another RM disruptive trend that is not explicit in Cheryl’s article (but it fits under point #1) and it addresses the third RM requirement above: “In-place” Retention Management. If you extract the retention schedule management from the RM tool and architect it at a higher logical level, then retention and disposition can be orchestrated across multiple RM repositories, applications, collaboration environments and even file systems, without the need to relocate the content into a dedicated traditional RM environment. It’s early days (and probably a step too far, culturally, for most RM practitioners) but the huge volumes of currently unmanaged information are becoming a key driver for this approach. We had some interesting discussions at the IRMS conference this year (triggered partly because of IBM’s recent acquisition of StoredIQ, into their Information Lifecycle Governance portfolio) and James Lappin (@JamesLappin) covered the concept in his recent blog here: The Mechanics on Manage-In-Place Records Management Tools. Well worth a read…

So to summarise my points: RM is a composite requirement; Auto-Categorisation is useful and is starting to become legitimate. But even though it can participate, it should not be confused with Auto-Declaration of records;  “Cloud” is not a functional decision, it’s an architectural and commercial one.

I buy, sell, market, service… When did ECM become a Monte Carlo celeb?

P1030993sI am writing this at 40,000 feet, on a morning flight to Nice, final destination Monte-Carlo, for what promises to be a very busy 4-day event. The European leg of IBM’s Smarter Commerce Global Summit runs from 17-20 June at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, and in a strange twist of fate I am neither a speaker nor an attendee. I am staff!

The whole event is structured around the four commerce pillars of IBM’s Smarter Commerce cycle: Buy, Sell, Market and Service. Each pillar represents a separate logical track at the event, covering the software, services and customer stories.

Enough with the corporate promo already, I hear you say, where does Enterprise Content Management come into this? Surely, SmarterCommerce is all about retail, transactional systems, procurement, supply chain, CRM and marketing campaign tools?

Yes and no. It’s true that in the fast moving, high volume commercial transaction world, these tools share the limelight. But behind every new promotion, there is a marketing campaign review; behind every supplier and distributor channel, there is a contract negotiation; behind every financial transaction there is compliance; behind every customer complaint there is a call centre; and behind every customer loyalty scheme, there is an application form: ECM underpins every aspect of Commerce. From the first approach to a new supplier to the friendly resolution of a loyal customer’s problem, there is a trail of communication and interaction, that needs to be controlled, managed, secured and preserved. Sometimes paper-based, but mostly electronic.

ECM participates in all commerce cycles: Buy (think procurement contracts and supplier purchase orders and correspondence), Sell (invoices, catalogues, receipts, product packaging, etc.), Market (collateral review & approval, promotion compliance, market analysis, etc.).

But the Service cycle is where ECM has the strongest contribution, and its role goes much beyond providing a secure repository for archiving invoices and compliance documents: The quality, speed and efficiency of customer service, relies on understanding your customer. It relies on knowing what communication you have previously had with your customer or supplier (regardless of the channel they chose), it relies on understanding their sentiment about your products, it relies on anticipating and quickly resolving their requests and their problems.

As a long-standing ECM advocate, I have had the privilege of leading the Service track content at this year’s IBM Smarter Commerce Global Summit in Monaco. A roller-coaster two month process, during which we assembled over 250 breakout sessions for the event, covering all topics related to commerce cycles, and in particular for customer service: Advanced Case management for handling complaints and fraud investigations; Content Analytics for sentiment analysis on social media; Mobile interaction monitoring, to optimise the user’s experience; Channel-independent 360 degree view of customer interaction; Digitising patient records to minimise hospital waiting times; Paperless, on-line billing; Collaboration tools to maximise the responsiveness of support staff; and many more.

A global panel of speakers, with a common goal: putting the customer at the very centre of the commercial process and offering the best possible experience with the most efficient tools.

More comments after the event…

Lawyers are from Mars, Technology is from Venus

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I spent two excellent days last week at the Legal Week’s Corporate Counsel Forum, where I’ve met several new and interesting people and learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know.

But I left the conference very frustrated.

The forum audience comprises primarily senior lawyers: General Counsel and Heads of Legal departments. The topics covered were as wide as crisis management, ‘moral’ compass, employment, Bribery Act, ‘Tesco’ law, cross-border teams, intellectual property, competition, etc., etc. Fascinating subjects, some of which admittedly I knew nothing about and learned a lot. It gave me a small insight into “a day in the life of a General Counsel” and the sheer volume of diversity that they have to be knowledgeable about, deal with and protect themselves (and their company) from.

And in 8 out of 10 conference sessions I wanted to shout: “There is a solution that can help here!”.

It amazes me (and frustrates me!) how much of the technology that other parts of the organisation take for granted seems to be absent from the legal department. As if they are the poor relatives in the organisation. I am not talking about highly specialised legal technologies such as eDiscovery, Content Analytics or even Information Risk & Compliance Governance (although these too are available and seem to be missing from many legal officers’ armoury, but that’s another conversation…). I am talking about basic capabilities that make the daily office operation significantly more efficient:

  • Digitising paper – avoiding the costs, avoiding delays of shifting piles of paper around and the risk of losing them by accident or in a crisis
  • Electronic document repositories – managing security and access controls, reducing duplication, managing versions, allowing online access from anywhere and simple searching
  • Case management – allowing lawyers to organise their work, negotiate with third parties, monitor progress, apply rules and generate reports automatically instead of using spreadsheets
  • Email management – capturing, filtering, organising and routing emails, ensuring compliance
  • Collaboration software – communicating amongst large teams, dispersed in different geographies and timezones

The list goes on… This isn’t trailblazing, these are automation tools and capabilities that have proven their value and have been helping organisations remove basic inefficiencies, for the last 10-20 years.

I am not advocating that technology is the answer to everything. Some business problems can be improved with some common sense and a bit of reorganising. Others are far too complex to be tackled by technology alone. But there is certainly enough basic technology to make a General Counsel’s life much simpler.

One of the key messages coming out of the conference was the resource constraints that legal departments are facing. Too much to do, too little time, too few people, too much information to process, too much knowledge to upkeep, too many risks to avoid, too many departments to coordinate, too many regulations to adhere to and too many stakeholders to appease.

So why are you wasting time on menial tasks that can be simplified, automated, or eliminated by use of simple tools, instead of using that time effectively to add value to the elements of the process where technology can’t  help.

Whenever I asked that question, the answer is typically “We don’t control the budget” or “We have other priorities” or “We don’t have the time to look at new tools”, etc.

Excuses! The question here is not “have I got time to worry about technology?”. The question is “Can I afford the luxury of NOT using it?”.  If these technologies can improve the productivity and reduce costs in the operations department, the marketing department, the sales department, the procurement department, why not use them to improve the efficiency of the legal department too?

(I would love to hear your views on this, especially if you are and in-house lawyer or work in a legal department)

BPM and ECM: The war that never was!

Today I read a very well written and entertaining post from Adam Deane, titled “BPM and ECM – The War Begins”

Unfortunately it’s the “Dad’s Army” (aka the vendors…) view of the war. In the real world (Line-of-business) ECM and BPM have made peace years ago and for the last 20 years there have been very few ECM implementations without process elements, and vice-verse, very few BPM implementations that don’t involve documents, forms, images, or other forms of interaction with the knowledge workers and the customers. The only “pure-play” BPM solutions that don’t involve elements of ECM are straight-through-processing and application integration projects.

The “war” Adam is describing is a SuperMarket war:  Inevitably you need to eat both protein and fruit… Will you buy your ECM and BPM rations from IBM, Oracle, EMC, Microsoft, your local FairTrade Co-op (is that Alfresco?) Or will you support the local economy by shopping at the smaller local pure-play traders buying separately from the butcher’s, the baker’s and the greengrocer’s?

As a consumer, it’s always good to have a choice! 🙂

George

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