Businesses of all sizes bemoan the problems of managing the paper documents that flow through their organizations every day. Accounting, human resources, manufacturing, distribution - it seems as though every business function has reams of paper attached to it. Of course, there is an entire industry based on converting these paper documents to digital images and then managing the digital images on your company's LAN or intranet. Okay, problem solved.
Over the past few years, companies of all sizes have pushed many of their business processes to Web-based applications. Joining this Web-based business information online are such things as marketing initiatives, press releases, and e-catalogs. Of course, all of this online data is dynamic and needs to be constantly updated, redacted, and deleted. Before businesses could fret over this dilemma, vendors developed and marketed Web content management systems. Okay, problem solved.
The advent of document management systems and Web content management systems brought about an obvious question in the minds of end users. "Is there one system that will manage both network content and Web content?" While the question is clear, the answer is pretty murky.
Generally speaking, these end users are crying out for what is known as an enterprise content management (ECM) system. According to AIIM International, The Enterprise Content Management Association, such solutions handle the creation, capture, delivery, customization, and management of content across entire enterprises. In this definition, "content" represents a broad range of unstructured data - ASCII text to images to multimedia objects.
Plenty of vendors claim to offer such ECM solutions, but few have lengthy lists of references. Vendors can offer more reference sites of companies that have only a Web content management solution in place. Other users may simply have a traditional document management system. The onus, as always, is on the end user when selecting an appropriate vendor that can deliver what is needed.
B2B Necessitates Enterprise Content Management
If your company has no interest in the B2B (business-to-business) revolution and thinks the Internet is no way to conduct business, then you can probably stop reading. For those who have continued reading, ECM should be of great interest. To support the underlying transactions that drive the B2B environment, companies are forced to present and distribute information in many different forms and formats. This varies from document management where the end result is always a document. It might not be a hard-copy document, but in the end, it is a representation of the original document.
In addition to various content types, ECM solutions allow users to transform content. For instance, an image of a purchase order document can be delivered to the desktop and then printed. But, that purchase order can also be distributed to a browser environment or wireless PDA (personal digital assistant). B2B transactions also require data to be extracted - in this case, from the purchase order. "Document management systems and ECM systems have some similarities in that both offer locks, version control, and workflow to support business processes. But, that's where the similarities end," states Gordon Kent, formerly a director of product marketing at EBT. "ECM drives the B2B process. The importance is placed on content type and content purpose."
Mike Ball, vice president of marketing at SER Solutions, further explains, "True enterprise content management is more powerful than just managing Web content. It's about being able to manage all content at all points of contact with customers, suppliers, and partners. It doesn't matter if this takes the form of a Web presentment or a desktop presentment." Ball's company offers a suite of integrated and stand-alone software products that play in the knowledge management space. More specifically, SER Solutions is carving out a space that the company is calling, "Knowledge Enabling Technology."
ECM Addresses Common Pain Points
In the area of transforming unstructured data from one form to another, almost every company can appreciate the effort it takes to update or post information on a company's Web site. It's not uncommon for nontechnical marketing employees to be faced with the technical task of updating a company's site. While tools exist that make this task easier, employees are still required to know basic HTML to accomplish their objectives. In reality, most of the information created by these nontechnical employees is in the form of Microsoft Word documents. Furthermore, this information may have to be pushed out to wireless devices or be used in some B2B transactions - both would require the data to be transformed again. "Nontechnical people are being asked to do something - that by its very definition is - technical. You can imagine the pain that this causes in terms of training and human resources, for example," says Kent.
SER Solutions also weighed in with several pain points of their customers who are in need of enterprise content management solutions. First, there is the need to capture information in an automated way and then store that information in a repository. Second, the captured information needs to be made available to end users when they need it, wherever they need it. Third, companies need a way to capture and save the knowledge of employees. In the event that an employee leaves, the intellectual property will be available to the company without the presence of the former employee. "It all comes down to creating and capturing knowledge that allows you to make faster and more informed decisions. That's what it's all about," adds SER Solutions' Ball.
In addition to employee turnover, companies also experience turmoil after mergers and acquisitions. Acquiring a smaller company may mean a Web site redesign for the larger organization. Site redesigns are also common when companies change their names, branding techniques, or product lines. The obvious question becomes, "Who is going to quickly make all of these changes?" Companies in these situations usually have two alternatives. They can either turn to an IT staff that is probably very stressed with limited man-hours to spare. Or, they can rely on nontechnical employees from other departments, like marketing. While not a panacea, an ECM solution may be the best answer for this particular problem.
ECM Aimed At Midmarket And Higher
A document management solution requires the purchaser to have a document. A Web content management system requires the purchaser to have Web content. It follows, that an ECM solution is bigger than both of the previously mentioned technology purchases. While document and content management systems are available for companies of all sizes, ECM solutions are typically reserved for the upper end of the midmarket to Fortune 500 enterprises.
Ball points out the SER Solutions' products are scalable to the point that a community bank could benefit from the same software that a current 40,000-seat financial institution is using. In practice, however, the software is not currently aimed at the smaller players in the market. "We are not abandoning the smaller end of the market because those companies need solutions, too," says Ball. "Right now, however, we are taking a solutions approach and targeting larger organizations and opportunities."
Kent agrees that opportunities abound in the upper end of the marketplace. This is especially true for companies that built their own ECM systems to stay at the forefront of the e-commerce movement. These companies, for instance, developed in-house systems that managed catalogs and content online. While these systems are in place, ECM vendors like their chances of displacing them with packaged solutions. "Most of the data from analysts and our people support the fact that these in-house systems are being replaced. Most of these systems ended up like Frankenstein - they were too tough to manage, and they turned on their creators."
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at EdH@corrypub.com.