Magazine Article | November 20, 2007

Revealing SharePoint's ECM Identity

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Exactly how does Microsoft SharePoint 2007 fit into the ECM (enterprise content management) picture, and how does this affect the future ECM buying decisions of your business?

Integrated Solutions, December 2007

If you're currently in the market for a new ECM system or upgrade, chances are you're considering Microsoft SharePoint 2007 as a potential component in the solution. I mean, how can you not be? Microsoft has saturated the market with messaging regarding the ECM capabilities of SharePoint, and traditional ECM vendors seem to be stumbling over themselves in an effort to integrate their legacy applications with the SharePoint platform. While a great deal of activity and excitement is being generated around SharePoint, many end users are confused as to what all this hype means. For example, how does SharePoint truly fit into the ECM solution set? Is SharePoint, by itself, a complete ECM solution? What lasting impact will SharePoint have on the ECM market and how will this affect your future ECM buying decisions? This article will attempt to provide some insight on these and other questions surrounding SharePoint's ECM relevance.

The heavy marketing push Microsoft has placed behind promoting SharePoint's ECM capabilities has caused considerable confusion among potential ECM purchasers. According to Ken Burns, industry communications manager for Hyland Software, long-time ECM vendors share the blame with Microsoft for creating this confusion.

"For too long, ECM vendors and pundits have defined ECM as a software suite containing a laundry list of component applications," says Burns. "Under this model, it is assumed that a vendor's ability to solve business problems is simply a matter of checking off as many ECM product portfolio check boxes as they can. With this perception, it is understandable for people to assume that the array of applications contained in SharePoint is capable of solving all their content-related business problems. However, the reality is that ECM is not a software suite, but a defined IT market and technology-enabled business strategy that operates on many levels."

Thinking about an ECM suite as more than just a series of check boxes is one way to try and make sense of SharePoint's play in the ECM space. Another is to look more closely at SharePoint's roots and the software's current ECM capabilities. The fact of the matter is SharePoint was never designed to be an ECM product. It originated as a portal and collaboration tool designed to bring an end user community together to share information and communicate with ease. However, Microsoft quickly realized that when end users collaborate on a specific business process or operational activity, a crucial component to that interaction is some type of content (e.g. documents, e-mail, spreadsheets, graphs, etc.). Therefore, to create a strong collaboration platform, Microsoft needed to provide users with the ability to attach content as well as manage and track changes to that content. This was the genesis of the ECM capabilities that are part of SharePoint today.

Microsoft SharePoint 2007 is actually the third release of the product, but it is the first release that contains ECM attributes. Depending on the type of license you have, SharePoint provides general purpose intranet and externally facing Web site management capabilities, simple document approval workflows, library services and version control for Microsoft Office files, e-forms, team collaboration, and basic records management capabilities. However, even with all these attributes, SharePoint currently lacks some fundamental capabilities instrumental in developing an end-to-end ECM solution — namely document imaging and reports management (i.e. capturing and managing all output generated by key business applications such as accounting reports, inventory reports, ledger balances, etc.) functionality.

"Imaging and electronic reports management can comprise upwards of 70% of the content an organization needs to manage as part of an ECM implementation, and currently are not part of the SharePoint 2007 release," says Mike Ball, VP of marketing and product strategy for Clearview. "Furthermore, while SharePoint provides some great foundational elements for some out-of-the-box document workflows, it lacks the full workflow and BPM [business process management] capabilities really needed to support many of the complex process optimization and business efficiency standards today's businesses want to achieve."

Similar to the confusion regarding SharePoint's exact ECM capabilities, there is a common misconception among the business community that all of SharePoint's ECM features and functions are available for free with Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). This is not the case. While a base level of ECM functionality (e.g. issue tracking, collaboration, workflow foundations, file tracking and histories, basic document management, and versioning and metadata controls) come embedded with WSS as part of the Windows server system, users will have to invest in paid licenses as part of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) to benefit from the richer ECM capabilities that are part of SharePoint.

There are two types of MOSS CALs (client access licenses) — a standard edition CAL and an enterprise edition CAL. The standard edition CAL features advanced ECM capabilities such as out-of-the-box document workflows, policy management, Web content management, basic records management, and search capabilities for enterprise content and users. The enterprise edition CAL offers even more robust functionality such as e-forms capabilities, Web publishing capabilities, and basic data integration components.

So now that we've determined that SharePoint isn't a comprehensive ECM solution by itself and isn't free, why then is it generating so much excitement among ECM vendors and end users alike? There are several compelling reasons. The first has to do with SharePoint's capability to truly bring ECM to the masses.

"MOSS is the first true enterprise deployable ECM application, and it's an extension of the most widely adopted desktop productivity platform on the planet," says Hyland's Burns. "Despite the notion of 'enterprise' in ECM, very few ECM solutions ever get deployed on every desktop. They are usually deployed across a select few high-value processes. MOSS changes that game. It provides a framework that connects personal productivity tools with enterprise applications for core business processes." The pervasive and intuitive nature of Microsoft applications makes SharePoint a platform that makes a true enterprise-wide implementation of a content management strategy a conceivable reality. Plus, the fact that a highly recognized name like Microsoft is now promoting the benefits of ECM only helps to build the excitement surrounding the potential of SharePoint in the ECM mix. Adding to the desire among ECM vendors to partner with Microsoft and integrate with SharePoint is the fact that SharePoint 2007 already has a pretty strong foothold in the business community, particularly among SMBs (a market largely seeking to implement their first ECM solutions). At the time this article was written, there were already 85 million licensed users of Microsoft SharePoint 2007, representing 17,000 different customer institutions. This equates to more than $800 million in revenue for Microsoft in the first 10 months of the platform's availability and makes SharePoint the most successful product launch in Microsoft's corporate history.

Eager to tap into this existing customer base and create a compelling total ECM solution for future SharePoint customers, traditional ECM vendors are beginning to unveil their SharePoint integration strategies. According to Clearview's Ball, these strategies fall into three main categories. The first two categories are what Ball refers to as the coexistence strategy and the migration strategy. The coexistence strategy is one where a business may have a traditional ECM product or products already deployed in specific departments or for specific applications and now wants to leverage SharePoint for new departments and applications that want to use ECM. In order for these to worlds to coexist as elegantly as possible, many traditional ECM vendors have begun enabling the SharePoint user community to have visibility into their repositories. A smaller contingent of these vendors has also allowed users of their traditional ECM products to search and view content contained in SharePoint repositories as well. The migration strategy, on the other hand, suggests that content goes through various lifecycle phases and should be managed differently according to where the content is in its life cycle. For example, dynamic content (i.e. content that is still being edited and revised) is stored and managed in SharePoint, while fixed content (i.e. content at the end of its life cycle that can be stored as a business record) is moved to a traditional ECM repository. "Both the coexistence and migration strategies are flawed because they still require a business to deal with disparate information silos and maintain two different products with different user interfaces and experiences based on the user or where content sits in its life cycle," says Ball. "Furthermore, these strategies don't provide businesses with uniformity in their compliance and governance policies."

The third strategy, and the one Clearview's Ball promotes, is one where a traditional ECM vendor encapsulates SharePoint as a key component within the overall ECM architecture. "This approach allows a business to eliminate all the functional redundancies between SharePoint and legacy ECM systems, retain the Microsoft-familiar user experience throughout the enterprise, and avoid access or storage confusion," adds Ball.

Regardless of which strategy you choose to employ, your organization will need to carefully consider the integration of traditional ECM components if it expects to maximize the benefits of a SharePoint-based ECM deployment. "While Microsoft does intend to broaden the ECM functionalities of SharePoint in future releases, I do not see SharePoint as ever being seen as a holistic ECM solution," says Ball. "For instance, Microsoft has publicly stated that it has no intentions of ever making imaging part of the SharePoint platform. That being said, I believe SharePoint is going to become to ECM what SAP is to the ERP world. It is going to become an infrastructure platform that will have a broad touch and interaction with all aspects of business information activity within a midsize organization."

It remains to be seen what form the SharePoint platform will ultimately take in the ECM world. It is already being viewed as a compelling ECM component in the platform's infancy, and some ECM industry veterans believe that SharePoint has the potential to forever change the face of the space. "The potential exists that, in five or more years, traditional ECM vendors will get out of the repository business and focus exclusively on developing industry and process-specific applications," says Burns. "The repository may one day become the domain of content infrastructure platforms, like Microsoft SharePoint."