Going Digital: An overview

There has been a ‘promise’ of getting rid of paper altogether in organisations or for persons in general. Unfortunately that day is still some time away for most of us and may not come until all the sources of paper have been used.

In this series of posts I am exploring the current technological capabilities that are available today. The reason for me to explore this topic is that the business benefits can be quite significant for an organisation, such as:

  • Information can be accessed anywhere and anytime, especially if you have multiple locations
  • Information can be processed more efficiently, especially when multiple persons are involved
  • Compliance needs can be addressed at the very beginning, when information enters and/or leaves the organisation
  • Business continuity concerns can be addressed by reducing risks of information loss
  • The required office space can be reduced

High level there are three views that I would like to explore as depicted in the figure below.

There is the incoming communications of which a significant part is already electronic such as e-mail. However there is still phyisical mail that is being sent to an organisation, for example signed contracts with clients or complaints. This is a part which is difficult to control.

The use of paper within your organisation is something which you can control much better. And then there is the outgoing communications to your shareholders, clients, government agencies, etc.

In order for an organisation to have the capability to become digital this means that there are a number of key (IT) capabilities have to be part of your IT’s infrastructure. For example scanning facilities, indexing services, software that allows users to annotate PDFs, workflow / routing, digital signatures and records management.

A first blog about digital signatures can be found here.

Can Enterprise Content Management become ‘plumbing’?

A long time ago I had an interesting discussion with one of my then managers whether ECM should be plumbing or not. This was around the time the people in my group started moving towards ECM related projects and we as a group were still trying to define ECM as a domain for ourselves. At that time my bold statement was that it should be plumbing from an end-users perspective and try to get away from the IT focus. Do I still think this is the case… now that I am much more experienced? Let’s take a look at both sides…

But first what do I mean by ‘plumbing’? In the physical world we have grown up with electricity and reliable water available at any time and we do not have to worry about there being enough quantity* and that complies with the agreed standards such as voltage and frequency for electricity. Having this kind of infrastructure in place has enabled countless different applications from microwaves to internet and from good tasting coffee at your local coffee shop to Jacuzzis in your garden. What I mean in case of ECM ‘plumbing’ is that an end-user or business owner does not have to worry about there being sufficient capacity or availability. Obviously this means a lot of work for the IT organisation.

Why should ECM be ‘plumbing’?
Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just store your project team’s documents somewhere, collaborate with third parties and not have to worry about using the correct (minimum) metadata. While at the same time having your specific security requirements met and no one from IT bothering you about how much space you are going to use. And everything is setup in a matter of minutes or a few hours with almost no effort.

Records managers can do their job without involving busy end-users when there is a compliance issue or litigation against the company. If every new repository in the organisation, regardless of type of content, is setup according to records management standards from the start or, even better, is seamlessly connected to whatever system the records managers use to do their work. This would save lengthy and, let’s face it, boring discussions with business owners or the IT department to convince them of the need.

When there is a great opportunity in the market which demands for speed then it would be great if you could setup an external website, without having to go through a formal process of approvals from IT architects, having infrastructure discussions, and waiting for resources to become available to capture this market before someone else does this.


  • If setup correctly this can benefit end-users tremendously through speed and ease of implementation. There are limited number of technologies in use which lowers the learning curve for new employees and reduces licensing costs,. It is easier to keep the IT resource pool trained and relevant, easier to aggregate content / provide access to content through search capabilities across different repositories and there is more time available to improve existing tools.
  • There is less lengthy involvement of end-users required in IT projects
  • Overall there should be less costs involved in the long run
  • Easier to implement compliance initiatives
  • Basic IT infrastructure setup is arranged from the start such as security, internal/external access, storage, and scalability


  • Setting up ECM related services can take a long time and there’s a risk of business needs not being met with sufficient speed
  • Standard tools cannot always be used by everyone and require a sound process to be able to deviate from the standard
  • Selecting technologies to provide services is more critical because when a service becomes successful it will be more difficult to switch
  • Requires top management commitment, significant budgets and active support
  • Requires consensus across departments/divisions to become successful. Governance across various parties is always more complex
  • Risks of the creation of a bureaucratic support organisation limiting the speed of implementation

Please note: in some case it could be possible to use externally hosted or cloud services instead of developing service in house which could reduce the initial costs and possibly make switching easier (provided there is a good migration path available).

Why should ECM NOT be plumbing?
If there are no limitations regarding technology choices and end-users have full control. For example your team is new to the organisation and is already familiar with a specific tool that is not yet available within the organisation. Having to learn a new tool could take some time for them.

Another situation may arise where there is a group of end-users with unique requirements that are difficult to implement with a generic tool while there are special tools in the market for such a group of end-users. An example, from personal experience, is that is a significant effort to implement the requirements of a legal team in a generic tool such as MS Sharepoint or EMC Documentum.


  • Unique situations can be addressed without being limited by the current standards and available tools
  • There are now many tools available in the cloud or hosted that can be setup quickly at limited costs
  • Less commitment from top management required
  • Governance is less complex on application level as there are less parties involved
  • Smaller budgets required (but in total for the organisation it could be more)
  • Potentially faster implementation, especially if it is only for a smaller group of end-users
  • Less need for consensus across departments/divisions required


  • Potentially many tools available within the organisation resulting in higher license costs, a higher learning curve for employees, multiple tools that do the same thing (more or less),…
  • Requires a more diverse skill set from the IT department
  • Requires significant end-user involvement
  • Potentially reinventing the wheel several times
  • More overall effort required on installations, upgrades and maintenance of applications
  • More effort required to aggregate content or make content available in search capabilities
  • More due diligence required before a new tool can be used. For example when using new cloud based or hosted applications there may be a need for involvement of security personnel, legal counsels, records managers, etc

My ‘revised’ conclusion:
ECM should be both… plumbing and no plumbing at the same. There are elements of ECM that would be highly beneficial to an organisation if these would be part of the ‘plumbing’ within the organisation. For example repository services for documents, records, and digital assets. There could be a service to automatically setup internal collaboration spaces / workspaces … It could be possible to automatically archive content and support for business applications such as ERP.

However there will always be situations that are unique where it does not make sense to setup services upfront or are only for a specific type of end-users that have their specific justifiable requirements.

So when should an organisation consider investing in the development of ECM ‘plumbing’?

  • The organisation has a well defined vision & strategy regarding the application of ECM within the organisation. The end-user communities and business owners have a business need that can be fulfilled with the service.
  • There should be sufficient scale and reuse of the plumbing. In other words the functionality should be sufficiently broad to support many users and situations.
  • The services can be setup in a way that requires little resources or no resources in every new setup.
  • The organisation can commit for the long run as it will require a significant amount of effort to get it right and there are sufficient resources, including budget, to improve and maintain once a service is setup. Furthermore there is an appropriate governance structure in place to deal with the current and future developments.
  • The service can be setup based on internal and external standards. This should reduce future replacement of technology
  • The service will not be limited based on technology considerations such as storage capacity available, compliance with the organisations security standards or network capacity. If a service is attractive to end-users this will kill it right away because it cannot deliver on promise.



Can someone know everything about Enterprise Content Management?

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is a term that has been around for quite some time now. I myself have been working with ECM components from the start of my career although I would not have been able to classify this as ECM at the time…

There are various definitions about ECM but most seem to agree that ECM includes subdomains such as:

  • Document Management
  • Records Management
  • Workflow Management
  • Web Content Management
  • Digital Asset Management
  • (Enterprise) Search

There are various other domains such as Collaboration, E-mail Management or Business Process Management that could be added depending who you would ask.

Each of these can be used in numerous ways separately or combined to fulfil the needs of users, departments and businesses. For example an external facing corporate website could be managed with a WCM system, have a search engine attached and the images and videos presented could come from a DAM system. Typically the publishing process would be tightly controlled by the Public Relations department or a Communications department.

Another example could be the storing of matter file related documents by Legal Counsels using a Document Management system* to provide the need for secure storage, document collaboration, access control, and basic progress tracking.

The last example, to demonstrate the fast possibilities for ECM technologies, is the use of an Enterprise Search tool setup to provide a unified search function across different repositories to help users find information they need for their work such as templates, process descriptions, wiki pages containing relevant knowledge, etc.

In each of these examples and each implementation there are different business needs fulfilled, different users are involved, different business processes involved and different types of content is being stored and managed. These subdomains would not have been lumped together if there were no similarities.

For example all content is likely to have a defined life cycle, there workflows involved**, in order to manage the content there is a need for meta-data to be collected, etc. Due to these and other similarities it is possible for experienced persons to extrapolate their previous experiences to other subdomains and may still being able to be effective. Especially if they involve ECM technology and process specialists.

Document Management and Records Management have many similarities if they are related to Documents as content. However Records Managers are also very much interested in records that are not documents such as e-mail threads or Instant Messaging conversations. These are not just other types of content but also require different tools to capture.

“Can someone know everything about Enterprise Content Management?“

My answer is “No”,however in order for someone to be able to be effective in the application of ECM regardless of their roles:

  • A person needs at least a good understanding of the different subdomains
  • A person should be aware of his/her knowledge limitations and use ECM specialists for the subdomain you are dealing with (if you are not that person)
  • A person should be aware of persons that claim they know everything about ECM and are likely to have a preference or sweet spot regarding one or at best a few subdomains.

So where do I stand? I do not know everything about ECM either!!! I have touched almost every ECM subdomains in my consulting career to varying degrees. With respect to ECM I am the most experienced with Document Management because in all my projects this topic has been either the main focus or was a component to be used (even in my non-ECM projects). A good second is Web Content Management.

*) There are also specialised systems
**) automated or manual