Will losing the battle for collaboration be the last nail in the coffin of ECM?


The well-known view of AIIM on ECMEnterprise Content Management (ECM) and its predecessor Electronic Document Management (EDM) have been around since the beginning of the internet age.

ECM was born out of the need to better – often centrally – manage content and is an umbrella term covering several activities regarding ‘enterprise’ content and along with it various ‘subsolutions’.

Expanding from their primary visions of capturing, managing, storing, preserving and delivering information, to include a broader set of capabilities:

  1. Document Management – The traditional use case, facilitating onboarding of the documents, version control, content search and retrieval.
  2. Records Management – Allowing organizations to control important information such as communications, business transactions or even data captured by sensors in compliance with various regulations.
  3. Workflow Management – Automating the steps of a complex business process through pre-defined and more recently flexible business processes, enabling efficient processing across different departments and geographies.
  4. Collaboration – Enabling employees to share internally and externally. Collaboration features simplify commenting and editing documents across teams while occasionally incorporating social features such as messaging and content feeds.

The ECM aspects gaining importance

With AIIM having just released their research paper ECM Decisions 2015, and our AIIMs State of the Industry 2009 report still handy, we can see what aspects of ECM have become more important over the years.

Although cost efficiency and compliance, the main drivers of ECM, have shifted greatly throughout the financial crisis, with cost efficiency rising high above, the stabilization of the financial markets have resulted in the return of these drivers to the same level of importance they held in 2007. During the same period of time collaboration has grown steadily.

Business drivers for document and record management

Business drivers for document and record management – source AIIM

The need for collaboration is growing

Without a doubt the complexity of solutions, and therefore the complexity of business processes, is growing across the enterprise. In the past it was sufficient to run corporations from the top down. However in a world where many if not all jobs involve at least some knowledge work, a large swath of employees have information or insight to contribute to any effort. Thus collaboration is playing an ever growing role in maintaining competitive advantage in any industry.

Recently cloud based collaboration services have exploded onto the scene – Dropbox alone has grown from 2 thousand users in 2008 to 200 million in 2013. While a boom for small business, these services are often a pain for enterprises allowing documents to move outside the purview records management initiatives, a core function of ECM. Since these services are often inaccessible in large enterprise, AIIM research shows organizations turn to a more traditional collaboration suite like SharePoint instead.

The use of SharePoint in regards to ECM

The use of SharePoint in regards to ECM – source AIIM

In 2009 over 60% of respondents indicated that they used SharePoint in conjunction or in competition with their primary ECM suite. It doesn’t look like ECMs collaboration abilities have improved since then because in 2015 57% have indicated SharePoint as their main repository or working in conjunction with ECM. Dedicated collaboration services are popular but, whether Dropbox, Box or SharePoint these solutions ultimately reduce the ROI of ECM implementations, making it harder to justify ECM investments.

Status of network file-share repository

Status of network file-share repository – source AIIM

ECM usability in 2015, same as it was in 2009

Much of the attraction of collaboration services like Box and Dropbox is how easy they are to use. These services started out barebones, offering the ability to share files, but in an extremely simplified manor, without any of the granular compliance controls that ECMs offer.

Most ECMs on the other hand struggle with feature creep, and many respondents of to the AIIM survey indicated in the past and still do now that usability is a major barrier.

When asked in 2009 about typical implementation issues, usability issues dominated the list. This list included issues of uneven usage due to poor procedures, lack of knowledge and training among the staff, low user acceptance due to poor design, and many more. ECM implementations were just too difficult to use. The same issues crop up in the 2015 report, with 45% of respondents indicating user adoption across the business as an issue, the number one barrier of ECM implementation that is cited in the report.

The usability of File Sharing Services (FSS) didn’t seem to be a threat to ECM until recently, as these service could only provide a small portion of the functionality of a fully featured ECM suite, however this could soon be changing.

Typical problems that can occur during the course of a records or document management implementation - source AIIM

Typical problems that can occur during the course of a records or document management implementation – source AIIM

Will FSS feature growth beat ECM at its own game?

As they say in architecture form follows function. With ease of use concerns still at the top of the list, we can agree that ECM form is not looking great at the moment. So what about function? I started this article by listing 4 overarching goals that ECM facilitates.

For now FSS has only tackled one of them, collaboration. Furthermore the basic file sharing offered by these services doesn’t even scratch the surface of a full feature set in ECM. Yet this is slowly changing.

The issues with ECM systems - source AIIM

The issues with ECM systems – source AIIM

Dropbox has been diligently pushing to move into the enterprise space, it has debuted in-app commentary, allowing users the ability to comment on documents directly from the app with the added value of granular permissions. They also worked with Microsoft to develop an API that allows Dropbox to sit directly inside Microsoft Word. In addition they have also acquired Pixelapse a company working hard to provide content version control. In pursuing these new features the company is not only rounding out its collaboration abilities but encroaching into ECM document management initiatives to boot.

It’s not difficult to believe that soon the abilities of document management and collaboration will be fully replicated in a package that is easy to use. Could records management be next? The integration of email into records management has long been a promise of ECM and there hasn’t been much improvement. In 2009 55% of organizations cited having little or no confidence that important emails were recorded, complete and retrievable. In 2015 over 30% of organizations have cited dealing with emails as records as a major concern. There is definitely room for improvement, could this be the next step for FSS?

Two years ago Dropbox purchased a little known but highly reviewed email app called Mailbox. Although today it seems the company is only interested in promoting their own service as people often substitute email for Dropbox when sharing files. It is not unbelievable to suggest that with the ability to handle both documents and emails Dropbox could take a shot at records management in the future.

Will no one pull the plug?

This is the ultimate question, what keeps ECM from going the way of the Dodo? My take is that there is simply no competent competitor to all of ECMs features… yet. AIIM research indicates that ECM is still mission critical ;when asked how long it would take for a ECM outage to cause a serious business disruption, almost 50% said that it would take less than 2 hours.

ECM remains mission-critical as content is mission-critical - source AIIM

ECM remains mission-critical as content is mission-critical – source AIIM

In layman’s terms, ECM is part of the system. Somewhere in the enterprise someone is using ECM and that legacy process is waiting to be replaced by a holistic solution. Today neither Dropbox, Box, SharePoint is able to take over all the features of ECM, but with the rapid pace of development this day might come sooner rather than later. And of course there is this industry phenomenon called… partnerships and consolidation as we recently witnessed again in the FSS space.