All about content management systems

13th March 2011

There was a time when enterprise content management systems and electronic document management systems and were the preserve of those with very deep pockets or very great need, but the increasing availability of cloud-based solutions has made these technologies a viable option for businesses of all shapes and sizes. So FSN writer Lesley Meall explores the options, and the terms of reference used to describe and market them.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. During the past decade, the internet has evolved from a collection of interconnected networks into a computing platform, the range of on-demand business software and services provided online has grown dramatically, and we have reached the stage where the technological and psychological barriers that stood in the way of ubiquity have started to crumble. Businesses are thinking differently about the way they access and utilise information and communications technologies, and software that was once the preserve of the few is at the fingertips of the many. 

So it is with electronic systems for content management and document management. Now that software applications, storage repositories for data, and the processing power to manipulate huge amounts of it (whether structured or unstructured), are available on-demand, from trusted third-party service providers, these electronic tools have moved from big ticket capital expenditure into the more manageable operating expenditure, and organisations that could not afford the up-front investment required by traditional on-premise systems can access cloud-based alternatives (on which more, later) and hybrids that combine the two – after they’ve made their way through the confusing and overlapping range of product groupings. 

These range from the document sharing and collaboration tools, data vaults and wikis, that FSN covered in a previous article, through on-demand variations of enterprise content management (ECM) and electronic document management (EDM) systems, to the smorgasbord of more specialised solutions, such as web content management (WCM) and numerous ‘niche’ offerings (see below) . Given the variety, it is unsurprising that some (and in particular small and medium organisations) may struggle to differentiate between the many sub-groups that now fall into the overarching category of enterprise content management; the labels mean more to software developers than potential users, and there are numerous areas of overlap. 

The same, but different

EDM, ECM and WCM all aim to make corporate information easier to locate, access, share and exploit, by centralising storage and administration, and using classification schemes and search tools to eliminate the problems associated with disparate silos of information. They can also streamline and speed-up information creation and lifecycle management, automate and co-ordinate related processes, such as drafting, collaboration, and distribution, with the support of pre-defined (and customisable) templates and workflows. You can also expect them all to offer varying degrees of information control and security, and to preserve the integrity of sensitive and private corporate data. 

But there are differences. EDM systems have traditionally focused on the archival and management of structured documents, in formats such as MS Word and Adobe PDF, with scanning/imaging capabilities to convert hard copy documents into a digital format (which has made them popular in finance). At one time, these features were not associated with ECM systems, but as digital information has proliferated, ECM systems have evolved and their scope has expanded, to facilitate the ‘unified’ management of numerous types structured and unstructured data, such as audio, video, corporate web sites, and so on, as well as offering collaboration, digital asset management, brand management, web content and experience management, interactive marketing, portal technology, and more. 

Some ECM systems (and in particular those offered by the largest providers) have grown into all-encompassing solutions that include traditional document management and records management along with myriad other capabilities. The increasing significance of web-based data in its many forms has spawned the ECM sub-group of web content management, which supports many of the processes associated with document management systems (such as authoring, collaboration and administration), but the focus is very specifically on the creation of content for publication on the internet, intranets and extranets. WCM does this by automating tasks in a way that enables non-tech staff to do the sort of jobs that would otherwise require skilled IT staff. 

 All of which eventually brings us back to the range of solutions that are delivered using the on-demand Software as a Service (SaaS) model, and (hopefully) highlights the importance of being very clear about the business ‘document management’, ‘content’, ‘web content management’ or even ‘business process management’ problem you have, before you start looking at the types of software and services that could potentially solve it. If you need to clarify how any one of these systems might fit with your organisation and existing systems, some specialist providers offer useful guidance (without getting too bogged down in the technology, or doing a hard sell of their own services), so you might want to take a look at the websites of Docuvantage and Enterprise Content Management.

 Service providers

Providers of on-demand document management systems include DocuXplorer, Docuvantage, Dokmee and LinearCube. With some of them you may need (or choose) to operate your own scanners, whilst others (such as NetDocuments and OfficeDrop) offer a postal service, and will scan upload the documents for you. Some, such as M-Files, offer vertical market and function-specific solutions, addressing areas such as accounting and finance, as well as more general EDM tools, and even if you don’t opt for one of its solutions, some of the customer case studies are worth a read, as they provide information on the sort of advantage that can be gained by introducing an EDM system in various types of organisation (and similarly useful insights may be found on the websites of some of the other providers too).

 Despite this variety, products described as document management systems do – at least – do what they say on the tin; the same cannot be said for offerings that are made under the much broader overarching banner of enterprise content management systems. You will need to more carefully assess their capabilities (some address vertical market needs) and the way they are delivered when you are considering your options. The range of facilities offered varies widely, as do the architectures used to deliver them, so you may find hybrid on-premise and on-demand solutions (where an SME version or just some areas of functionality are delivered using the SaaS approach), solutions that supplement document management with some workflow and e-forms (and not a lot else), plus more feature rich, all-encompassing solutions.

 Brix, for example, is aimed specifically at SME organisations, and offers tools to help businesses manage corporate portals, online stores, community sites and news services. Cynapse, offers multiple version of its content management product: one free (open source), one hosted SaaS version, and an on premise version that can be operated behind the corporate firewall. Whilst Oceanus, offers content, case and business process management, and focuses on banking, consumer finance, insurance, telecom, retail and utility companies; Vyre, provides software tools for content management and marketing across the web, print, mobile and television. Other ECM providers include Geong, Hyland Software, OpenText (previously Hummingbird), Perceptive Software, and Vasont.

 Although many ECM providers include WCM among the facilities offered by their systems and services, there are numerous providers that specialise in this area – or vertical market niches within it. Clickability, for example, integrates web content management, website delivery and website marketing; the Percussion WCM system addresses community marketing and social media for multiple sites and channels, with facilities for web-based marketing and e-commerce. Some WCM providers address a niche area, such as sales (SalesForce Content), marketing (Hot Banana) or education (OmniUpdate), and FatWire, for example, offers a range of vertical market web content management solutions.

Whilst there are many advantages to the SaaS approach, it is important to also factor the downsides into any decision-making process. So you can look forward to more manageable monthly costs, but the longer you use the service the more they mount up; you can exploit systems with minimal in-house IT expertise or hardware,  but you will be even more dependent (and on a day-to-day basis) on the service provider than you are with on-premise systems; you will have the flexibility of anywhere, any time access, massive scalability, and the security of data in storage and in transit may well be superior to your in-house systems, but you will need to check on the performance and reliability of service providers before putting your trust in them.