Get your content under control

Figuring out the whereabouts of grant files and financial records at Canada Council for the Arts used to be a sluggish process, dependent on an archaic paper-based method and a database limited in functionality.

Yet, the Ottawa-based organization, tasked with promoting the arts, receives most of its funding from the federal government and must be able to account for how funds are spent. “We didn’t have any way to determine that the media arts section had this file or the visual arts section had that file,” recalled Timothy Stevenson, administrator of the reference and documentation centre with the Council.

An enterprise content management (ECM) initiative – the ability to capture, store and retrieve an organization’s documents – at the Council several years ago introduced a records management system that allowed ease of file search in the event of an auditor or internal request, and file disposal as per industry standards, said Stevenson.

“So whenever (a file) gets charged out to someone or gets moved around Council … if someone comes looking for it we know exactly where it is at all times,” said Stevenson. “And it that makes our job a heck of a lot easier.”

While the initiative was successful, user adoption was not necessarily a given early on. “That was a big stepping stone because people were not used to using an automated records manager to find their information,” said Stevenson. The Council launched an awareness campaign designed to educate and train users on the new process.

Overcome ECM inertia

Organizations can often be tentative in the face of ECM initiatives given the perception of that it is still very new and not well-tested, when in fact it’s been around for years and based on solid standards, said Bruce Sharpe, founding technologist with Vancouver-based content management software vendor JustSystems Canada Inc.

Often, enterprises aren’t even aware that there exist alternative ways of managing content, said Sharpe. “Overcoming the inertia of just living with the systems they’ve got right now is the big thing,” he said.

The fact that Microsoft Office documents remain popular tools today to manage content reminds Sharpe of the early days of customer relationship management, when spreadsheets of names and phone numbers were considered sufficient. “That is a little bit the state we are in right now with content in the enterprise,” he said. “People have individual applications and individual repositories of documents on their computers and (are) not really sharing them with anybody.”

But with the advent of the CRM tool and the concept of centralized records, “that not only drives efficiencies but it gives you a basis for a business strategy that just wasn’t possible before,” he said.

In its early days, ECM gained traction among writers in the publication departments of product companies who were tasked with creating user documentation. It then naturally branched to marketing and training, said Sharpe.

Knowledge is a corporate asset that too often ends up compartmentalized, said Pen Clark, director of marketing with JustSystems. But once organizations start to realize that a large part of their capital is in knowledge, the attitude toward ECM will change, he said.

“We shouldn’t allow our finances to be unstructured in this way. So why are we allowing one of our huge capital assets to not be managed?” said Clark.

Outline your approach

Addressing an ECM strategy should begin first with understanding the need for the initiative – compliance, knowledge sharing, collaboration, cost savings – and the content types to be included, like Word documents and e-mails, said Doug Miles, director of market intelligence with Silver Spring, Md.-based Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM).

Once content types have been selected, those should be further filtered down to, for instance, customer-related documents or incoming forms, said Miles. This is essential because, in the case of e-mail, choosing to store all an organization’s electronic messages can quickly swamp any ECM system.

Miles said selecting that ECM system will depend on the needs of the individual organization, be it something heavily workflow-oriented or just a generic document management tool that will then be built out for various capabilities like records and Web content management.

The step that often sends ECM initiatives grinding to a halt is the audit of all that information within the enterprise, said Miles. “They don’t know where different repositories are living, which departments are storing what, and which documents are active and which are archivable,” he said.

While systems like CRM are typically for sales, and ERP (enterprise content management) for finance, Miles said ECM is not so confined. “ECM is everywhere. And that makes it hard,” he said.

He suggests biting off what you can chew by either auditing a single department or dealing with just one content type.

The ECM strategy must also address the issue of findability. An existing file sharing system can be reused or ameliorated, said Miles. Otherwise, starting from a blank slate will entail deciding whether documents will be classified by department or by subgroup, he said.

Determining the lifecycle of the content in question will mean looking at storage and disposal rules for active and non-active content. A file plan for active content, like documents created within an ongoing project, is easy to plot, said Miles. But it gets tricky because an ECM strategy will naturally inject storage and disposal rules into the mix, he said.

“So, you get this conflict between what’s a good file plan for working documents and what makes sense for long-term records,” said Miles.

What can also create conflict is the desire for individual departments to continue owning their information in the face of an organization that wants to centralize that control, said David Hillis, director of business development with Seattle, Wash.-based enterprise content management vendor Ingeniux Corp.

“You are making decisions between freedom of creativity and expression versus compliance and management,” said Hillis.

Resorting to a carrot and stick approach could work by selling ECM as a tool that will help the department manage its content on the condition that enterprise-wide guidelines be followed is one tactic, said Hillis.

Don’t forget the end user

People’s work habits and expectations are often overlooked in an ECM strategy, said Stephen Powers, senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

“The implementers don’t do as much discovery as they should as far as observing how people work, and interviewing them,” said Powers.

These observations should lead to the creation of use cases as opposed to just a list of technology functionality, said Powers. It’s not enough to say the ECM system must integrate with Microsoft Word. It must specify the type of implementation required by users, he said.

Similarly, not understanding how employees work within certain business processes might lead to an overly-complex workflow that is cumbersome and time-delaying, said Powers.

He suggests a user feedback committee comprising representatives from different departments. It should be an ongoing activity, not just part of the initial requirements gathering phase.

Introducing ECM via a pilot will allow the organization to learn from mistakes instead of saying, “we are going to do this big content management implementation and we are going to go dark for six months and then we are going to flip the switch and everybody is going to use it,” said Powers.

Baywest Management Corp., a Vancouver-based property management company, recently underwent a limited rollout of an e-invoicing workflow to manage 80,000 invoices yearly across its four offices.

Baywest’s information systems developer David Meredith said taking an incremental approach to digitizing the invoice process was important to ensuring desired features were fully implemented and all bugs fixed before a broader deployment.

“It’s pretty complicated,” said Meredith. “It’s (about) people getting paid and money coming out of bank accounts.”

A further reason for the limited rollout was the fact that Baywest is not a large organization, yet the project was. With only five IT staff, two of them dedicated to ECM, he said, “for two people to roll out an all-encompassing stage like that is a lot of work.”

Dictating a mass approach to ECM can be as detrimental as over-customizing an ECM system and forcing it to do something it wasn’t designed for, said Powers. A documentation management system that doesn’t handle rich media assets won’t be able to perform rich media-specific functionality, he said.

Again, establishing a committee is useful for assessing customization requests, said Powers. Committee members will weigh costs of development, administrative workload, impact of the upgrade path, and business impact.

Tough economic times shouldn’t deter organizations from the cost and complexity of an ECM strategy and, in fact, ECM has remained very steady despite cut budgets, said Powers.

Trying to prove a hard-dollar return on investment (ROI) with ECM is often difficult. AIIM research indicates that although companies did achieve close to the expected ROI, the real benefits were better information access and knowledge sharing. While compliance used to drive ECM, the new focus is cost savings, said Miles. In light of the economy, using easy wins like better collaboration to reduce travel expenses could be a “back-door” approach, he said.

Find the right champion

ECM initiatives still tend to be driven by the wrong people, said Miles. A C-level executive with an IT background ought to be championing it, but the problem is ECM is viewed as boring, he said.

“Records management has come out of the basement and people still don’t know where the responsibility lies,” said Miles.

Looking into his ECM crystal ball, Sharpe foresees ECM concepts eventually becoming well-known, and new vendors joining established ones to bring interoperable tools to the market. “At some point in the future, whether it’s two years or 20 years, no one will manage the content in the way it’s done today in a very ad hoc fashion,” said Sharpe.

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