Six strategies for low-cost content management

Some content is priceless, but the systems that manage them can wind up a little too pricey.

According to research firm Gartner Inc., the market for enterprise content management (ECM) was worth US$2.9 billion in 2007 and will grow 12.9 per cent through 2011. Although Gartner says software licensing for basic content services can cost less than US$100 per user for large volume deals, requirements for extra functions will increase the initial software costs if content management components are not included.

How do you set aside enough money to solve the initial ECM pain points and create a strategy for the future? We asked the experts for some ideas.

1. Open source may do the job.

Alongside well-established firms such as IBM and EMC, independent developers have created alternatives such as Drupal, Plone and Joomla. These can be readily adapted for Web-based ECM and even advanced projects with minimal up-front costs.

“If you have a business case (for proprietary software) that that makes more sense you should do that, but if you don’t consider an open source solution you’re hurting yourself,” says Harold Jarche, a content management and collaboration technology consultant based in Sackville, N.S. “The thing with open source is you have options on who’s doing your service, whereas with proprietary, the development and the services are one in the same. That’s at odds with the clients’ best interests.”

Jarche says the degree of open source use may depend on the amount of in-house IT expertise and the amount you’re willing to spend on consulting. He suggests companies should also research the ease of using the open source system they choose. “It’s not the functions so much as the strength of the community — is it on version 1.0 or 7.0?” he asks. “How many installations have there been? Who’s providing support services?”

The International Association for Open Source Content Management, is one resource to connect developers and users through events and electronic backgrounders. Http://

2. Budget outside the box. At the Canada Council for the Arts, an enterprise content management project was launched back in 1999 to deal with Y2K issues. At that time it made sense to cost it out in a separate budget that took in training and communications as well as software costs, says Michelle Chawla, the organization’s corporate secretary. The project ended up allowing all staff, not just the records group, to file their own documents — such as the nearly 17,000 grant applications it receives each year — and access them independently.

“Certain things were easy to budget, such as licences,” she says. “Where we needed flexibility was in terms of the unknown — what would it mean to decentralize records management throughout the whole organization — we weren’t sure of the implications on workloads, or the nature of how software would change.”

Some companies may fund ECM projects based on specific departments who benefit from the technology rather than the IT department, but that doesn’t always work, says Alp Hug, senior vice-president at Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp. “If there’s an enterprise-wide project going in place and the first phase is in contract management for the finance department, I don’t know that (taking the money out of finance) balloons or reduces the cost of the project, necessarily,” he says.

“I would definitely phase the number of implementations and then cost average it across the organization. Commit to a larger deployment up front and purchasing over the long term.” Now as it prepares for a major upgrade, the Canada Council is allocating the ECM costs out of the IT budget, an investment that will likely be spread over several years, Chawla says.

3. Audit your organization, not just your data.

The best approach is to create ECM “building blocks” that solve problems for specific business units that can later be scaled out across the enterprise, Alp says. Doing that, however, requires forecasting future needs, which can’t happen unless you have a good understanding of who’s working in the company. “If the organization is global, distributed, with an aging user base, that organization needs to do things to capture the corporate memory as soon as possible,” he says. “Others are smaller and not as complex in terms of the way they operate. They might have a much younger audience.”

By figuring out what Alp calls the organization’s “genome,” you can tailor your ECM appropriately and avoid more expensive upgrades later. Most vendors offer such auditing services.

4. Don’t let consultants walk away with all the expertise.

The Canada Council for the Arts brought in some third-party help in its initial project, but Chawla says staff were always looking over their shoulder. “We would train our staff to be able to take on some of those functions. Now they can build own interfaces, for example, and we don’t have to go back to a vendor or someone for that,” she says. “It may mean hiring one or two extra people, but it saves you down the road.”

Alp says the amount spend on consulting will depend on the level of customization required. Some products are almost out-of-the-box, he says. Others aren’t.

“If you’re buying a toolkit to build a content-centric system, you’ll probably spend more money on consulting. Depending on what technology you pick, there are definitely different levels.”

5. Tap into free (or near-free) Web 2.0 ECM tools.

Jarche points out that a lot of enterprise content is moving out of internal databases and making use of free portal tools. For some business units, it might be possible to manage photos on Yahoo’s Flickr or manage relevant Web data using bookmarking services such as Del.lic.ious.

“You don’t have to build the entire box,” he says. “You probably already have an intranet. If you use open protocols like RSS there’s a lot of data you can feed to wherever you need it.”

6. Resistance is expensive.

If you did an analysis on why most ECM projects fail, certainly people will come back and say costs were out of control, but Alp says it’s often because user adoption was not the first and foremost priority when projects were put together to begin with.

“If you drill down a bit to better analyze what adoption means, most ECM implementations take the view of consolidating content into some repository and providing access to users. That’s where most ECM fall short,” he says. Content is important, but a lot depends on the people involved and how well they can define their existing processes. This includes the other software systems from Microsoft, SAP or Oracle they’ll encounter.

“Always consider how does ECM tie into and leverage the content and have it flow back and forth. Almost every user that deals with any kind of content will have interactions with these systems.”

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