Controlling content chaos

In 1995, the American Hospital Association launched a Web site — its first ever — for one of its publications. It proved so popular that another department at the AHA decided to put up a site too. Soon others also wanted to be on the Internet, and five years later, there were a staggering 72 AHA-affiliated Web sites, all running on different hardware and software, all managed by different departments and organizations, and all totally incapable of sharing content with the others.

It was, in short, Web content chaos, a situation that Herman Baumann, the Chicago-based organization’s executive director for strategic development, says “was not sustainable from a business perspective.”

The solution, it turned out, was a content management system, which the AHA purchased from Interwoven Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., in 2002. The product, called TeamSite, has enabled the AHA to consolidate the content from all 72 Web sites into a single Oracle database, thus reducing maintenance costs while still permitting individual webmasters to manage their own content.

Enterprise content management (ECM) software is designed to keep track of documents and records that are stored in a variety of locations and formats (paper, Web pages, PDF files and, increasingly, audio and video media) throughout a company. Interest in ECM systems has intensified as IT managers feel increased pressure both from their own executives and from regulatory agencies to carefully track and consolidate all of the organization’s key documents.

For the AHA, not only did the implementation of a content management system help to centralize diverse stores of information, but it has also vastly increased the content available to all AHA organizations. Now each group can contribute content to the public database, and the others may opt to “subscribe” to that content and have it posted automatically to their sites.

“Our operating efficiency (for the sites) has more than tripled,” says Baumann.

Jerry Valentine was looking for the same sort of advice when he began considering a content management package for his company, Grange Mutual Casualty Co., a US$1 billion vendor of property and casualty insurance in Columbus, Ohio. The company needed a system that could help centralize the disparate types of content used in insurance applications and claims — content that ranged from paper forms to photographs to audio tapes, says Valentine, Grange’s project manager for imaging.

“For instance, we get 35,000 bodily injury claims each month, and for each, we take audio statements from both sides. These were stored on cassette tapes in a warehouse. If the case went to court, somebody had to go find the tapes, transcribe them, then put them back,” explains Valentine, noting that other departments kept documents on microfiche and microfilm, as well as in good old-fashioned filing cabinets.

Valentine evaluated several products in terms of imaging, workflow, and document and records management capabilities. Grange ultimately purchased the IBM Content Manager application, with an IBM DB2 database, and Input Accel from Captiva Software Corp. in San Diego for scanning documents.

Now audio statements, along with documents such as claims forms and insurance applications, are stored in Content Manager. The system is consolidated in a single data warehouse, with 22 cache servers located at branch offices so that large or frequently used files don’t have to go back and forth across the network.

The Emergence of ECM

ECM systems like those selected by the AHA and Grange Mutual combine a variety of niche content management products: those that manage Web content, records, documents, digital assets and images, plus collaboration tools. ECM software aims to provide organizations with a single platform for inputting, storing, searching, editing, tracking, sharing and distributing all forms of content.

ECM has also gotten a boost from recent U.S. government regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the USA Patriot Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and a flurry of other less-well-known regulations in individual industries. These regulations include requirements that organizations store documents for specified periods of time; make them available in portable, digital formats; and, in some cases, track employee e-mails that relate to “hot button” legal issues such as Securities and Exchange Commission requirements or employee discrimination. Keeping up with the myriad regulations has driven increasing numbers of IT managers to purchase content management software, which can help automate compliance.

All of this helped push sales of ECM applications — which typically start at US$200,000 for an enterprise license — to US$2.656 billion last year, with US$3.175 billion projected for 2005, according to Joshua Duhl, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Integration Is Essential

What do you need from an ECM system? For starters, integration is important, not only between content management components, but also between databases and other applications. Also, if you plan to use a portal other than the ECM vendor’s, “make sure your ECM vendor has a relationship with your portal vendor,” advises Robert Markham, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

When the Houston Independent School District (HISD) evaluated ECM products in early 2002, it looked for one that supported Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server database and provided adapters to Microsoft Exchange, SAP and PeopleSoft. That’s because the HISD wanted to create a portal to give employees access to e-mail, payroll and benefits information and to allow students to view grade and attendance data, with all of it residing on back-end applications.

Finding support for PeopleSoft and SAP was easy, but support for SQL Server was less common, says Mark Hill, interim manager of applications for the HISD and a vice-president at consulting firm Trendec. “Oracle would’ve been easier,” he says. “It seemed (SQL Server) was a challenge for some of the vendors.” The HISD ultimately selected Vignette Corp.’s Vignette v6 product and Enterprise Application Portal.

Find the Right Fit

ECM products offer a range of functions, and users need to match the available features to their needs.

The first step is to determine the functionality you need — records management, document management, digital asset management, e-mail management, collaboration or something else. Also consider vertical-industry expertise. Many products offer capabilities tailored to specific industries and their unique regulatory requirements. Documentum in Pleasanton, Calif., for example, has versions for the health care, financial services, retail and manufacturing industries. Stellent Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn., offers versions of its software specifically for the insurance, real estate, media and entertainment sectors. Open Text Corp. in Waterloo, Ont., also has several products for vertical industries, including the automotive, education, energy and telecommunications fields.

Documentum’s certification by the U.S. Department of Defense for complying with the 5015.2 standard for records management was important to Bechtel Group Inc., a global engineering firm based in San Francisco. The 5015.2 standard sets functional requirements for records management systems used by government agencies and private companies that do business with the government. For instance, it defines the required system interfaces and search criteria and the minimum records management requirements. For an individual organization to attempt to implement the requirements itself would involve a tremendous amount of work.

“Documentum’s being on the list of 5015-certified applications means we don’t have to worry about it,” says Darrell Delahousaye, engineering procurement and construction systems portfolio manager at Bechtel.

Likewise, finding a package that would aid compliance with HIPAA was important to the Surgical Planning Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The lab first considered open-source options, such as Zope, but instead opted for a commercial product from Xythos Software Inc. in San Francisco, which offered the sort of security controls — such as levels of authorization and logging to track who’s accessing which files — that HIPAA requires.

“Xythos has a ticket mechanism, so you can allow someone without an account to have limited access to files,” says Michael Halle, director of technology development at the lab. Also, because the lab’s researchers need to share documents with colleagues inside the hospital and around the world, it needed a product that supported standard technologies — such as a Java application programming interface and the WebDAV network file management protocol.

The AHA’s Baumann mostly needed a system that could expand with the organization’s needs and had a wide range of features, such as collaboration tools and support for audio clips. Because, as its earlier explosion of Web sites had shown, its members were hungry for new technologies to help them share information. “We knew we were going to grow into new areas, but we didn’t know what those areas might be, so we wanted everything to be highly configurable and flexible,” says Baumann. “We looked at (the Interwoven ECM system) as something that would go wherever we needed to take it.”

SIDEBAR – Best of Breed vs. Suites

Bechtel Group has relied on the Documentum content management platform for the past decade to manage its huge collection of blueprints, material specifications and operating manuals stored in repositories around the world.

So when the company needed to add digital asset management and records management capabilities, Bechtel manager Darrell Delahousaye looked first to Documentum. “We wanted something that would plug in fairly transparently into our existing ECM environment,” says Delahousaye.

The same can be said for Britannia Airways Ltd. in London, which bought Open Text’s Livelink to streamline documentation used by pilots and crew members. Britannia wanted some basic workflow and document management capabilities, with out-of-the-box integration of all functions. “We wanted something that would integrate as a single package. We knew that meant we might not get best-of-breed class in all functions, but it would save us doing the integration ourselves,” explains John Gough, programs manager at Britannia.

However, while platforms offer the comfort and convenience of being able to pick all your content management capabilities from the same vendor and, theoretically, integrate them into the existing system with minimal fuss, there are a couple of potential downsides.

One, says Robert Markham, an analyst at Forrester Research, is that not all of these modules actually work well together; many have been acquired and therefore have a different code base and repository. It takes time for a new acquisition to be integrated into a vendor’s platform.

Second, you may be missing out on some great capabilities from a best-of-breed product in a niche market. Paul Szemplinski, president of systems integrator Integrated Document Technologies Inc. in Itasca, Ill., says he believes companies often do better buying best of breed rather than a suite. “Putting all your eggs into one basket is risky. I have concerns about any vendor that claims they can do it all, because I haven’t seen that,” he says.

But if you need out-of-the-box integration among the components or prefer to deal with a single vendor for all content management needs, then a suite may be your best bet.

Hildreth is a Waltham, Mass.-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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