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Reinvigorate ECM to Better Serve the Knowledge Worker

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By: Bob Ragsdale

April 29, 2015 | Case Management/BPMDocument ManagementRapid Application Development

The fast-paced, social-mobile digital workplace of today has outstripped the capabilities of what enterprise content management (ECM) was originally intended to do—to store and organize content.

Today’s organizational challenge, however, is not simply about archiving and delivering data. Digital business strategies now dictate, and rightly so, that we harness the data that we capture and put it in the hands of the right individuals—at the right time and in the right context—so that they can make informed decisions and drive optimal outcomes. Driving outcomes is the domain of case management.

Is Modern ECM Really Case Management?

When the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) International, first defined the term ECM in 2000, the basic goal of digitally storing and organizing content on an enterprise scale was a major technological challenge. ECM systems of the day were expansive, monolithic implementations. They were able to contend with massive amounts of data but generally weren’t designed to orchestrate business processes or to be adapted to serve rapidly changing business needs.

According to AIIM today, ECM is “neither a single technology nor a methodology nor a process, it is a dynamic combination of strategies, methods and tools used to capture, manage, store, preserve and deliver information supporting key organizational processes through its entire lifecycle.”

In the present context of ECM we are no longer looking at a single monolithic technology. And if you add the words, “…so that knowledge workers can drive optimal outcomes,” to the end of the above ECM definition, ECM becomes case management—dynamic technology capable of supporting knowledge workers as they seek to drive optimal outcomes for the organizations and constituencies they serve.

Serving the Knowledge Worker

For a moment I would like to set aside the semantics of the differences between ECM and case management and focus on the fact that the systems we build should seek to serve their users. Since we are discussing this topic in the context of knowledge management, the users we are talking about are knowledge workers. And since ECM has been around for more than a decade, we are generally dealing with large technology implementations that are already in place.

So the question becomes, how do we best optimize our existing systems for the organization and its workers? By focusing on three areas:

  • Harnessing information to drive outcomes;
  • The avoidance of heavy tools for content orchestration; and
  • Technologies that extend interoperability and integration.

Harnessing Information to Drive Outcomes

Static information is of no use. It’s great to know that the data is there, archived where it can be accessed, but to actually be useful we have to do something with it. It must be presented to knowledge workers in the right context at the right time in order to drive outcomes. Presenting information to drive outcomes is where the cross-pollination of systems begins.

One way to present information is in the form of a case—a binder of information relevant to a single case instance. Forrester notes that a case “follows an unknown path through different states where rules, tasks and calendars change based on system events, system controls and the need to meet specific goals.” That’s pretty much most of what we do as knowledge workers—manage information in an effort to meet specific goals. This is also where case management platforms look an awful lot like ECM solutions because they have the same document capture, management, collaboration and archiving capabilities, but also have extended functionality such as natural language self-service business intelligence (BI) and analytics—that go beyond traditional ECM functionality.

Self-service BI and analytics is also a second way to present information. To do it effectively we need to remove the distinction between structured and unstructured content and provide a holistic information-centric view—which is possible with today’s tools. And optimally, we should be able to ask a business question using natural language search, get a visualized answer, then follow an intuitive path as we drill down in real-time to the answer that we are searching for.

A third way to present information is to put it into present physical context. More and more this means social and mobile. To react at the pace of digital business, knowledge workers require access to the information at the time and place that business is occurring.

Either alone, or in combination, each of the above elements improves the capabilities of our team members to harness information, to accelerate processes, and to drive outcomes.

The Avoidance of Heavy Tools for Content Orchestration

figure 1

figure 1

Digital business moves quickly. Priorities change, new opportunities emerge and new competitors pose threats. To be responsive to this fluid environment, IT must be able to rapidly prototype, develop and deploy tools for the business side of the house. At this point it is worth acknowledging that those heavier legacy ECM tools, while great for organization and storage, may not be the best choice for rapidly changing content orchestration needs.

In a December 2013 study conducted by Forrester Consulting, it was reported that “two-thirds of organizations’ current system development approaches do not support unstructured process needs.” (See Figure 1.)

The system development approaches we employ are constrained by the tools we have at hand. The Forrester study recommends that to overcome the process-change challenges presented by traditional enterprise solutions that organizations seek out new technologies that make it possible to:

  • Make adaptive solutions center stage. Solutions such as dynamic case management allow a business analyst to combine prebuilt process models with other prebuilt process models and process fragments to quickly create new processes.
  • Look to a data-first approach. Put the task-mapping tool away and start with how users manipulate and consume information at various stages in a process.
  • Focus on goals and outcomes in system design. Avoid the disconnect and lack of collaboration between departments for end-to-end processes.
  • Empower all levels of the hierarchy to create and improve the high-value, semi-structured knowledge work of business professionals.

This then brings us to the last point—interoperability and integration.

Choose Technologies that Extend Interoperability and Integration

If we are going to reinvigorate ECM and drive better outcomes, it is important that we stay focused on harnessing the data to the benefit of the knowledge worker—our goal is to add functionality.

If we have an ECM system of record that serves most of the business well, but we need to add some case-based capabilities and analytics, then integrating a new system with the existing one may be the preferred approach. If, however, we want to bring that ongoing and dynamic process change ability to the entire business, then a wholesale ECM migration to a more modern system may make sense.

In either situation, we are going to want to seek out applications that can be ported across disparate platforms, integrated with legacy or other third-party applications and extended continuously to build new features without affecting the core building blocks and existing functionality. To effectively manage these long-term challenges, we strongly recommend that the selected technology support the following three fundamental principles:

  1. Open standards as they facilitate a high-level of extensibility. Systems with open standards at their core have built-in mechanisms to engineer and integrate new features with little or no impact on the existing system’s functions.
  2. Open architecture because it allows for interoperability with similar systems or third-party systems, which may have unrelated architecture and technologies. In a complex IT infrastructure environment, it is common for applications to communicate with each other and share business data. An open architecture-based design can use publicly available APIs, Web services or other communication protocols to make diverse systems work together.
  3. Platform independence as it enables application portability across different operating systems, Web servers, application servers and database servers without getting an organization locked into a vendor-specific platform.

By choosing platforms such as these that offer a superior level of extensibility, interoperability, and portability through open standards, open architecture and platform independence, organizations are able to keep their systems open to evolving and emerging technologies.

Serve the Knowledge Worker

As they say, information is king. To be viable and deliver true business value, today’s ECM solutions need to go well past archiving and present information to the right individuals, at the right time, in the right context, so that they can make informed decisions and drive optimal outcomes.

Functionality such as document management, natural language analytics and mobile, coupled with open architecture, open standards and platform independence, are the types of forward-looking capabilities that will keep ECM relevant and grant knowledge workers the power to drive better outcomes for the people and organizations they serve.

This article first appeared in Best Practices in Enterprise Content Management, a supplement to KMWorld, April 2015.

About the Author

Bob Ragsdale is Director of Marketing at MicroPact. Bob has over 20 years of experience leading the international marketing and branding efforts of software and technology companies at nearly every stage of development.


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