Are you also confused by the term Enterprise Content Management?

by Frank 16. September 2012 06:00

I may be wrong but I think it was AIIM that first coined the phrase Enterprise Content Management to describe both our industry and our application solutions.

Whereas the term isn’t as nebulous as Knowledge Management it is nevertheless about as useful when trying to understand what organizations in this space actually do. At its simplest level it is a collective term for a number of related business applications like records management, document management, imaging, workflow, business process management, email management and archiving, digital asset management, web site content management, etc.

To simple people like me the more appropriate term or label would be Information Management but as I have already covered this in a previous Blog I won’t beleaguer the point in this one.

When trying to define what enterprise content management actually means or stands for we can discard the words ‘enterprise’ and ‘management’ as superfluous to our needs and just concentrate on the key word ‘content’. That is, we are talking about systems that in some way create and manage content.

So, what exactly is meant by the term ‘content’?

In the early days of content management discussions we classified content into two broad categories, structured and unstructured. Basically, structured content had named sections or labels and unstructured content did not. Generalising even further we can say that an email is an example of structured content because it has commonly named, standardised and accessible sections or labels like ‘Sender’, ‘Recipient’, ‘Subject’ etc., that we can interrogate and rely on to carry a particular class or type of information. The same general approach would regard a Word document as unstructured because the content of a Word document does not have commonly named and standardised sections or labels. Basically a Word document is an irregular collection of characters that you have to parse and examine to determine content.

Like Newtonian physics, the above generalisations do not apply to everything and can be argued until the cows come home. In truth, every document has an accessible structure of some kind. For example, a Word document has an author, a size, a date written, etc. It is just that it is far easier to find out who the recipient of an email was than the recipient of a Word document. This is because there is a common and standard ‘Tag’ that tells us who the recipient is of an email and there is no such common and standard tag for a Word document.

In our business we call ‘information about information’ (e.g., the recipient and date fields on an email) Metadata. If an object has recognizable Metadata then it is far easier to process than an object without recognizable Metadata. We may then say that adding Metadata to an object is the same as adding structure.

Adding structure is what we do when we create a Word document using a template or when we add tags to a Word document. We are normalizing the standard information we require in our business processes so the objects we deal with have the structure we require to easily and accurately identify and process them.

This is of course one of the long-standing problems in our industry, we spend far too much time and money trying to parse and interpret unstructured objects when we should be going back to the coal face and adding structure when the object is first created. This is of course relatively easy to do if we are creating the objects (e.g., a Word document) but not easy to achieve if we are receiving documents from foreign sources like our customers, our suppliers or the government. Unless you are the eight-hundred pound gorilla (like Walmart) it is very difficult to force your partners to add the structure you require to make processing as fast and as easy and as accurate as possible.

There have been attempts in the past to come up with common ‘standards’ that would have regulated document structure but none have been successful. The last one was when XML was the bright new kid on the block and the XML industry rushed headlong into defining XML standards for every conceivable industry to facilitate common structures and to make data transfer between different organizations as easy and as standard as possible. The various XML standardisation projects sucked up millions or even billions of dollars but did not produce the desired results; we are still spending billions of dollars each year parsing unstructured documents trying to determine content.

So, back to the original question, what exactly is Enterprise Content Management? The simple answer is that it is the business or process of extracting useful information from objects such as emails and PDFs and Word documents and then using that information in a business process. It is all about the process of capturing Metadata and content in the most accurate and expeditious manner possible so we can automate business processes as much as possible.

If done properly, it makes your job more pleasant and saves your organization money and it makes your customers and suppliers happier. As such it sounds a lot like motherhood (who is going to argue against it?) but it certainly isn’t like manna from heaven. There is always a cost and it is usually significant. As always, you reap what you sow and effort and cost produces rewards.

Is content management something you should consider? The answer is definitely yes with one proviso; please make sure that the benefits are greater than the cost.


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