Enterprise Content Management, or ECM, is a wide spectrum of practices and services used in an organization to manage information in the form of content files. There are some basic concepts, assumptions and definitions that need to be addressed before exploring it. In this section we will discuss the reason for implementing such a practice, the benefits to the organization, the underlying technologies and basic functionality of the systems used to implement the practice.
First some definitions:
Enterprise – The scope of an implementation must be able to serve the entire organization or a significant operational section. The term ‘enterprise-wide’ is commonly used to refer to a service or function that is accessible for staff, partners, and even customers related to an organization. The types of organization can be, but not restricted to, government, municipalities, corporations, and or universities. It can refer to the entire organization or a department within them. The differentiation is that it is intended for use in organizations as opposed to personal use or casual use.
Content – Content or content files are discrete units of information that are saved on a file system for storage. The best way to explain it is by example. The most common content are documents, such as contracts, specifications, reports and other text files created in applications such as the popular office suite products. They may also be numerical spreadsheets, presentations, engineering drawings, images, pictures, music, videos, web pages, animations and practically any other type of information that is saved on a storage system. The separation of content files from other types of saved information tends to happen when the content is no longer static, but dynamic. This can happen in 3-D models, GIS files, and databases. These types of files do not function well inside ECM systems and don’t fall under the typical use case for ECM. Other discrete files that do not fit may be software files, code, scripts and other system files, although there are exceptions.
Content File Types – The file formats for content saved in ECM systems do not generally matter since most of the available systems can handle a wide variety of file formats. Some ECM systems are more specialized and may work with a limited number of file formats such as engineering drawings and Microsoft Office formats. Examples of such systems may be building plan approval applications used in municipalities that display engineering plans in a specific format for display and markup purposes. In some cases the ECM systems may be specialized to either store or publish Web-related content such as XML and or HTML files, and may be categorized as Web Content Management Systems (WCM).
Management – From a personal PC perspective you may have hundreds, even thousands of files of various types on your PC, laptop, pad or smartphone. How you manage it will directly impact how easily you can find and use the information. If you then multiply that one personal system by thousands of other users working in an organization the impact to the operational functions of the organization can be exponential. There are several aspects to ECM that are found at a governance level. These may be where you can store certain types of files, who should or should not see them, file and folder name conventions, folder structure conventions, the retention or files, protection of personal and confidential records, sharing and collaborating on files and the list goes on. ECM systems (EDMS) offer features that enable the management of content files in the organization.
Metadata – In order for ECM systems to deliver the services, the data describing each content object, or file, must be captured and stored. Since it is data describing data the term is ‘metadata’, or data-about-data. This is the most challenging aspect of ECM and will be treated in more detail later, in subsequent releases. The data is generally stored in some form of relational database system. The large scale implementations for ECM require robust databases and not desktop applications. The storage restrictions and performance of the database can have a serious impact on the overall system performance. Typically, in an over-simplified view, each content file is represented by a row in a table with data such as the file name, location, creation and modify dates, author, keywords, title, subject, description, etc. As an Office Suite user you may have seen such data associated with document files by viewing the file properties. In ECM systems this sort of information has far more use that just searching on a Windows file system.
Using the above definitions the practice of ECM comes in at strategic or governance level and then at an implementation level. While possible, with great discipline, ECM can be implemented on network shared drives and email systems, this approach tends to fail with high volumes or staff turnover and lack of compliance measures. ECM systems are required for most organizations to maintain ECM practices.
Most organizations are motivated to use systems that provide value and support operations. With ECM that means that the handling of content files which are information units related to the operations of the organization. More and more of the operations are related to documentation of some kind. Some of the most current value propositions come from compliance with government regulation and internal policies. Some comes from being able to find information in a timely information. Increasingly the value comes from automation of processes which provide both. This functionality makes for more efficient operations, using accurate and current information. In terms of compliance, this is very important since audits and legal actions can cause very expensive issues if accurate information is not readily available. Another benefit is better access to information for providing services or delivering products. This is more difficult to prove, making it important to identify and measure key indicators of performance before and after implementations.
One of the keys to ECM is a commonly shared information structure. The most commonly used approach is called a functional taxonomy. While there are some important exceptions, which we will cover at a later time, it tends to be the most easily adopted approach.
A quick example would look like this:
- Communications Management\
– Corporate Identity\
- Financial Management\
– Expense Management\
– Revenue Management \
- Human Resource Management\
– Position Administration\
– Health and Wellness\
– Employee Information Management\
– Policy and Procedures\
– Group Management\
– Programs and Services\
The top level is called a “function” and the next level, a “sub-function”. Below that you can add activities such as …Publications\Reports. These can also be called the “record series”. A further blog will discuss these in detail as well as the common exceptions to this structure such as case files and projects.
Having a common understanding across the organization is one of the keys to organizing information so that it can be found later. There are many problems caused by a lack of ECM rigour and this is one of the core root problems.
The issues that surface when organizations are lacking ECM practices, and I will add Records Management under the ECM umbrella, commonly look like this:
– It is difficult to find documents in a timely manner, causing wasted time and re-work.
– An information-heavy workflow is very slow and complex because of the many information hand-offs and opportunities for mistakes. One of the most common workflows that impact an organization is a procurement cycle or time-to-contract.
– Legal actions become expensive because of the time and effort required to respond to information requests and to produce evidence. Many organizations have multi-million dollar thresholds, under which, they will just settle rather than fight.
– Customer service can suffer from a lack of ability to find information.
– Product quality audits may fail because of a lack of ability to produce evidence of compliance.
– Government regulatory compliance issues may impact time to market and also cause heavy fines and possible criminal charges for executives.
– Executives may be advised with incorrect information and briefings, leading to bad decision making.
– Government agencies may fail to respond to information requests causing audits, fines and possible court orders and criminal charges in some jurisdictions.
– People will delete information that needs to be kept by law for certain periods of time.
– People keep records for longer than they are legally required, possibly exposing them to risk in legal matters.
There are many different causes for the above issues and we will drill into various issues in later issues. However, there are some common root causes.
– Documents are stored in silos and different work unit folder structures.
– Content is distributed in emails as attachments as opposed to one central storage area.
– Multiple versions of the same or similar documents are scattered across the organization making it difficult to identify the correct version.
– Content files are not named in a standard format.
– Keywords are not contained in the content files and or metadata.
– It is impossible, in most cases, to ensure that processes are properly documented and enforced without ECM.
– End users reject the system. There are many possible reasons and we will discuss this later.
– Systems are put in place without required analysis and solution design. (See end user rejection above.)
– Documents are scanned to digital format without proper metadata and or without OCR text. This makes it impossible to find them later.
The choice of ECM systems and implementation strategies depends on your requirements, making it important to hire experienced ECM specialists to help define the requirements. The risk of picking the wrong system may be that it may be more expensive than others for your use cases or that the system may not be able to scale to meet the demand of your organization. It may also be too expensive to implement to accomplish your goals.
Most ECM systems have the same components;
– Content file storage areas can either be inside a database or on an external mapped drive. These two approaches have advantages and disadvantages depending on the scale of your implementation. Each type of system will have different performance limitations and this needs to be considered early in the planing stages.
– Metadata storage in a relational database is common to every ECM system. Typically ECM systems can accommodate many different enterprise level database systems, but some are more restricted.
– Content Servers are required to tie the content storage with the metadata and provide the back end services for managing the folder structures, access controls, versioning and other essential services.
– Method servers for various specialized services such as full text indexing, search engines, file format transformation, and workflows are also required in most cases.
– Web servers are required for most ECM user interfaces, allowing the user to access and manage their content files from within a web browser as opposed to an application that is installed on the operating system.
As you might expect this type of an implementation requires many servers, often more than one for each of the components mentioned above. Servers, either physical or in Cloud deployments are expensive and need to be planned and budgeted for. In addition to your production environment, you also need one for staging or performance testing, which should be identical to your production system. That means the number of servers times two. Then there also needs to be development, testing and possible UAT environments. While these are generally not as robust as the Staging and Production environments, they need to be planned for to avoid issues like developers competing for server time with testing staff. It is easy to see over twenty virtual servers in an ECM deployment and that does not consider disaster recovery sites.
As a result of such an installation a typical user interaction looks like this:
– End user logs into the Web interface and is authenticated.
– End user navigates to a folder location or uses a search function to find the content file they want.
– End user chooses to edit the file.
– The content server identifies the correct version and checks to see if the logged in user has access clearance to that file.
– The system looks up the file location in the database and fetches it from the storage area.
– The content server or a method server passes the content to the browser session on the workstation.
– The content file is stored on the local machine and opened in the appropriate application or browser.
– The end user edits the file and saves the changes on their local machine.
– The end user chooses to check the updated document back into the repository.
– The user interface on the local machine finds the local content file and streams it back to the content servers or method server.
– The content server checks to see if the end user has the access levels required to update the version or over-write the existing file.
– The content server stores the new content file in the contents store.
– The content server updates the metadata in the database with the new version information.
– A method server performs a full text image update on the file.
– A method server may also convert it to another format such as a PDF format.
– The user interface is refreshed by the end user showing the updated content file and associated metadata.
In a large organization this may happen several times and hour by perhaps thousands of logged in users. There will also probably workflows running and custom code for specialized searches and displays as well. All of this makes the implementation of an ECM system very critical to the operations of an organization. When you think about it, every content file kept in an organization serves a purpose and may have impact to operations. If it is too awkward to use, too slow, too difficult to understand, or any other problem may cause the end users reject the adoption of the system. Implementing an ECM system incorrectly is far more expensive than doing it right when you consider the impact to the organization.