Monday, February 25, 2013

Seven Types of Content Applications

The enterprise content management (ECM) industry has been talking about content applications for many years. A while back, Gartner coined the term “composite content applications” while Forrester talks about “content-centric applications”. What I mean are applications that primarily deal with unstructured data (content) rather than structured data applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain management (SCM), and product lifecycle management (PLM).

We all can usually come up with many examples of such applications but, to my knowledge, they have never been properly classified. What are the types of content applications out there? Sure, Forrester introduced new categories for ECM in their groundbreaking report Transactional, Business, and Persuasive Content: A Better Way to Look at Enterprise Content back in 2005. But that was really dealing with the different technologies rather than the application types. So, I decided to give it a shot myself. I would love to get your help with it, though. Please do comment if you agree or disagree and if you can think of applications that don’t fit into my categories.

Before I start, I should make it clear that while all the application types below use content as the primary data type, they go beyond ECM. They also involve business process management (BPM), customer experience management (CEM), and discovery. At the same time, I am not trying to cover all BPM or CEM applications, but rather only those that use content. For instance, I am not including straight-through processing (STP) applications in BPM such as payment transactions or capital markets transactions because those don’t use content. Basically, I am categorizing applications that span the enterprise information management (EIM) space, as we define it at OpenText. So, here are the seven types of content applications:

1. Productivity Applications
I’ve labeled the first group ‘productivity applications’ because they are all aimed at increasing employee productivity, which is sometimes very difficult to measure. These applications usually involve sharing business documents, sifting through vast volumes of information, collaborative authoring, document libraries, and collaboration/social software as a means of improving employee communication and effectiveness.

Examples of such applications include corporate policy libraries, knowledge management, contracts management, idea management, etc. These applications are often considered part of the knowledge worker infrastructure as they require relatively little customization and they are typically not department specific or industry specific. IT usually selects and owns these applications.

2. Compliance Applications
Compliance applications are the bread and butter of the ECM industry. They are addressing the requirements for regulatory compliance and corporate information governance, and they are reducing the legal risks related to content used as possible evidence in a court of law. These applications focus on access control, auditing, information retention, and mandated tasks, approvals, and sign-offs.

Examples of such applications include records management, legal discovery (eDiscovery) and early case assessment, as well as many regulated document applications used to address specific requirements such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as well as self-imposed requirements such as Six-Sigma or ISO 14001. Such applications are almost always function or industry specific, i.e. applications dealing with the FDA 21 CFR Part 11 regulations in life sciences, the OSHA material safety data sheets in chemical process manufacturing, or the Dodd-Frank Act in financial services. A wide variety of functions can be selecting and owning such applications, although the heavily regulated industries often have a Chief Compliance Officer while companies in highly litigious industries lean strongly on the Chief Legal Counsel here.

3. Process Applications
There is a group of applications that are very process-oriented, and yet they depend heavily on content as the information used for decisions that determine the process routing, tasks, and results. Such applications usually involve electronic forms and the capture of incoming paper documents. They also take advantage of process modeling and analysis, process simulation and optimization, rules engines, and process engines as well as process reporting and analytics. Frequently, the process applications integrate with other applications such as ERP and CRM.

Examples include invoice processing (a.k.a. accounts payable), travel expense management, and many vertical applications such as engineering change orders, dispute resolution, and authorization for expenditure. Usually, the process applications have an easily measurable ROI. These solutions are typically selected and owned by their respective functions and can span both the core and the supporting functions of the organization.

4. Case Management Applications
Case management came about as an use case of BPM but it deals with quite different types of applications. Gartner believes that case management is just a use case of BPM while Forrester declared case management a separate market - and a very fast growing one too. The case management applications are different from traditional BPM applications as they don’t just use content as a payload - they are much more about the content. They typically involve a case file which is a smart repository container accommodating many content assets and the logic governing their use. Besides a stronger dependence on a content management repository, case management applications can include many of the process application technologies for all the big and small processes required to manage the case file.  

Examples of case management applications include customer onboarding, employee file management, and fraud investigation. Vertical case management applications include insurance claims processing, loan origination, legal case management, and patient care management. The selection and ownership of case management applications falls - just like the process applications - onto respective corporate functions.

5. Resource Management Applications
Resource management applications are, as my label suggests, managing various resources - from human resources to customers and suppliers, from products to plant assets. These applications are frequently used in tight integration with structured data applications such as ERP, PLM, or CRM. The main purpose of these applications is to systematically organize large volumes of content assets that often need to be retrieved very quickly based on a complex set of metadata - i.e., all material with a warranty expiring in the next 30 days found in a specific geographic location. The resource management applications need to accommodate a rich variety of content formats: from documents and images, to CAD drawings and digital X-rays.

Examples of resource management applications include customer information management, product information management, plant asset management as well as vertical applications such as patient records, and legal matter management. The resource management applications are selected and owned by the responsible function in the organization (line of business).

6. Go-to-Market Applications
As the name suggests, these sales and marketing applications are used to support the organization’s go-to-market efforts. Their main job is to capture attention, persuasively convey a message and solicit a desired call to action. They typically involve rich media assets, multi-channel delivery of content, social engagement and the need to measure and monitor their effectiveness. The sales and marketing applications also need to account for geographic differences - from language, local examples, and local trends, to different customs, ways of conducting business, and customer privacy laws.

Examples include digital marketing, e-commerce, marketing libraries, marketing campaign management, sales collateral libraries, and virtual pitch books. While there are vertical flavors to such applications (i.e., the pharma companies have to add some compliance capabilities to their digital marketing), the go-to-market applications are applicable across industries. They are almost always purchased and owned by the sales and marketing departments.

7. Publishing Applications
I use the label ‘publishing applications’ for all types of applications where content is the actual product or a product component. The published product can come in many formats and increasingly multiple formats are being combined into a single final product. For example, books are now typically published on paper (hard and soft cover), for consumption in different e-readers (at least three formats are necessary: Kindle, iBooks, PDF), and as an audiobook. Increasingly, the content delivery needs to take in account the consumption device with its screen size, resolution, and bandwidth. Although the products are becoming more consistent worldwide, translation, localization and distribution rights are a major factor here.

Examples of such applications include technical publishing, catalog publishing, different types of media publishing (i.e., book publishing, magazine publishing, motion picture and video production), radio and television programming, and learning material publishing. Even non-corporate blogs like the ones published on WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr fall into this category, although many of them are used in the consumer domain outside the scope of ECM. The buyers of such solutions are almost always the heads of the publishing production who often carry different titles depending on the industry.

So, that’s it. These are the seven types of content applications. Before anyone brings it up, I do realize that many of these applications started reaching across the categories. In regulated industries, pretty much every application has to include compliance. You can make an argument that BPM should be included in everything. Same for collaboration or social software. But what decides the categorization is the original goal for deploying the application. Are we deploying the application to handle more customer requests and compliance just happens to be a required feature? Then it is primarily a process application rather than a compliance application. The primary stakeholder is usually the telltale too. Different owners have a different purpose for their application, which usually determines the type of solution they will select.

While this is my view of the landscape, I would love to hear from you. Do you agree with my categories? Do you see any other categories or a different way of categorization? Have you encountered any applications that don’t fit? Please share your comments and help me make it better. If there are substantial changes as a result of your comments, I will publish an updated version of this post.

Thank you!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Is Dropbox Making us Stupid?

Yes, I’m paraphrasing the famous article by Nicholas Carr with the title of this blog post. But I do have a point to make. For years, the document management and content management solutions suffered a bit from the stigma of being too complex and difficult to use. Then, the nouveau bread of solutions stormed in, by propelled by the power of consumerization: cloud-based file sharing with Dropbox leading the charge. Suddenly, all the problems were solved...
Well, not quite. The consumer-grade software seduced users with its simplicity. It usually did just one thing but it did it well and easily. Before the CIO could blink twice, the Dropbox or some similar software was all over the enterprise. Of course, we all have heard the stories about the lack of security, the compliance issues, and the legal exposure this caused. But that’s not my point today.

My point is that users started using this software to do actual work. Work, by definition, is a more serious matter than sharing Christmas pictures with your relatives. When one knowledge worker needs to share a document with another one, Dropbox or a similar file sharing system might be a great way to do it. Probably better than email. But when a team of 10 or more people start using file sharing to jointly work on a set of documents, it may result in chaos.

The workers start mixing up document versions. The wrong people get to see the documents when they shouldn’t. People attempt to make edits at the same time only to overwrite each other’s changes. A manager critiques the document before the subject-matter expert got to review it. And, nobody can find anything... All that because they use file sharing when what they really need is a solution with versioning, access control, library services, workflow, and search. In short, they need a team collaboration or document management solution - not file sharing!

There is nothing wrong with file sharing. It is great. It saves a lot of time, hassle and money. But we need to continue educating ourselves about the right tools for the right job. Some activities can be done easily using file sharing. In the enterprise, it should be an enterprise-class file sharing solution with security, compliance, and under the control of the company. But again, that’s not my point today. My point is that to share documents, file sharing is great. To collaborate on documents, you need team collaboration software.

You may be able to loosen a screw with a pocket knife but, let’s face it, a screw driver is a far better tool for the job.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sometimes, Common Sense Beats ROI

Return on investment (ROI) is supposed to be the magic that makes any software sell instantly - the ultimate silver bullet for any sales person. You simply offer a logical, monetary justification of the solution’s value and the customer has no alternative but to buy. Right? Yeah, right...

The reality is that ROI can be a very elusive value proposition. For one, it rarely considers any competition. You have a problem and you can solve it by reducing your cost by x% for the price of $y which represents the initial and ongoing fees for the solution. Well, chances are that the competition has a similar solution and - what an audacity - they claim the same cost savings! It will be rare that your solution has a quantifiable capability that results in a unique and competitively differentiated ROI.

More often than not, your competitive advantage lies on a different level - product architecture, user experience, quality of service, or...ehm...price. Sure you can argue that each one of those characteristics too has an ROI but now you start overlaying one ROI calculation of a solution characteristic on top of business value ROI which is probably going to be too complex and less and less credible.

Let me give you an example. Say that the solution in question has to do with accounts payable where we know the cost for processing each invoice and a proposed solution results in a 15% cost reduction per invoice. Every CFO usually knows the number of invoices processed each month and the resulting savings can be compared with the cost of the solution and voila - we have an ROI! Pretty easy, right? But of course, every competitor can claim similar savings, assuming the cost of the solution is comparable.

We could in theory add a set of ROI calculations that estimate the savings of a particular user experience compared to the competition, or the savings resulting from a better product architecture but let’s face it, this will be a tough one to make credible.

That brings me to the main issue with ROI. Some solutions - like my accounts payable example - have a very measurable, credible ROI. Others don’t. Usually, anything to do with knowledge worker productivity or customer experience is difficult to measure. Often, it is impossible - or impossible to make credible.

Just take knowledge worker productivity (or effectiveness) which is a frequently quoted value proposition. What’s the ROI of the telephone on your desk? Or the wi-fi network in your office? How about the ROI of email? It’s hard to argue that these tools don’t contribute to the knowledge worker productivity but the benefit is so obvious that we just don’t bother calculating it. Sure, we can calculate the ROI moving from traditional PBX phone system to Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones. But we don’t need any formula to justify purchasing phones for every employee.

Any calculation that deals with knowledge worker’s time savings is dubious. Sure, a transactional type of work is really measured in hard numbers but most of the knowledge workers are switching between tasks, going to meetings, spending time brainstorming, thinking, creating, and communicating with others. It is not credible to argue that because a particular solution saved 30 minutes a day, it results is a measurable productivity increase.  

The bottom line is that ROI is not a magic bullet. It may very much help to establish the need or even justify the purchase for certain types of solutions. But there are many solutions purchased not because of an ROI: communication, collaboration and social software, knowledge management, document sharing, office and personal productivity applications - all such offerings are usually purchased because they just make sense rather than as a result of a hard ROI.

Don't sweat the ROI too much. Because sometimes, common sense beats ROI.

Monday, February 4, 2013

I Want You To Get Self-Driving Cars!

I want you to get self-driving cars! All of you! Because, let’s face it, driving is no fun. Daily, most metropolitan areas are choked by terrible traffic jams. Today, as the traffic patterns force people either to buy houses or to find jobs in specific areas, traffic jams interfere with the health of our economy. I live in Waterloo which is just about an hour away from Toronto with its wealth of overpriced cultural and culinary experiences, but we rarely go because it can often take well over two hours of stop-and-go traffic to get there.

The root cause of the problem is you. OK, us. Cars are reasonably small and fast and the roads are big, at least in America. In theory, they should be sufficient. In reality, though, it is the drivers causing trouble. There are countless reasons for traffic jams: accidents, rubbernecking from the opposite lane, unreasonable speeds (too low or too high), tailgating, haphazard lane changes, poor understanding of traffic laws (don’t get me started on roundabouts in Waterloo...sigh), and, yes, poor driving skills. All those issues have one thing in common - they are all caused by human errors.

The solution is rather simple - eliminate the source of the human error - the humans. Of course such a proposition appeared like science fiction for years. The only self-driving vehicles were usually confined to highly controlled environments like airport terminal shuttles. Such vehicles use rails for steering, they don’t have to negotiate other vehicles, and they operate at a constant speed - hardly a technology that could replace cars.

But then, Google came out with one of their pet projects - the self-driving car. At first, we didn’t believe it would even be possible. Sure, Google has some smart engineers and a pile of money to use for just about anything, but - self-driving cars on real roads? Give me a break! Yet Google didn’t relent and continued applying its magical algorithms to solve the problem of driving autonomous vehicles. Today, self-driving cars are already licensed to drive on the roads of several states, including California which has perhaps one of the worst traffic problems in the nation.

The Google top executives in a self-driving car.
I have to admit, I am still not entirely clear what self-driving cars have in common with what I consider Google’s core competence: search. Perhaps, it’s those smart algorithms that can negotiate traffic safely. And driving safely they apparently do - the self-driving cars have supposedly driven thousands and thousands of miles without any accidents. That’s amazing! A true testimony to the state of technology which is today capable of replacing humans at some of the most challenging, intellectual tasks.

The beauty about the self-driving cars is that they don’t cause accidents, they don’t speed, tailgate, or rubberneck, and they know the rules of the road. That’s why they can drive without those humans causing errors that result in traffic jams. But a single self-driving car will not solve the issue. It might free me to do whatever I want while dealing with the traffic on its own but the frustrating traffic jams will only go away if all of the cars are self-driving. We won’t eliminate human errors by replacing one human driver, we have to replace them all  (or at least most of them).

That’s where I need you to get a self-driving car. All of you. Please get one as soon as possible. I don’t know where to buy one today but we all need them. Preferably, get one running on alternate fuel too to solve the pollution issue at the same time. Or just take the train. But until we replace the human drivers, we will have to deal with traffic jams and driving will remain a misery.