Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ECM - Fish or Fowl?

Enterprise software companies usually fall into one of two main categories: application software and infrastructure software. The common wisdom suggests that enterprise software vendors are either building infrastructure that enables multiple applications to operate or they are delivering applications that solve actual business problems.

ERP is a typical application software. The ERP applications solve specific business problems such as how to optimize the use of enterprise resources, how to accelerate HR processes, or how to reduce the amount of materials in stock without slowing down production.

Platforms such as operating systems, databases, and application servers are infrastructure software. Communication software ranging from EDI to messaging, file transfer, and email is infrastructure software. Virtualization software and administration/management software are infrastructure. Infrastructure does not solve any particular business problem - it can be applied to solve any number of them.

That begs the question, what is enterprise content management (ECM). As it turns out, ECM is rather unusual. Unlike almost any other enterprise software category, ECM can be deployed as infrastructure or as applications. Many customers I have seen, have deployed their ECM as a platform with multiple applications built upon it. They clearly consider ECM part of their infrastructure. Many customers have also deployed their ECM at the heart of their information sharing, archiving, or retention infrastructure. Gartner assigned ECM to what they used to call the Knowledge Worker Infrastructure category. There is no doubt about it - ECM is infrastructure software!

Yet, there are many deployments of ECM software devoted to applications - solutions for very specific business problems. Examples include contracts management, early case assessment, invoice processing, customer onboarding, plant asset management, digital marketing, and technical publishing - to name just one example for each of the seven types of content applications that I have introduced in my recent blog post. These deployments are not infrastructure, they are applications. Clearly, ECM is application software!

That makes enterprise content management quite unique - it can be deployed as an infrastructure and it can be used as an application (or multiple applications). There is hardly any other enterprise software category that comes with this level of complexity. The only other category I could think off is business process management (BPM) - a software category that shares a lot of synergies with ECM.

This uniqueness may explain some of the identity challenges that ECM has been having over the last two decades. Who owns ECM? Who’s in charge of the ECM architecture in the enterprise? The answers have never been very clean cut. Depending on the organization, the ‘owner’ may be in IT or in any number of corporate functions.

Most enterprise software vendors fall clearly on one side of the dividing line - they are either application vendors or infrastructure vendors. They may attempt to reach across that line, but their DNA is usually pretty hard-wired. SAP is an application vendor. VMware is an infrastructure vendor. IBM doesn’t do applications. Salesforce may claim to be a platform but it is really an application with the ability to be extended by add-ons - nobody would refer to their SFDC deployment as infrastructure. There are hardly any mixed vendors outside of ECM.

OK, people usually mention Oracle as a company that provides both - database software (infrastructure) and application software (ERP, CRM, etc.). That is true. However, Oracle has gotten to this point via a very aggressive acquisition strategy and its database, middleware, and application businesses are operating independently from each other. They are effectively several enterprise software companies under a single brand.

I believe that we have to accept the fact that ECM may mean a completely different thing to different people. It doesn’t make it any easier to describe (or sell) but it also makes it a much more exciting market. The versatility of ECM is something that both the vendors and customers often appreciate.

Because, ECM is unique!


  1. So many directions to go with this...

    ECM is neither. Really a strategy for managing all of your Content. If you had to equate ECM to one of the two, which I hate doing, I'd say Infrastructure.

    My marketing lingo...An ECM strategy can be readily implemented through deployment of a Content Management platform upon which different Applications, be they Content-Centric or not, use for Content Services.

    Essentially, the "E" is what makes it Infrastructure, but the "E" is unnecessary.


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