A New Approach To Collaboration And Enterprise Content Management

Dec 12, 2008 (07:12 PM EST)

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Larry Hawkins has a problem. Actually, he has several million. The company he works for, First Energy, generates 2 million e-mails a week. Then there are untold Word documents, spreadsheets, CAD files, videos, and other pieces of content flooding the company.

"We are great at creating information, but really bad at deleting low-value information," says Hawkins, First Energy's director of records and information compliance. "The more stuff laying around out there represents a risk to the company."

It may be cold comfort, but Hawkins isn't alone. At companies everywhere, e-mail, collaboration tools, and Office applications generate a rising tide of unstructured business content. It's not enough to simply soak it up with additional storage. Compliance and e-discovery requirements demand more discrimination, identifying which information should be retained and which can safely be destroyed. At the same time, companies must make sure employees and other users can access the content they need to conduct daily business.

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Companies have two choices: manage this business content, or drown in it.

The choice may require some radical rethinking about enterprise content management systems. Companies have been using ECM products to handle official business records--such as contracts, invoices, medical records, and financial statements--for years. And the policies, processes, and technologies to manage these types of records are well understood and widely implemented. That's not the case for the larger class of unstructured content, which tends to live outside the bounds of an ECM platform. ECM vendors are trying to expand the boundaries of their products to serve as general-purpose information governance systems. In addition to being the big bucket for companies' unstructured content, they're trying to provide a management layer that applies policies to content even if it doesn't sit in the vendor's repositories.

"Compliance and record retention will move from something that a few regulated companies do with a subset of documents to something that lots of companies will do with lots of data," says Mark Lewis, president of EMC's content management and archiving division.

At the same time, collaboration applications--first and foremost Microsoft's SharePoint--are getting into the act. SharePoint's organic integration with Office makes it a strong contender as a content management system.

CIOs rethinking the "save everything forever" approach must make sure strategies can cut through regulations.
On top of all this, new initiatives aim to ensure that ECM platforms balance availability, interoperability, and management in this sea of information. A push for interoperability standards is one such initiative (see story, "Standard Interface Will Open New Options For ECM").

It makes good sense to have a software layer that lets companies apply retention and records rules to business content regardless of where that content resides. Of course, implementing an enterprise-wide system to manage business content requires significant integration and policy decisions, but the alternatives--failing an e-discovery test, missing a regulatory requirement, and locking out people and applications that need to use content--are worse.

The best place to start understanding how to ride the surge of business content is with collaboration apps. They're responsible for generating a significant portion of business information, which makes them an increasingly viable option to control it.

Microsoft's SharePoint is turning the ECM market upside-down. In a survey of 800 midsize and large companies, Gartner found 57% have implemented Windows SharePoint Services. Acknowledging its growing role in content management, Gartner includes SharePoint as a leader in its ECM Magic Quadrant, alongside traditional powers EMC, IBM, and Open Text.

SharePoint is the nexus for reams of unmanaged information. It makes it easier for people to create growing volumes of documents, blogs, and wikis that may not be official business records and aren't getting picked up by conventional ECM tools. And its integration with Office positions it to manage that content.

SharePoint provides some useful document and records management features, including version control, approval workflows, and retention and expiration policies. Its interface lets users declare a file to be an official record, or administrators can set policies to automatically make content into a record.

Microsoft claims SharePoint has evolved from a collaboration tool to a full ECM platform. And now it's investing in Web content management, document management, and records management capabilities, says Jeff Teper, VP in the Office Business Platform Group.

Conventional ECM vendors regard SharePoint as a classic "frenemy" that can be embraced for gain but is also a blood rival. Business users often end up using both SharePoint and traditional management products.

Consider pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The company has 6,000 SharePoint sites with 63,000 active users. That's almost two-thirds of the company's 98,000 employees, and it's happened in just over a year, says Dave Biersach, associate director at Pfizer. His team runs and manages Pfizer's SharePoint farms, which sit across four global data centers.

Pfizer also has about 2,000 employees using EMC's flagship enterprise content management platform, Documentum, which is the system of record for submitting new drug applications to the FDA.

Which is more vital? 63,000 users is impressive, but drug development is the heart of Pfizer's business, and it entrusts Documentum to help manage the complex application process. But Documentum sits inside well-defined boundaries at Pfizer with a limited set of uses. SharePoint's role doesn't yet have such limits.

While many Pfizer SharePoint sites revolve around pedestrian activities such as managing meetings, employees are getting creative. The desktop management group updates a SharePoint wiki with information from help desk tickets. When problems pop up, people can search the wiki to see if a fix already has been documented.

Pfizer scientists pull data from lab instruments and load it into SharePoint to share with other researchers, Biersach says. The company also has SharePoint sites in its DMZ to collaborate with business partners, such as biotech firms or other drug manufacturers that license a Pfizer drug compound.

"There was a culture of silos at the company," says Biersach. "But the pendulum is swinging to open collaboration and sharing across business lines, divisions, drug therapies." Employees like the openness: 42% of sites are open to everyone in the company, and more than 25% have active members from multiple departments and locations.

Biersach takes the content management part of ECM seriously. Pfizer has about 1.5 Tbytes of SharePoint content in its SANs, and he expects to have about 6 Tbytes in two years. But he's determined not to let SharePoint become an information landfill. "If three years from now we see 15 Tbytes, that would indicate a loss of governance," he says. "This isn't a glorified file share." Pfizer will archive SharePoint content for the long term only where appropriate. "We use governance and policies to keep a tight rein on things," he says.

Yet SharePoint has its limitations as an ECM platform. It lacks the full capabilities of mature ECM products that are used for document-centric applications such as loan processing. It also must be linked with third-party apps for standard ECM components such as ingesting scanned images into a repository.

Imapct Assessment: Enterprise Content Management

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Conventional ECM vendors, recognizing the business potential of tying collaboration to content management systems, are investing in their own collaboration platforms.

EMC's July upgrade to Documentum 6.5 includes CenterStage Essentials, which lets people create workspaces where they can invite others, inside and outside the company, to share documents and create workflows. Content saved to CenterStage Essentials ties into Documentum's back-end infrastructure with its compliance and retention capabilities. CenterStage Essentials, now in beta, should be available early next year.

CenterStage, EMC insists, isn't a SharePoint competitor. "SharePoint is better positioned as a content services tool for the masses," says Whitney Tidmarsh, EMC's VP of worldwide marketing for content management and archiving. CenterStage is aimed at content-driven applications that pull in users from several companies, she says. A car manufacturer with a new product design might want its own design team as well as suppliers using the app. "Employees get full access, and suppliers only get the portion of the car they're working on," Tidmarsh says.

But other ECM vendors, particularly IBM and Alfresco, are going head to head with SharePoint. IBM in October revealed plans to integrate Lotus Quickr, its collaboration and social networking platform, with its ECM products, including FileNet P8 and IBM Content Manager 8. Lotus Quickr provides portals and team workspaces for employees and business partners to share documents and create blogs and wikis. IBM says the integration will be available in December with Lotus Quickr 8.1.1.

IBM recently said it would put key content management functions from FileNet Content Manager 4.5 directly into Office 2007's user interface. This would include the ability to search for content across multiple FileNet repositories, check documents in and out of FileNet, tap into business process workflows, and integrate with FileNet Records Manager 4.5 to declare Office documents as official records. Both integration efforts are intended to blunt SharePoint's advantage from its close tie with Office.

Alfresco, the open source ECM vendor, positions itself as a SharePoint alternative, right down to the not-so-subtle name for its collaboration platform: Share. Launched in October as part of the newest version of Alfresco's Enterprise ECM platform, Share provides document collaboration capabilities as well as blogs, wikis, and calendaring.

Share lets people collaborate on Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other Office files without using SharePoint. That's because it uses Microsoft's Office network protocols--the same ones Office uses to connect to SharePoint. The European Commission last year ordered Microsoft to make the protocols available as part of its effort to increase competition. Alfresco's betting companies want an alternative to buying the complete Microsoft software stack--including Windows, .Net, Internet Explorer, and SQL Server--to run SharePoint.

To apply the right management and retention policies to business content being created in collaborative environments, Share connects to a central Alfresco repository.

Other ECM vendors see an advantage to staying focused on content management, envisioning a symbiotic relationship with SharePoint and, in some cases, a larger role as the manager of various third-party repositories in the enterprise.

ECM Evolution
Latest products focus on collaboration and third-party content management
Alfresco's Enterprise 3.0 platform adds Share collaboration capabilities
EMC's Documentum 6.5 gets new components:
  • CenterStage for collaboration
  • Federated Records Services to manage content in other repositories
  • Retention Policy Services to apply retention to content enterprise-wide
IBM's FileNet P8 Content Manager 4.5 adds:
  • Document management functions for Microsoft Office
  • Native support for Lotus Quickr
Microsoft's SharePoint Server 2007 uses the Fast enterprise search platform to search inside SharePoint
Open Text's Storage Services for SharePoint offloads content from SQL to external storage for compliance and retention
Open Text says that by embracing SharePoint, its software can be used to enforce retention policies on content created in SharePoint. The company in October announced Open Text Storage Services for SharePoint. Using Microsoft APIs, Open Text can store Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) content on third-party storage systems, rather than on a SLQ Server database, letting customers "age out content onto cheaper storage devices as it gets used less frequently," says Bill Forquer, Open Text's executive VP of marketing.

Open Text also offers Content Management Lifecycle Services for MOSS, which lets companies capture SharePoint content and assign retention policies according to business and regulatory requirements. Different departments might collaborate on a set of technical documents for a new product, and the final version gets moved from SharePoint to an OpenText repository, where the retention policies are applied.

IBM FileNet and EMC Documentum also have connectors that can reach into SharePoint and move content into IBM and EMC repositories to manage and archive it.

Some ECM vendors aim to be the central policy control point for repositories throughout the enterprise. Case in point is EMC's Documentum Federated Records Services and Retention Policy Services. These modules, introduced in Documentum 6.5, use APIs to let administrators connect to repositories from IBM, Microsoft, Open Text, Symantec, and others, and apply records or retention policies and take actions such as applying a legal hold. They make Documentum the retention management layer without the need to move content into a Documentum repository and let Documentum expand its reach beyond official records.

"The rules can be applied to any piece of information," says EMC's Tidmarsh. "It doesn't have to be an official record. You might have an executive's blog to keep around. It might be kept for intellectual property reasons or good governance."

ECM products like Documentum have come a long way from their origins moving certain content through specific business processes, such as loan origination or check processing. This is still their primary role, but ECM vendors are broadening their scope to help companies manage new content types and encourage collaboration.

Where does that leave your choices? Companies will always have a mishmash of content repositories to deal with, so it makes sense to build a software layer that can reach into all them to apply uniform policies.

But before picking the technology to manage content, focus on the rules. Companies need sensible retention and disposition policies that account for the changing business value of content, compliance and legal requirements, and user expectations about how long information should be retained. This last point is vital since employees would happily save every e-mail and Office file for 100 years, just in case. Companies must balance this compunction with reasonable disposition.

Next comes workflow. The application of content management policies must have a workflow that reconciles robust classification with user productivity. Force employees to click through a 15-step file plan just to post a suggestion to the holiday party planning wiki, and they'll be outside your office with torches and pitchforks.

First Energy's Hawkins found reasonable middle ground between workflow extremes with his company's IBM FileNet ECM platform. He requires every employee to classify e-mail messages before they're sent, but he made the process as easy as possible. "We put a menu toolbar in the UI," Hawkins says. "We give them four buckets to put mail in. If they classify it for retention, it gets picked up by our content management system and managed for its retention period."

Hawkins isn't stopping at e-mail. He has plans to get all the company's content under stricter management, from Office documents to CAD files to audio and video. "We can do a better job of grouping our information for the most efficient access and use," he says.

Finally, demand that vendors provide more and better integration among third-party content repositories. Companies should support new initiatives such as the Content Management Interoperability Services specification, to ensure that ECM platforms provide the balance of availability, interoperability, and management required to ride the information wave instead of drown.

Photo illustration by Sek Leung

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Standard Interface Will Open New Options For ECM,
Open Source And SaaS Shake Up ECM
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