It hasn't even been creeping change: Every advance of business and consumer technology has resulted in a dramatic increase in the volume and variety of what have always been called "documents" but which now are being more appropriately termed "content.“The reason for the adjustment in terminology is simple: Information flows ever more profusely both in quantity and form, both from within and without business enterprises.
Much of this valuable information exists in isolation on individual desktops, in scattered databases, or in file cabinets, out of reach to people who potentially could use it to further the objectives of the organization. And it's not just paper copies anymore. It takes various forms—everything from letters, analyses, presentations, and reports to video tapes, CDs, engineering drawings, and even music. It's all "documents," according to a Xerox Corporation paper issued a few years ago:
The document is the single most important vehicle for the transmission of information between people. Information carried within documents can be presented in different forms, most of which can be transposed between various media.
Text, graphics, video, audio. All can be transmitted, presented, shared and worked on as digital document files. [This Web page] is a document in digital format. If you download it to a floppy it becomes a document on disc. If you print it out it becomes a hard copy document. If you scan it back into your system using OCR software, it returns to being an editable document file.
The hard copy manuscript of a Mozart Symphony sitting in a Salzburg Museum is a document. A CD of the Vienna Philharmonic playing that symphony is an audio document. A video of the performance is yet another document. But all are carrying the same essential information. Only the medium is different and is chosen for the effect the producer wishes to have on the end user.
And all of this content can lead to corporate chaos. This article discusses past efforts to deal with it and a promising approach that is gaining favor today.
Mandate for Management
Consider the file cabinet. We all have them in our offices, despite that for some decades now, we've heard promises of the paperless office. Nevertheless, paper copies endure, mainly because people take comfort in their presence.
While paper copies and file cabinets were more than adequate when businesses tended to be smallish and localized, we are in an international business environment now, where volumes of documents often are exchanged at light speed and many availability requirements will not abide lengthy searches.
Electronic document processes have made significant inroads in managing and distributing corporate knowledge. Securely stored digitized documents are more efficient, more easily transmitted, and more easily archived and retrieved. It has been a good start. But there is more to it. It is one thing to have information on file. It is another, vastly more significant, thing to be able to have the full corporate knowledge resource consolidated and available, under positive control and available as needed, when needed, and where needed.
How serious is the problem? A Cohasset Associates study for AIIM/ARMA recently revealed the following:
- 80% of the data on the surveyed companies' networks is stored in geographically dispersed hard drives.
- 67% percent of U.S. workers in the services sectors have "knowledge" as their product.
- 15-30% percent of employees' time is spent searching for information.
This situation cries out for change, and the good news is that change is possible, affordable, and available at the enterprise and department levels and to mid-size organizations that heretofore may have considered Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions beyond their means.
Content and Its Challenges
The document/content management dilemma has its basis in several things: the almost logarithmically increasing supply and variety of information, the increasing complexity of business activities, the unprecedented interdependencies of people and teams within business organizations, and the increasing amount of scrutiny of business by public and private regulatory organizations, to name a few.
Numerous questions must be considered to address the dilemma. To mention just a handful: Should information remain distributed, or should it be consolidated and easily shareable? If it is valuable to one employee, might it not also be valuable to another? How should it be evaluated? How should it be stored and identified? What should be its availability standards? Where should it reside? How should it be secured? How should it be indexed in order to avoid confusion between versions? What should be the lifespan of a particular piece of content?
The answers are of course variable, and each question has to be answered in its own context. Therefore, a content management solution must be highly flexible and rules-based. The notion that enterprise content should be consolidated and managed is not a new one; it goes back more than 20 years. The first forays into ECM were designed to address the needs of large, complex organizations. But experience has revealed that even in these types of environments, the complexity of the available ECM solutions often has resulted in only limited use.
The problem normally has not been one of performance; more frequently, it's a combination of expense and the inability to achieve universal employee buy-in to the use of the solutions, which usually entail serious capital outlay both for initial purchase and for the subsequent implementation costs. Think hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars. According to Gartner Group, a 100-seat conventional deployment costs at least $500,000. And recently, user experience and affordability issues have triggered a reassessment and stimulated new questions.
Is all of this functionality really necessary? Can it be scaled to meet the needs of both large enterprises and more-agile, mid-size organizations and individual corporate departments? And can ECM solutions be made affordable enough, user-friendly enough, and flexible enough that companies and corporate units with limited technology skills and limited content management requirements can justify them and make them broadly operational?
Web-Based Content Management
One of the limitations of most large-scale systems has been in very understandable architectural considerations. Most such systems emerged when client-server technology dominated the corporate IT infrastructure. Now, however, Internet/Web technology provides the opportunity for simpler, easier operations and far lower costs of acquisition and implementation—as much as 90% lower.
Besides ECM software, the Web-based content management environment requires only a referenceable database to catalogue content (meaning the metadata) and a browser to access the content repository. Such a fundamental solution, says Gartner Group, can satisfy the requirements of up to 95% of all enterprises.
Putting Information to Work
It's difficult to identify any business activity that does not benefit from the aggressive capture, consolidation, and organization of both internally generated information and content derived from outside sources. Here are just a few examples, all characterized by their document-intensive nature:
- Invoices and receivables: Invoices generated by the accounting system should be easy to track, retrieve, and resend if necessary. Establishing an invoice life cycle brings a new level of organization to accounts receivable, reducing days-sales-outstanding (DSO) and accelerating cash flow.
- Customer service: When customers call in, they hate to be put on hold. It should be simple and easy for customer response personnel to deal with billing problems and other questions in real time with real, up-to-date information.
- Centralized storage: Virtually any document prepared at any location within the enterprise should be captured, stored, and referenced easily by any authorized individual. Currently, much of this information continues to reside unknown to other employees, often on distributed servers or user workstations that are situated in other departments and geographic locations.
- Purchasing to payables: Whether they are copies of requisitions, invoices, approval copies, purchase orders, shipping/receiving notices, or any other document related to procurement, ECM solutions should keep them together, indexed for easy access and instantly available for update or problem resolutions. Additionally, externally focused implementations can also house electronic versions of supplier catalogs, price lists, and more for self-service access to partners and customers. Purchasing naturally feeds into accounts payable, thereby facilitating the flow of invoices, helping to systematize the payment process, and simplifying responses to vendor inquiries.
- Supply chain: Like purchasing, supply chain processes involve a stream of documentation concerning shipments, carriers, warehousing, inventory levels, and delivery. Such documents need to be organized so that information is available instantly, preventing problems or solving them quickly if anything goes wrong.
- Collaboration: Business documents—such as engineering drawings, proposals, reports, legal papers, and prospectuses—usually rely on the input of multiple individuals. Features such as automated version control can help maintain order and continuity as versions evolve.
- Compliance: The requirements of regulatory oversight agencies are increasingly complex and detailed, often calling for the production of various types of documentation on short notice. Businesses must be able to catalog their fiscal and other compliance information to ensure that it can be produced quickly and to build in security and audit information that satisfies strict standards of demonstrated compliance.
- Sales: Whether simple sales orders or more complex activities like contract development, review, and award, the ability to archive all relevant material centrally and to access it for analysis, modification, and confirmation can provide a new level of order in what is often a hectic, pressure-driven process.
Sourcing, Organizing, Utilizing
Essential to any effective ECM system is a centralized repository or integrated repository cluster. Data input can come from virtually any internal line-of-business program or user authoring tool, formatted to automatically enter the database following a standardized template. Likewise, external data can be digitized in any number of ways—such as via scanner or, in the case of image files, OCR, ICR, and forms processing—and placed in the repository. Metadata tags and full-text indexing can facilitate search and retrieval, and frequently used files can be assigned filters that further streamline search procedures.
The integrity of managed files is of paramount concern within the content management environment. Thus, electronic files should be indexed and stored in their native format within a common file system. Files can be checked out by users and assigned version numbers, retaining the benefit of being indexed and managed throughout the file's lifecycle, all the while preserving the electronic chain of custody.
Distribution of content need not be complex, since the primary electronic methods usually are already in place: automated electronic mail and fax programs integrated with the content management system.
Achieving regulatory compliance with industry-specific and governmental regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA relies on having an effective retention schedule for organizational files in addition to an effective and flexible security paradigm. Retention rules and standards can be incorporated within the system to assure that all corporate and regulatory requirements are observed, normally in an automated process that reduces, if not eliminates, the possibility of human error.
Security considerations can be satisfied through a variety of methods, among them authentication, SSL encryption, non-repudiation, authorizations, audit tracking, and not least, delegated administrative roles. Day-to-day repository administration can be delegated to users tasked with the routine growth and use of the information within the system while the more advanced management functions can be retained by technical and administrative staff.
Additionally, a workflow engine can be added to the solution to automate and execute tasks such as forms processing approval or establishment of best practices for common organizational tasks, effectively managing the production of information as well as the flow of information throughout the organization.
Once the solution is in place, administrators can create independent domains for different departments or divisions to organize documents according to business function. They can control unstructured content with custom document classes distinguished by unique, fully searchable metadata properties. Under these types of structures, users can retrieve specific materials using any number or combination of parameters including full-text, file properties, author, version, and metadata.
Case in Point
A content management solution user that replaced an earlier electronic archive system did so in order to streamline its accounts receivable process by scanning in documents related to specific invoices, automatically linking them with the respective invoices, and having the files visible on demand to AR personnel. Because it is independent of the corporate network, the browser-based content management system enables anyone who can access the company intranet to access, view, and distribute any files that he or she is authorized for. The ease and effectiveness of this solution quickly suggested additional applications.
In an application for the sales order process, EDI invoices are now being corrected without going through the paperwork stage. Sales department personnel link the related paperwork directly to the respective documents at the digitized level in the content management solution, never leaving the electronic environment. In another application, shipping documents now are scanned into the repository and linked directly to the invoices that they pertain to. Everything is electronically filed, and if users need a document, they simply retrieve it and do what they need to do with the document; if changes are made, the original is retained and a new version number is applied to the updated copy. This process dramatically simplifies the procedure for locating pertinent information.
The solution also features an electronic bulletin board that supports various activities, such as meeting preparation and other types of collaboration. For example, if several people have to participate in a meeting, they can post their contribution outlines electronically on the bulletin board, eliminating the need to flood email repositories.
Efficiency, Economy, and Accountability
As the preceding example illustrates, the simplicity of Web-based content management allows it to slip into a company's operations painlessly, connecting easily with existing software and scaling almost effortlessly as new possibilities and new applications are identified.
This broad applicability, ease of implementation, and simplicity in operation represents the opportunity for a true transformation of enterprise document management, one that is scaleable and affordable enough to be practical at the enterprise, department, and mid-size company levels. It can be implemented in a highly specific manner without disrupting other company initiatives, and it can be extended at will, with equal compatibility.
Our most sophisticated enterprises have been trying to resolve the document management dilemma for decades. ECM is how they must proceed if they are to meet the demands for efficiency, economy, and accountability that are the hallmarks of today's best practices. The power and flexibility of distributed Web technology finally makes it possible.
Jessica Butler joined ACOM Solutions, Inc. as Enterprise Content Management product manager in 2005 after having spent nearly 20 years in the software industry, about 15 of them directly related to the ECM field. She has worked in many IT infrastructure environments, serving clients in the legal, commercial, financial, and government fields. Jessica is a member of the leading professional associations representing the ECM and technology fields, including ARMA and AIIM, and she was named a member of the International Who's Who of Information Technology Professionals.