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Enterprise content management:

What it is, best practices and how to implement it.

An enterprise content management (ECM) system can significantly improve business efficiency, reduce costs and increase employee and customer satisfaction. ECM software brings measurable value to almost any department within a company: accounting, human resources, sales, legal and more can all benefit.

If you're not yet making use of these rapidly growing technology tools in your business, now is the time to consider them. Learn more about enterprise content management solutions below.

What is enterprise content management?

Modern technology terminology can be confusing, and 'enterprise content management' remains an unfamiliar term for some. Let’s define it.

Enterprise content management is an umbrella term for processes and technologies that support businesses in capturing, storing, delivering and using essential information. Such information can be customer demographics, order histories, patient medical records or even drawings. The people receiving the data can range from employees and internal stakeholders to customers and business partners.

Simply put, enterprise content management (ECM) digitises, controls and automates the flow of unstructured information within a company, which is the messy information that exists outside structured database environments. For example:



Corporate financial records inside an ERP or finance application (like Sage or QuickBooks)

Incoming invoices, packing slips or proof of deliveries

Employee data inside a human resources planning application (like Oracle PeopleSoft or Workday)

Resumes, tax documents and certifications

Customer data inside a CRM (like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics)

Emails, photographs or meeting notes

Typically, ECM systems handle the capture, reading and indexing of information; provide opportunities to annotate, edit or improve the information; and offer robust workflow and automation tools to ensure that information gets to the right people at the right time.

Documents are available from anywhere and security and compliance are safeguarded. Even mobile users have access to all necessary data, allowing multiple employees to access the same document in parallel. In addition, with robust audit logging and analytics capabilities, organisations have a record of who accessed, changed or removed documents and when.

These document management capabilities are enhanced by digital workflow automation. Digital workflow enables an organisation to establish predictable, repeatable, measurable processes that remove the need for manual data entry and eliminate the possibility of losing information.

What is the difference between ECM and document management?

The term 'document management system' (DMS) is often used interchangeably with 'enterprise content management,' but this usage is misleading.

The easiest way to think about document management is as a subset of the broader ECM capability set. Document management covers many of the core features such as capturing, indexing, archiving, automating and controlling information, but typically only with respect to the information found in documents.

A complete ECM system might manage information from web content, social media accounts and other highly dynamic and scalable information sources that are outside the boundaries of a document. For larger organisations, this can be immensely valuable. For many smaller organisations, document management may suffice.

It's important to note that 'Enterprise Content Management' isn't only valuable for large companies. The value of ECM can be realised in organisations of any size, despite the leading word.

A glossary of common enterprise content management terms

Enterprise content management sounds like a complex process — and it certainly can be. But once you understand some of the terms and processes involved in ECM, it makes it less of an alien technical process and more of a business process that's somewhat familiar. Check out some of the glossary terms below to get more acquainted with ECM systems.

  • Capture. This is the act of gathering data and documents to be housed and used within the ECM solution. Documents and data can be captured by scanning, importing, manual data entry via forms and other methods
  • Digital repository. This is where the documents and data are housed, typically in the cloud so they can be accessed by employees and others with appropriate credentials from anywhere
  • Metadata in ECM software refers to index fields used to identify data or documents. That might include information such as categories, dates, company names, file type and size. The term also applies to system data such as store date, stored by, last time accessed and file format.
  • Structured content. Structured content is data that's well-defined and structured in a way to be used by certain software. A database is a common example of structured content.
  • Unstructured content. Unstructured content is data that isn't in a well-defined format and may not be as easy to integrate into various business software. Common examples of unstructured content include emails or PDFs. Usually, software is used to structure content in order to make it more useful to business processes. This is where document management solutions come in.
  • Transactional content. This type of content is usually created outside of your business and related to a specific process or transaction. Contracts and vendor invoices are two examples of transactional content. Typically, these documents must be easy to access and work with during the transaction and archived for record-keeping after the fact.
  • Archive. When used as a verb, archive refers to the act of moving documents and data that aren't needed on a daily basis to a different digital location or status. This typically removes them from the 'active' area where people are working, which makes it easier to pull more current documents quickly. However, in a digital world, archived documents and data can still be accessed with one click when needed.

Components of ECM system: Capture, Manage, Process, Collaborate, Archive, Integrate

7 benefits of enterprise content management solutions

The right enterprise content management software offers benefits that range from efficiency and organisation to improved customer satisfaction and compliance. Some of the benefits you can expect to see from a well-implemented ECM solution include:

  • Increased efficiency. Enterprise content management systems allow you to automate manual processes, reduce or eliminate reliance on slower paper processes and house all data in a central repository. That leads to efficiencies that can drive numerous benefits, ranging from faster time to market for products or services to reduced labour costs for business tasks in every sector including manufacturing and higher education
  • Access to a clear view of business processes. Having all data in one location lets your executives, line managers and other staff come up with a clearer, more precise picture of your business and customer trends. You can make decisions based on those data-backed insights knowing that important information hasn't been left out, duplicated or misinterpreted
  • Easier access to all types of data. The best ECM solutions include tools that make data access easier, such as powerful search by document type, index terms, keywords or full text search. That ensures your staff have the access and options they need to turn raw data into business intelligence. But it also opens the door for integrations and other user tools that allow people within your organisation to access the information required to do their jobs
  • Lower cost of operation. Efficiencies and greater productivity lead to cost savings, but enterprise content management solutions can offer additional cost benefits. Having access to real-time data and the ability to use it to support workflows and business decisions helps everyone in your organisation make smarter decisions, leading to potential savings within areas such as inventory control, compliance or employee management. And if your enterprise becomes involved in a legal or compliance situation, e-discovery and audits will be less time-consuming and expensive with support from ECM software.
  • Increased customer satisfaction. Customer-facing staff with access to an ECM solution can easily access information about the client's account, orders, products, communication or anything else necessary to provide fast, high-quality customer support. This helps increase the rate at which customer service staff can resolve issues on the first contact, potentially increasing satisfaction rates. The same benefits can be true with regard to sales processes, helping your sales team to close more deals
  • Improve cash flow and invoice monitoring. In accounting, improved process execution through ECM drives higher cash flow. It still takes 30 days for payment to be remitted into a bank account for invoices sent by regular mail. With digital invoices, this process can be shortened to days, hours or even minutes. In addition, the shipping and receipt of billing documents are easier to follow and made trackable. When invoices are digitally captured, automating the approval process can enable early payment discounts and prevent late payments. ECM helps the processing, settlement, storage and archiving of incoming and outgoing invoices, too, thus boosting the reliability of cooperation with suppliers
  • Use of electronic signature. In the modern office, electronic signatures are now a normal part of day-to-day business. This is a good thing: electronic signatures (sometimes called 'digital signatures') reduce paper usage and simplify your secure document workflow. Electronically signed documents are legally valid in many situations, providing numerous opportunities to accelerate and significantly optimise business processes. Business processes that require signatures are completed more quickly and time isn't wasted sending paper documents back and forth. In addition, the move toward electronic signatures has accelerated as more and more companies go international


How to implement an enterprise content management system

One of the most important best practices for enterprise content management is taking the time to properly implement your solution. The following 10 steps help ensure organisations choose the right ECM, communicate the change to employees and other stakeholders and actually address business needs with the software.


Review ECM software options and decide on a solution

Leverage free demos and product trials to learn more about the contenders. Use the data you've collected to make a checklist defining your needs and must-haves. Assign members of the project team to evaluate solutions on the market and present those that best meet your needs. 

Decide whether you want to implement a cloud or on-premises solution. Your decision will be based on many factors including your organisation’s IT infrastructure, the potential cost of upgrading your hardware and the bandwidth and expertise of your IT team.

Approach your top choices and ask for pricing information and anything else you need to make a final decision. Making the right choice should become much clearer.


Get buy-in from critical stakeholders

Bring your analysis to critical stakeholders, such as an executive board. The goal of this step is to demonstrate the need for the ECM system with actual projections and numbers, illustrating potential ROI as well as confirming the suitability of your chosen solution.

Once your solution is given the go-ahead, you can begin to draft and deliver communication about the upcoming change to others. The goal isn't to overwhelm people with details about a change that hasn't yet arrived but to prepare them with logical reasons that the change is necessary. Proactively communicating about any type of tech implementation helps generate future buy-in at every level, which is important to success.


Form a project team

Start by pulling together a team of stakeholders and subject matter experts who can help you implement an enterprise content management solution. Some people you choose for the team might include:

  • Tech leadership and experts from the IT department, especially if you need to integrate the ECM with existing systems
  • Managers and employees from various departments who'll play a role in implementing the ECM software or benefit from it, including human resources, training, sales, customer service and accounting
  • At least one stakeholder who can champion the project; typically, this would be someone from executive leadership
  • Experts from areas that may need to have oversight of how the tool is implemented and used, such as your compliance or legal teams

Use your solution provider as a resource

Once you choose a vendor, take advantage of the expertise they’ve gained by working on many other implementations. The best solution providers are knowledgeable, highly responsive and provide ongoing support.


Define your current position and develop future goals

Work together as a team to produce two deliverables in the early stage of the project:

  • A current state process map that details how work is done now
  • A future state process map that details how you want work to be done

Taking time to understand your business processes and planning ahead helps you create an implementation process that supports minimal business interruption.


Create a roadmap to get from your current to future state

Spend time determining what changes need to be made to get from the current state to the future state. Create a list of those changes ranked by priority. Then you can develop a step-by-step roadmap for your project.


Create policies and procedures

While the technical work is being done to integrate the ECM system into your operation, ensure someone is creating policies and procedures for the use of the software. Documents you may want to create include:

  • Access policies that define who has access to what in the ECM system
  • Security protocols that define how you plan to protect data in the system and what you expect of employees in this regard
  • Workflow procedures that define how documents enter the system, what's done with the information in the system and who's responsible for various tasks
  • Knowledge management and training documents that will help teams roll out the new software as seamlessly as possible

Train your administrators and power users

Armed with this documentation in hand, begin training your administrators and power users. These users can put the system through all its paces during testing time. During that time, glitches and concerns can be addressed quickly and without upsetting overall productivity.


Test and fine-tune

If you're implementing ECM software one department at a time, you might have a small team of testers from the department you're currently implementing in. If you plan to implement the solution across the enterprise, recruit testers from every functional unit you can. They'll all be concerned about different aspects of the system. It's tempting to choose the best and brightest to test your system. And while your top employees may certainly be likely to spot important issues and communicate them to the team, it's also a good idea to include other employees to ensure the system works well for everyone.


Implement the ECM system across your department or enterprise

Once any issues identified by software testers have been corrected, begin rolling the ECM system out across the department or company. Make sure to include plenty of time for training to ensure the highest levels of buy-in.

Enterprise content management FAQs

What's an enterprise content management system?

An enterprise content management system is software designed to help organisations manage documents, data and content services. In some cases, an ECM system may comprise multiple applications, software solutions and integrations.

Why is enterprise content management important to an organisation?

When properly implemented, an enterprise content management system works like the brain of an organisation. It preserves and stores data similarly to how the brain stores memories for a person. ECM systems ensure employees, clients and others can retrieve information via the system and use it for the purpose of business tasks, analytics or decision-making.

What's the role of enterprise content management?

The role of enterprise content management is to ensure documents and data exist in a single system, reducing the time it takes to gather information necessary for critical business tasks.

What are the main elements of enterprise content management?

All ECM systems include at least five components:

The ability to:

  • Capture documents and data and convert them into versions that work within the system
  • Manage the documents and data, including options for accessing, searching, modifying and tracking them
  • Store documents and data securely in a way that supports rapid access and use
  • Preserve information in the form of backups and archives
  • Deliver information to users as they request it via search and other functions in the system
  • Integrate with other applications through native connectors or APIs


What's the typical ROI my company can expect to achieve?

Whether deployed within a single business process, a single department, or across an entire organisation, the return on investment (ROI) of ECM can be very high.

Findings from IDC's Content Workflow Automation Survey revealed that companies that took steps to digitalise, automate and enhance their document workflows achieved the following outcomes:

  • Saved an average of 3.1 hours per week that were previously dedicated to document-related tasks
  • Reduced time expended on searching for and potentially reconstructing misplaced or lost documents by 12.5%
  • Achieved a reduction of 41.2% on average in expenses linked to document storage

What are the top ECM providers?

The top enterprise content management providers are ranked on a range of factors, including customer satisfaction, user experience, features and capabilities, and more.

Not all enterprise content management software is equal.

Some providers focus on the enterprise market: thousands of users with complex installations that take many months to deploy because of the necessary professional services. Other providers specialise in the SME market with as few as five to ten users.

Also, not every ECM system is available as cloud software. If cloud software is important to your IT ecosystem, take care when researching providers.

Features and capabilities are important. Most enterprise content management providers offer a similar stack of core features with varying strengths and weaknesses. For example, some providers use next-generation machine learning, whereas others specialise in sophisticated workflow modelling.

Where can I find reviews of ECM systems?

While analyst reports are important points of research, they're written only by a few industry experts based on established ranking criteria and updated only once per year.

Equally important are reviews from actual users of the software. This provides a real-world set of pros and cons that should be taken seriously in identifying the best enterprise content management software. Here are four key sources of user reviews.

User reviews are based on a five-star system with prompting questions such as 'If you could start over, what would your organisation do differently?' for additional insight. Visit Capterra.

Reviews of DocuWare at Capterra

User reviews are based on a five-star system with pros and cons. These are also aggregated into the G2 Grid® for Enterprise Content Management (ECM). Visit G2.

Reviews of DocuWare at G2

User reviews are based on a five-star system with industry information. Peer Insights is owned by Gartner. Visit Peer Insights.

Reviews of DocuWare at Peer Insights

User reviews are based on a five-star system with clear pros and cons to help you evaluate the strengths of different ECM systems. Visit Software Advice.

Reviews of DocuWare at Software Advice

Start your enterprise content management system implementation today with DocuWare

Enterprise content management software is an important tool for all types of businesses. It can help you achieve benefits that improve your bottom line, enhance sales, increase efficiencies and even boost employee morale. But getting to those benefits requires a strong ECM implementation.

Find out more about ECM solutions and how DocuWare can help you implement one. Contact us today.


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