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Enterprise content management systems

Your guide to understanding the components of ECM, the ROI and value of an ECM system, and best practices for implementation.

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

What is enterprise content management (ECM)?

Modern technology terminology can be confusing, and “enterprise content management”, despite existing for decades, remains an unclear term. Let’s define it.

Enterprise content management (or ECM) digitizes, controls and automates the flow of unstructured information within a company.

“Unstructured information” describes the messy information that exists outside structured database environments. For example:

Structured Unstructured
Corporate financial records inside an ERP or finance application (like Sage or Quickbooks) Incoming invoices, packing slips or bills of lading
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 to understand its context; provides opportunities to annotate, edit or improve the information; and offers robust workflow and automation tools to ensure that information gets to the right people at the right time.

This also includes the creation, management, processing and archiving of documents, all the way to the digital signature. Documents are available everywhere, and security and compliance are safeguarded. Even mobile users have access to all necessary data and multiple employees can access the same document in parallel. In addition, with robust logging and analytics capabilities, organizations have a record of who accessed, changed or removed document and when.

These document management capabilities are enhanced by digital workflow automation. Digital workflow enables an organization to establish predictable, repeatable, measurable processes that remove the need for manual data entry, lost information and constant status updates.

Some ECM systems include additional tiers of content management such as web content publishing, but these are not generally recognized as a core competency.

ECM enables communication with customers and suppliers to be digitized, modernized and consequently improved. And that documents are intelligently organized and assists with their retrieval. In short, “enterprise content management” is a set of capabilities that enable an organization of any size to control and understand their body of corporate information.

What is the difference between ECM and document management?

A “document management system” (DMS) is a term often used interchangeably with “enterprise content management”. Regarding some features, that is OK, but it is not the whole truth.

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 that information is typically document-centric.

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 organizations, this is valuable, but expensive to implement and maintain. For most organizations, document management — the majority of the ECM capability set — is exactly what they need.

It is important to note that “Enterprise Content Management” does not equate to “only large companies”. The value of ECM can be achieved in any size organization despite the slightly pejorative leading word.

Is “ECM” and “content services” the same thing?

In 2016, Gartner introduced the term “content services” as a replacement to the term “enterprise content management”. From Gartner:

The term "enterprise content management" no longer reflects market dynamics or the organizational needs for content in digital business. For applications leaders in charge of content management projects, this means casting aside previous notions and rethinking their technology approaches.

This new concept attempts to move the industry away from the single-system thinking of ECM to a more modular, cloud-first approach of integrated and interoperable content management components. Other analyst firms like Forrester have also adopted this terminology. Analyst firms are one way to identify top ECM providers.

Does this change anything practically? Not really. ECM and content services are still describing the same feature and capability set, and customers will end up buying and using the same technologies either way.

Start: The components of ECM

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