Putting the "E" in ECM

Top four questions to ask when selecting an enterprise content management solution

by Chris Wacker

When evaluating enterprise content management (ECM) systems, the IT department has its work cut out for it. Most organizations have a tangle of departments, policies, information silos, and systems -- including legacy systems -- for IT to consider. Sorting out these disparate needs to arrive at an ECM system upon which the organization can standardize is no easy feat.

Every department and business unit has its own unique content management needs. Some are looking for simple search-and-retrieval, some need to access information through their GIS, CRM, or ERP application, and some want to enable repeatable processes such as contract management or accounts payable processing. Finding a system that's flexible enough to accommodate these divergent goals and objectives can be a challenge, particularly when so many ECM systems require the services of expert -- and expensive -- programmers, analysts, and consultants to customize and configure them.

Why bother searching for an enterprise solution? Why not simply deploy a few different systems at the departmental level and be done with it?

The reason is, of course, that standards are important. They ensure consistency, promote efficiency, and allow organizations to leverage economies of scale. Furthermore, by implementing an agile ECM system that can be quickly and easily configured to meet multiple departments' needs:

  • IT staff only need to administer one system, minimizing support and maintenance demands
  • Employees only need to be familiar with one ECM interface, simplifying system access
  • Standardized metadata (i.e., common template fields) link disparate record sets together, facilitating cross-departmental collaboration

Four "E" Questions

Organizations that want to reap the benefits of standardization by putting the "E" in ECM should keep the following four questions in mind when selecting an ECM system.

Question #1: Can it "E"liminate silos?

The agile enterprise abhors data silos. Yet all too often, ECM systems end up siloed because they only meet one or two departments' very specific needs. Managing multiple departmental systems is expensive and complicated for IT staff, who must keep track of information that's spread over multiple locations. More often than not, these siloed systems end up compounding the problems they were supposed to solve.

By serving as the universal repository for all organizational content (including paper forms, audio/video files, e-mail, electronic documents, and more), an agile ECM system eliminates silos by providing a single point of control for complete lifecycle management.

Some of the features and functionality to look for when implementing ECM to eliminate silos include:

  • Intuitive capture and distribution tools
  • Automatic indexing and classification
  • Comprehensive security controls
  • Transparent records management
  • Advanced search

Question #2: Can it "E"asily integrate with other applications?

With ECM, sharing resources becomes transparent to end users. In some of its most innovative uses, ECM serves as integrative middleware that links into legacy systems and line-of-business applications, allowing users to access information in the manner and environment with which they are most comfortable.

For example:

  • Friedrich Wealth Management, a registered independent advisory firm serving Long Island and New York City, has integrated ECM with its CRM system so that advisors can have anytime/anywhere access to client information, boosting revenue by 25 percent.
  • Bakersfield, CA has integrated its ERP and ECM systems so that work crews can track costs associated with graffiti cleanup and create "graffiti mug shots." Police use the mug shots to arrest repeat offenders and prosecutors use them to recoup cleanup costs.
  • The Fertility Centers of Illinois has integrated an ECM solution with its EMR system in order to give doctors instant access to complete patient records that include lab results, X-rays, and historical medical data from outside providers.
  • Elkhart County, IN has integrated its ECM system with its GIS to build "What's in My Back Yard" (WIMBY), a public-facing tool that provides information on community threats such as sexual offenders' residences and former meth lab sites.
  • Idaho-based DL Evans Bank has integrated ECM with its branch automation software to grant tellers automatic access to client documentation to accelerate and improve customer service.

When used as "integrative middleware," ECM provides consistency, security, and transparency to users across the enterprise, through familiar applications they use every day.

Question #3: Can it "E"nable information sharing?

Information that can be shared across the organization is more useful than information that's locked up in a silo. However, ECM has moved way beyond the old finding-and-filing days to become a technology that not only manages information but also processes it. By serving as an enabler of information sharing across the enterprise, an agile ECM system eliminates data silos and automates cross-functional activities, accelerating collaboration and data processing.

When ECM is used as a shared service, process expertise is shared across multiple business units or functions. Rather than duplicating efforts in different business areas, ECM can be used to execute repeatable processes in a consistent manner across the enterprise, optimizing resource efficiency, cost, and service performance.

Forward-thinking organizations look to enhance efficiency by using ECM to automate repeatable, cross-functional processes such as:

  • Accounts payable processing
  • Case management
  • Contract management
  • HR onboarding (assimilating new hires into an organization)
  • Transparent records management

Selecting an ECM system with a flexible workflow engine is key. With it, you should be able to create custom workflows that offer localized flexibility in streamlining business processes while enhancing centralized control over content standards. Your workflows should also be able to perform specific tasks based on activity occurring in your ECM system as well as other applications such as GIS, ERP, CRM, and more.

Question #4: Can it help you become an "E"xpert?

An ECM system can dramatically improve your organization's information management and business productivity, but too many ECM systems demand extensive domain expertise from expensive programmers, analysts, and consultants. By selecting a solution that fosters individual knowledge and expertise through the use of prepackaged code, active developer and support forums, downloadable templates, preconfigured workflow activities, among other characteristics, organizations eliminate the need to rely on outside experts. They also avoid "vendor lock-in" when updating or fine-tuning their systems.

An ECM system with the ability to delegate administrative privileges and workflow configuration rights to departmental business analysts and line-of-business managers ensures two things. First is user acceptance, because the people configuring the system are enmeshed in the day-to-day reality of the group's working requirements, and they know how to ensure that the right work gets done the right way at the right time. Second, it ensures flexibility to evolve with changing market conditions, because the group does not have to wait for a vendor, consultant, or IT department to maximize the performance of its localized solutions.

ECM = Control and Flexibility

Ultimately, to put the "E" in ECM, you need to look for a system that is flexible enough to meet the needs of multiple departments but strong enough to centralize control and security. When chosen carefully, standardizing on an agile ECM system eliminates silos and vendor lock-in, automates cross-functional processes, and gives users instant access to information through the applications they use every day.

Chris Wacker is the executive vice president of Laserfiche, an international ECM provider.

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