ECM as a Framework for IT Governance

Andy Wang, Director of ECM Strategy for Laserfiche, considers SharePoint’s impact on enterprise content management.

What role does SharePoint play in the overall ECM picture? How has Microsoft’s emergence in the space helped or hindered the ECM landscape?

Andy: SharePoint plays a very unique role in Enterprise Content Management. It is neither your traditional definition of ECM nor is it not. At a recent Laserfiche Analysts, Consultants, & Experts (ACE) Q&A Panel at Empower 2010, a Gartner and an IDC analyst both described SharePoint as an interesting platform that indeed has value proposition; but not necessarily all the same as when people think about ECM today. If anything, I believe SharePoint brings another dimension of value proposition to ECM. Rather than looking at how SharePoint fits in the traditional definition of ECM, it is more likely that ECM will be redefined.
So before considering whether that helps or hinders the ECM landscape; first understand that SharePoint significantly changed the landscape. Good changes, too, I might add. Records Management propels into the limelight, image and capture tools become more important than ever, and ECM becomes an infrastructure play.

What ECM features and functionalities does SharePoint provide? What ECM features and functionalities does SharePoint lack? Is SharePoint an ECM solution in and of itself? Should SharePoint be viewed as a competitor to existing ECM systems?

Andy: Not a question I like, because if you accept the notion that SharePoint really isn’t traditional ECM then I believe the focus should be on what value does a solution that encompasses SharePoint and content management technology provides. Nonetheless, a good description of SharePoint I hear often is that it is a very thin and long horizontal piece that leaves a lot of white space for depth. SharePoint 2007 provides a very good set of rudimentary ECM capabilities such as document collaboration and basic web content management. It is easy for user to adopt, and does a chunk of document management.
SharePoint 2010 stands to enhance all of that with a stronger emphasis on Records Management. If you ask some Microsoft folks, SharePoint provides everything you need in a content management solution.
But is that true? First, let’s skip over the astonishing fact that SharePoint does not have imaging capabilities. It’s hard to understand the strategy of creating an extra layer between the point of content capture and creation versus managing the content, but I can accept SharePoint giving way to letting expert partners do their thing. What about Workflow, though? SharePoint builds on a popular workflow engine: Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF). A common knock on WWF is that everything requires programmable work. SharePoint Designer supposedly combats a lot of this; at least the marketing messages say so. As we know in high tech, there is often a lag time between hype and adoption, or sometimes reality. One way to look at this is that solutions that allow a true drag and drop and empowering experience to easily create workflow rules off the same WWF engine, such as Laserfiche’s Workflow 8, would not be popular if the out-of-the-box experience of SharePoint’s workflow capabilities already adequately address customer expectation. When it comes to SharePoint coexisting in the ECM vendor ecosystem there’s a matter in the degree of intensity. Some ECM vendors view SharePoint as a competitor. Some ECM vendors say they view SharePoint as a partner but actually view it as a competitor. Some ECM vendors view SharePoint as a partner because they lack current ECM functionality. Finally, some ECM vendors such as Laserfiche views SharePoint as a partner because it will complete an ECM solution once the definition of ECM changes. So much lies in the fundamental understanding of what SharePoint is and is not and what ECM will be, that right now the content management space stands to be deeply divided on how they feel about SharePoint, though note that there is a high degree of conformity when it comes to talking about cooperation and integration with SharePoint. We have the most public customer application success stories of SharePoint plus Laserfiche, and I think it will be interesting to see which ECM vendors truly embrace SharePoint 2010.

How is SharePoint impacting ECM purchasing habits? Is its role confusing to the end user community? If so, what do end user’s need to know about SharePoint to clear up the confusion?

Andy: This is a question that Laserfiche has more authoritative insights on because of our largest content management footprint of 28,000 customer organizations and our strength of being able to reach into both the largest of enterprises as well as the small and medium size organizations. Yes, SharePoint’s role is confusing to the end user community. For one, they didn’t really have to buy it. A common theme I see is a particular customer suddenly finds that they have SharePoint, and in good reason decide now is time to make good use of the solution. But the user’s understanding of SharePoint is minimal. While they do exist, rare is it the CIO or IT Director that truly understands the value proposition SharePoint brings to the table alongside an ECM solution, so it’s very reasonable that there is confusion.
With that said though, people are still buying ECM. I sure would have loved to say that the SharePoint hype and confusion slowed down ECM purchasing habits because then Laserfiche’s 10% 2009 revenue growth would seem that much more powerful, but the reality is an informed customers know that solving actual business problems such as case management and customer on-boarding is a more definable success measure and the return on investment is equal or more important to exploring
SharePoint, and therefore purchases still happen for EMC vendors that are strong in transactional content management and repeatable processes.

Why are so many traditional ECM vendors clamouring to partner with Microsoft and integrate with SharePoint? Why are so many new ECM platforms emerging that are built exclusively for use with SharePoint?

Andy: It’s a big pie and everyone wants a piece. I can’t speak for the entire industry, but there are clear synergies between SharePoint and a content management solution that drives the need for integration.
First and foremost, hype has caused the customers to demand it and therefore we ECM vendors tend to have to provide it. Second, SharePoint provides a great opportunity for a lot of ECM vendors that has a less comprehensive product suite to attach itself to a long horizontal piece. There are also vendors such as Laserfiche that sees how existing vertical use-case scenarios can be enhanced through one thing that SharePoint does really well: portals, and thereby take advantage of that.
Ah, new ECM platforms emerging built exclusively for use with SharePoint is an interesting topic.
I know of several soon to be released and in development, and there certainly are some that’s already talked about. I think the first answer is stack versus stack. There exist very few pure-play content management solution providers that, as an organization, do not interfere with Microsoft in some way.
You have the class of arch-rivals such as IBM and Oracle. You have EMC with its storage, Open Text’s quite extensive M&A-induced product portfolio that conflicts with everybody in some shape or fashion, and the list goes on and on. An ECM platform built exclusively for use with SharePoint shows commitment even if the entire stacks otherwise would conflict. Another is of course what Microsoft wants. I’ve been in several conversations with Microsoft’s team where one of the first questions asked is always the depth of integration and how nicely does the two repositories play together. Is there push-pull of file plans? Is the integration more than just front-end imaging? I think a lot of ECM vendors are in a hurry to wash away the existing stigma their integrations, brand it as a 2.0 effort, if you would, to catch up with those of us that already developed a seamless two-way integration that affects dynamic content generation.

What are some best practices for integrating SharePoint with traditional document management systems? How has this been done successfully? How can it fail? Is it necessary?

Andy: First step should always be to understand what the purpose of the integration and what the business problem this integration will solve. More configuration and less customisation is the key to maintaining an integration that works and is affordable, especially when you factor in the total cost of ownership of a document management plus SharePoint solution. There are generally two scenarios I see among Laserfiche’s customer application success story of SharePoint plus Laserfiche. The first is the more common scenario of existing Laserfiche customers suddenly find that they have SharePoint and need to do something with it. Fortunately for these cases, the Laserfiche SharePoint Integration is already a component that comes out of the box and there is enough use case scenarios provided as education materials and discussed at user groups to ease the transition and lay down foundational best practice steps. The more interesting scenario is when a customer has SharePoint and after a period of time realises that more needs to be done to fully solve a problem. I have seen an increasing trend of this in the last 9 months, and expect to see even more. Without a doubt, it is necessary to integrate SharePoint 2007 with a content management solution. At one Gartner conference last year I recall an attendee walked up to Mark Gilbert, Research VP at Gartner, to talk about his organization’s success using just SharePoint, and Mark’s response clearly indicated they were the extreme exception to the rule. Again, properly addressing the strategic initiative discovery and figuring out what the problem to solve is the key. After that comes understanding what is within the arsenal to use to address said problem, and then putting the right tools to use. Sounds fairly complicated, but it’s what a new breed of happy Laserfiche customers already done and shared their tale.

How do you think SharePoint will change the face of the ECM industry over the next 5 to 10 years? What will its ultimate role be? What’s keeping Microsoft from embedding more traditional ECM capabilities in future iterations of SharePoint?

Andy: The good thing about Microsoft is that it broadcasts its intent clearly and early. There are some things we know that SharePoint 2014 currently plans to do and some things it doesn’t do. But regardless of that, SharePoint has really become a late-era evangelist in the content management industry. On one hand, content management was approaching its final stages of maturity and acquisition. On the other hand, a fresh player like SharePoint comes out swinging and changing the landscape. I am very excited about the vitalization and future of the content management over the next 5-10 years as ECM becomes an infrastructure standard and ECM redefined. I believe Microsoft, like other content management vendors that will still be standing 5-10 years from now, will have its strategy adapted several times over from now until then. There isn’t anything from keeping Microsoft from embedding more traditional ECM capabilities in future iterations of SharePoint other than their own good sense of where it makes sense to partner up and where it makes sense to self develop or acquire. Today Microsoft is in partner mode.
Tomorrow, we do not know. Organizations of any industry often have to reinvent and redefine relevancy. Content management is no different. It is plausible for Microsoft to move in a direction that causes a general lose-lose for itself and other vendors of the content management space. More likely though, it’ll be a coexistence and a redefined ECM that brings more true value to customers of content management.

Do you have any other comments about this topic?

Andy: Looking at SharePoint and content management from an integration point of view is often not the best approach at reaching the real value proposition. At Laserfiche we strongly believe in looking at how best of breed technologies come together to best solve a business problem. SharePoint offers a new set of tools to solve problems. Customers and ECM vendors alike, and Microsoft, will be wise to recognize the value of SharePoint plus content management, and not treat it as mutually exclusive or heavily overlapping.