You Don’t Know How to Define Enterprise Content Management (ECM)? What’s Your Problem?

Though I may be late, it is not a bad time to start blogging about ECM. There has been renewed debate among industry pundits over the definition of ECM. It is time to weigh in with a few thoughts of my own.

I support the view that we should limit the use of the ECM label to describe two, high-level ideas:

  • ECM is a strategy for getting the most value out of unstructured information assets while simultaneously minimizing the costs and risks of doing so. As a strategy, ECM will remain relevant until computing applications are able to treat content as just another source of data to process
  • ECM is a market that incorporates a superset of distinct, but complementary, software and hardwaretechnologies necessary to support such an ECM strategy

The major contributor to the confusion around the ECM label is that, for the past decade, both vendors and analysts have tried to define it as a software application suite or development platform. This has sparked endless debate, mostly fueled by vendor and, yes, even analyst self-interest, about what actually constitutes a complete ECM suite.

The process is now all too familiar. Pundits attempt to frame markets according to products and acronyms. Vendors frequently overstate their capabilities in order to fit the analyst definition. Buyers can’t easily determine where vendors’ true strengths and weaknesses lie. Enterprises then make bad technology investments that fail to solve their problems.

It is time to abandon the notion of the mythical, all encompassing ECM suite. In fact let us avoid evaluating vendors in this market by product definitions altogether. If we are looking to help end-users understand the technologies that make up the ECM market, then we should evaluate vendors and their offerings according to:

  • The nature of the problems their product capabilities are optimized to solve
  • Their track record solving those problems in the context of specific processes and industries

Forrester Research began to popularize this notion five years ago when they segmented ECM vendors according to transactional, business and persuasive content use cases. Gartner has formally embraced this notion in the most recent Magic Quadrant for ECM (Gartner uses slightly different terminology for their content use cases: transactional, collaborative and contextual).

On his Digital Landfill blog, the always-eloquent President of the Association of Information and Image Management, or AIIM, John Mancini, wondered if ECM was simply a technology in search of a problem to solve. I think the problems, and the capabilities to solve them, are there. It is time for vendor messaging and analyst rankings to preach what is actually done in practice.

Blog post written by Ken Burns:

A regular on the AIIM speaker circuit, Ken Burns is the keeper of all industry knowledge at Hyland. He spends most of his time with the analyst community, which, to your benefit, he often reflects on in blog posts here and tweets (@HylandSoftware). Want to know his take on the difference between BPM and ECM? You could e-mail him directly at, and a response should come in a few days. Need a quicker reply? Here's a tip: put something about Canada and hockey in the subject line.



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