Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Portals, Content and Collaboration – The Future of ECM?

I attended Gartner’s Fall Portals Content and Collaboration Summit in LA earlier this month. Unfortunately, the Hollywood sizzle seemed to be missing from this event, even though it took place just across the street from Creative Artists Agency’s impressive new headquarters. Perhaps it was because the event was located in the basement levels of the Hyatt Century Plaza that caused us all to feel a little squeezed? Although, I must say the rest of the hotel has been wonderfully updated.

Maybe the issue is that the whole PCC concept might be getting old. I got the sense that many of the leading edge businesses, which have aggressively adopted PCC technologies, were busy doing just that – building and using them, instead of attending the event. Those organizations that did attend seemed more like the late adopters, still gathering information and waiting to see what the general consensus about ECM was going to be.

It’s also possible that Gartner’s somewhat artificial separation of the Web Innovation Summit from the PCC Summit had forced web developers to choose one venue vs. the other for budget reasons. I personally don’t know how it’s possible to separate Web 2.0 technology discussions from those about content management, collaboration or portals. In fact, it appeared that Web 2.0 applications, practices and case studies were getting the most attention at PCC this fall anyway.

The ECM market is evolving rapidly, and I know the folks at Gartner recognize this. However, its not just because of Microsoft and SharePoint. While SharePoint IS the tidal wave driving change in the ECM market, the market itself is quickly moving in new directions. Collaboration in particular is migrating to many new places on the web. (Are you having trouble keeping track of all your communications services?). My iPhone is rapidly gathering content sharing applications which connect to new web services – probably causing me to become an ECM rogue.

I’m not sure what’s going to stop this? Corporate policy? Probably depends on where we work. It’s also possible that the whole concept of ECM will need to get updated. (Just when everyone was beginning to understand it). Maybe the common content repository is more of an illusion than we expected? OpenText has some new ideas about using federated policy management against multiple content repositories that might help… Hopefully, Gartner will inject more web innovation into PCC next year before the event starts feeling more like a Lotus Notes conference.

Monday, September 22, 2008

ECM and the iPhone – Enterprise Solutions on the Way?

There still seems to be generous discussion regarding whether the iPhone can become a trusted enterprise tool and not just the latest consumer fad. I have to admit there are lots of really fun things I like to do with my iPhone, but I also think we’re soon going to see plenty of business oriented solutions designed to take advantage of its unique capabilities. I had an opportunity to get a peak at what these solutions might look like while meeting with members of the press and analyst community last week in Boston, MA.

MyACU is a web portal intended to serve the various needs of faculty, students and other members of the Abilene Christian University community. Its kind of superstore of information about everything you need to know on campus, including general services and data unique to each visitor, like class lists and account balances. What makes MyACU exciting and unique (at least for now) is how easy it is to use with an iPhone.

The IT team at ACU has taken considerable advantage of Apple’s iPhone developer toolkit and open standards based applications to deliver many of MyACU’s services in an easy to navigate format on the iPhone. Google Apps provide some of the basics like email, while Xythos is used to manage and share more sensitive content. As a result, faculty researchers can now review and update study results from practically anywhere, knowing their data is safe. ACU is also providing this fall’s incoming class with their choice of iPhone or iTouch devices, so I expect the MyACU mobile service will catch on quickly.

What’s also remarkable about MyACU mobile is how quickly their IT team developed it. They didn’t even have to spend anything extra to customize their ECM solution (Xythos) in order to deliver it as a web service for iPhone users. That’s a strong argument for open standards-based technology and robust API’s.

It will be interesting to check back with ACU in a semester or two and discover how their user community is putting this technology to work. In the meantime, take a look at www.my.acu.edu if you want see the public-facing part of their service and please let me know if you’ve got plans to manage content using iPhones.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Applications in the Cloud Part 2 – The ECM Bridge

A fair amount has been written about ECM and SaaS (Software as a Service) recently, particularly focusing upon whether ECM is well suited to the on demand environment and if businesses can depend upon on-demand ECM providers. I think the second part of this discussion is curious. If customers are confident their client data is safe with a SaaS CRM vendor like Salesforce.com then, all things being equal what makes other types of data, like documents more or less at risk? Obviously the management at Salesforce.com didn’t think there was a much different model when they decided to acquire online document management vendor, Koral last year.

In fairness, Salesforce has succeeded in CRM where customers historically had not been provided with adequate solutions or were so dissatisfied with their existing CRM software they were willing to overlook the switching costs. The Salesforce service’s ease of use and generally superior performance was enough to get many businesses to overcome their fears of SaaS as well. So, is ECM different? Possibly. While this is just a hypothesis, I would guess that the methods organizations use to manage their documents differ more significantly than how they manage their respective sales processes.

While larger organizations may employ common taxonomies to govern how they store documents, this is often in response to industry standard practices or government regulations, such as those designed to help monitor the drug discovery process like the FDA’s CFR 21 Part 11. Small and medium sized organizations not directly engaged with government organizations are less likely to follow standard document storage and archiving methods. Instead, these companies develop their own best practices specifically suited to their environment and often management’s general familiarity and comfort with technology as a whole.

While these document storage practices may not be ideal, many have probably lasted for years, some becoming more automated than others, with each process becoming more different from the next. Unlike the largest organizations which embraced ECM a decade ago or more, smaller companies could not afford the legions of consultants and technicians required to update and migrate their document management processes to a networked model, much less the Web. As a result, their document-centric business processes remain an odd mixture of paper-based and electronic exchanges with the later mostly relying upon email as a notifications and document transport method.

So, what does all this have to do with cloud computing and ECM today? A lot or a little, depending upon how you want to look at it of course. As I stated in my last post, the more warmware built into a business process, the less likely it will easily migrate to another environment, including the web. Obviously, the more unique the process is the less likely a common cloud or SaaS solution will be able to address it. Remember, one of the defining advantages of cloud computing is the aggregation and sharing of resources like computing, delivery and storage across a large and diverse customer population. It’s difficult for cloud applications to be common if they also must address multiple unique requirements while remaining universally accessible and easy to use.

Time and experience will undoubtedly help to overcome these issues. I imagine a future someday where automated widgets (or applets?) will help to transform and migrate even obscure business processes to the cloud with little intervention or planning. Ok, maybe my glasses are a little too rosy. In the meantime, its probably more realistic to expect that the most common elements of cloud computing, such as storage and collaboration can be leveraged to benefit existing business processes back on the ground.

What could this look like? Just imagine all of your business’ client solicitation, upgrade and service notices that you created in your favorite desktop programs are now stored in the cloud. Basic ECM functions ensure that complete version histories are maintained and backed up to keep your IT and legal staff happy. Clients are automatically notified of payment schedules using the cloud’s calendaring service and can instantly review their account status via a secure log-in through the cloud portal.

What’s new about that, you say? Just consider that none of this process required migrating your data from one application environment to another. There is no new software to learn, no consultants to pay, nothing. In fact, you can easily trick existing desktop applications into storing data in the cloud and begin developing scenarios like I just described using technologies that are available today.

If you’re interested to learn how, check back in a few days and I will share the details.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Applications in the Cloud – Is Your Business Ready?

Talk about cloud computing seems to be growing by the minute and I can understand why. If you believe what some industry pundits are suggesting you should soon be able to have your whole desktop PC delivered as a web service to whatever device you choose wherever you are. Work performed in one place will instantly be synched up with the next place, just when you need it. Sounds kind of appealing, doesn’t it?

Well maybe, but the whole concept also has me wondering if I’m missing something. I think there may be more work involved migrating some parts of my digital life to the cloud than others. Storing photos online makes lots of sense to me. They are much easier to share and the services I’ve tried can organize my photos better than I can alone. Backing up my documents online makes a lot of sense too. So, where do I see darkness looming in these web clouds?

I suspect it will be more difficult for businesses to transition to a cloud computing model than for individual consumers like me. Most businesses have been managing their applications and data a lot longer than I’ve been taking digital photos. That probably means they’ve developed a variety of software customizations and methods to help automate business processes with their software as well.

This unique “warmware” found in businesses often represents considerable investment and may become a speed bump, or worse on the way to the cloud. For example, small businesses have counted on Quickbooks to manage their accounting for years and many have developed valuable business procedures around this software. Migrating these individualized accounting solutions to other vendor’s web services could prove challenging and costly.  It might be better to wait until Intuit provides a suitable web service of its own.

What about all of the other software applications whose developers don’t offer a near-term cloud strategy or outright custom applications whose authors are long gone? How can the business processes supported by these technologies migrate to the cloud? I doubt very easily or quickly. Even cloud computing’s poster child, Google Apps doesn’t claim to be a Microsoft Office replacement yet (although it may some day). The thousands of lesser known desktop applications and their warmware will need a migration path of their own if businesses are to fully benefit from the aggregate synergies of cloud computing.

A potential near term solution may still include key cloud components, such as persistent and pervasive data storage and fundamental collaboration tools. These functions represent some of the most compelling elements of cloud computing, but don’t necessarily have to be embedded within process specific applications. SaaS (Software as a Service) and now cloud based service providers are compelled to integrate these functional layers because it can improve the customer experience and create a “sticky” business model. 

However, for business customers seeking a transition to a cloud based model an intermediate option may be worth exploring. Ideally, such a model would allow these organizations to preserve their investments in the customization, training, etc. related to their existing software while helping to move their data to a safer and ultimately more functional location in the cloud…

We’ll look into the specifics of what that model might include in the next few days. I suspect we may be able to get a few pointers from the online data storage and yes, online document management vendors as well. Until then, cheers! Jim

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Get off the Email Treadmill and Loose Weight Too!

Do you go to work to read email? Hopefully not, but how much time do you spend at the office reading mail - 20%, 30%, more? How much time do you spend looking for things other people sent you in your email? Is it possible that half your days are consumed this way? I’m trying to change these statistics for myself, particularly when I’m at the office. After all, what’s the point of commuting to work if we’re not going to interact with others in the real world?

I’m not against email or electronic collaboration. These tools are invaluable to my mobile work style, but I’ve been abusing email for too long and the consequences have become significant. I yell nasty things at my email client because I waste so much time looking for file attachments that seem to have disappeared altogether. I get even more frustrated just waiting for email searches to complete – usually without the results I’m seeking. Oh, and please don’t talk to me about “inbox full” messages. Grrrr!

Technology analysts earn lots of money advising big companies about how to manage these kinds of email problems. Some recommend trying to better understanding email usage behavior, categorizing identified patterns and then considering alternative methods, or technologies depending upon collaborative needs. Others suggest evaluating inbox contents and performing radical content hygiene – kind of like a deep dental roots cleansing. Ouch!

I’m sure there’s practical benefit to many of these approaches, but I’ve got a couple simple suggestions of my own you might want to try. Yes, one requires document management, or ECM software, but it’s not difficult to do. Here’s how it works. Stop sending email attachments and replace them with Web URL’s (links) instead. Some studies suggest that over 50% of all email storage is consumed by email attachments. Of course, you’ll want to get your co-workers, partners, etc. to do the same to get the full network benefit of this change. (OK – that’s the harder part).

How does this work? Most all ECM products offer support for WebDAV (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) which is an extension of HTTP. Basically, this means that any document or file stored within the application has its own unique address – one that you can share with others as a link. Better yet, WebDAV provides a host of collaboration tools, like version control that make it easy to work together with others on the same documents so that you can see each other’s changes, etc.

Some of the more sophisticated ECM solutions have developed email plug-ins that allow you to easily reference a stored document without even leaving your preferred email client. Xythos offers a good example of this type of integration whether you use a web or desktop mail package, or even shuttle back and forth between desktop’s and operating systems like I do.

The best of these email/ECM integrations will turn your old email attachment behaviors into automatic content publishing even if you select the paperclip or insert a photograph from iPhoto. That can be powerful. Not only is a big burden eliminated from email servers, but those files also become easier to categorize, search, re-use and even protect according to compliance policies. Oh, and did I mention that you can always change access rights to linked files that you've shared? Try doing that with an email attachment.

So, what was my other recommendation? Try limiting your use of email while at the office. I know there’s plenty of stuff we do that benefits from having an email record, but how many other times could we simply get up and walk across the office to discuss issues or ideas? How about an old-fashioned in-person meeting or lunch with clients where you can watch reactions that don’t always transmit through email? (OK – Light on the lunch or the title theme of this post won’t work).

Seriously, I still like email, but I refuse to use it to share files anymore. So please don’t try and send me any more email attachments. If you don’t have access to an ECM system of your own try www.xythosondemand.com. It’s free for 30 days and doesn’t cost much after that. I bet if you do co-workers will thank you for not filling up their in-boxes and maybe they’ll even walk over to your desk and say so!