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 then, all things being equal what makes other types of data, like documents more or less at risk? Obviously the management at 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.

No comments: