Friday, October 31, 2008

ECM Plug-ins and Integrations Popular at Educause 2008

For once, a fall conference in Orlando didn’t include 90% humidity and matching temperatures, The unseasonably cool weather made it easy to get between hotels and the convention center, where the activity level was definitely creating some heat! Sure, there was talk of budget challenges, but most of the IT Execs I had a chance to chat with seemed eager to learn about new solutions that could help them combat rising costs and improve services across their campuses.

There seemed to be plenty of interest in the latest academic learning solutions, judging from the consistent crowds over at the Blackboard booth trying out the new Bb 9 Suite. I also listened to a growing number of conversations related to back-office automation. A couple administrators I spoke with said they almost welcomed the tough economy because it was finally forcing their institutions to take a serious look at the business processes in search of improved efficiencies. As one executive said to me “unlike banks or other commercial organizations, we haven’t experienced the same pressures to update how we manage the “business side” of education”.

This might explain the considerable interest we heard regarding ECM plug-ins and integrations this year. Scanning solutions designed to integrate physical document processing into electronic workflows captured a lot of attention. Outlook plug-ins intended to more closely tie administrative activities with content repositories were also popular. The overall interest in administrative solutions might even indicate that institutions are recognizing they can leverage their experience with academic content management across other parts of the enterprise, just like other businesses.

The excitement around integrating other business processes with a common content repository wasn’t limited to administration either. Interest in multiple learning management system integrations including Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai continued. However, the ECM integration that most attendees seemed to be talking about was a Zimlet. In both the Xythos booth and Yahoo’s Zimbra booth activity around the Zimlet demo’s was quite busy. Perhaps the potential benefits of ECM and email integration can be even greater when the process is accomplished using 100% Web 2.0 technologies instead of just thick clients.

I even learned about a real-time (synchronous) collaboration tool called Dimdim that employs the same Zimlet type of integration and would appear to be an ideal complement to asynchronous collaboration tools like ECM and email. What each of these products have in common is embedded support for open technology standards including flexible and open API’s. This might explain the enthusiastic response their integrations were receiving at Educause. I was already hearing attendees talking out loud about how they could create their own mashups using them in their portals and elsewhere.

We’ll post recording’s of more of the presentations and activities from Educause 2008 shortly on In the meantime check out educause site to learn more about what happened at this year’s event.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Outlook Hassles, Zimbra and Web 2.0

I don’t really hate Microsoft Outlook. I’ve trusted it to manage my email and calendars for as long as I can remember. However, as the web has grown up and I’ve begun to rely on a growing number of other services instead of email to collaborate Outlook seems more like a stubborn old partner unwilling to adapt and change. My ultimate frustration is Outlook’s inability to easily exchange contact records with its own sibling, Entourage. What devilish plan did Microsoft have in mind by not simply creating Outlook for the Mac? (PC guy wasn’t even on TV when that decision was made).

Yes, I was able to configure my iPhone to connect to our Exchange server without corporate IT assistance (which I can’t say the same about for my Blackberry), but I think time’s running out for me and the Outlook/Entourage combo. I don’t want my most valuable personal data locked up in .pst formats anymore. I’m not sure I even want to depend on Exchange either, although that’s mostly up to my employer. I’m becoming more comfortable with Gmail each day and while it’s not ready to be my Outlook replacement yet, Web 2.0 applications like Zimbra’s Collaboration Suite (ZCS) just might be.

I want an email client solution that doesn’t care that I live in both a Mac and a Windows world. Ideally, I’d like that solution to behave about the same on my iPhone too. I also don’t want to have to use a half dozen different converters to move my contacts between my social networks, email, IM and other collaborative tools. I’m a content creator and I need my editing tools to work seamlessly together with email and the web so that I can rapidly share my work with others, solicit feedback, secure approvals, and get things published. It would be great if my email tool could help keep track of all these processes too.

When my email client can’t quickly find the contacts I need, I have to engage in time-consuming mailbox searches or begin looking in other services for data it hasn’t already captured. When my email can’t interoperate with my content management system my ability to collaborate on projects slows down. Maybe I’m expecting too much of an email/contact/calendaring tool, but I still want it to be the hub that manages my interactions with others and my tasks. I think it just needs to be a lot more web-aware, and flexible. Proprietary storage formats like .pst really don’t support that kind of improvement.

I watched a Zimbra demo last week that showed how email messages and their associated file attachments could be easily captured, categorized and stored in Xythos using open Zimlet protocols and Xythos’ open API’s. That was an impressive example of the benefits of Ajax based interface design and web-enabled interoperability. What if the next step allowed Zimbra and Xythos services to share each other’s user names and permissions? Maybe all they would need to do is authenticate via a common directory service? OK, great now what about my Google and Linked In contact lists? Could those be accessed by Zimbra as well?

Even if I could just find a way to make my contacts more portable and accessible to my other apps and devices, that would be a big plus for me. How is this working for you? Does anyone have suggestions who has tried to tackle this issue? Are we going to have to wait for a cloud based OS or something like that? BTW – If you’re interested in seeing that Zimbra demo, it should be posted over under “Events” shortly. Better yet, if you’re attending the annual Educause event this week in Orlando visit either the Xythos or Zimbra booths and see it live for yourself.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Online Storage vs. Document Management – What’s the Difference?

With all the talk about SaaS and cloud computing the question about whether a business needs an online storage solution or something a bit more sophisticated seems somewhat irrelevant. However, for distributed enterprises and small-medium sized businesses in particular this can be an important consideration. Both technologies can provide measurable benefits, yet while they are directly related, each addresses quite different business objectives.

One could argue that ECM (enterprise content management) and certainly online document management really can’t function successfully absent some sort of commonly shared content repository. On the other hand, if the motive for storing documents online is to better protect them and potentially provide a solution for disaster recovery, then the collaborative benefits provided by ECM may not be that important. What’s common in both cases is a need for network and more commonly these days, web-enabled access to the repository for improved data redundancy and remote access.

So, what guidelines can businesses follow to help decide which option is best suited for their needs? The first factor to consider is the relative value of business data and the cost of alternative storage methods vs. online options. For most situations (and this can even include home based businesses) there are ample arguments for storing backup data off site. Sure, you can create your own backup tapes and store them in a fireproof safe or in a safety deposit box, but is that really something you want to perform each week, or night? The cost of managed storage has declined incredibly over the last few years making do-it-yourself backup seem somewhat archaic.

Once you’ve decided that your files can benefit from online storage protection, the next thing to ask yourself is who else needs access to them. If your documents are going to be primarily archived for data protection purposes and possibly only used by applications in your own office, then it may not be necessary to employ the more advanced features of an online document management service. However, it’s important to consider this scenario carefully.

Think about the different types of documents and files your business uses today. Are they shared with other parties? For example, does your attorney review your service or supply contracts? Do your employees exchange proposals with clients? There are expenses associated with each of these activities such as travel and distribution costs. Consider if you can reduce, or possibly eliminate some of these costs by sharing documents electronically. You may even discover these savings can help justify the service subscription cost itself.

The degree to which your business relies upon the secure exchange of content, particularly with external parties and the frequency with which that information changes can have a significant impact upon your technology choice. If your business does not support remote offices or mobile employees and if the majority of the documents and files produced are only released in final format (pdf or html) then you may not need the collaborative features of a document management system. However, be sure to also consider how often employees are using email as a means to exchange files and whether your business must keep certain documents stored as records for prescribed periods, as these tasks can often be better performed by a document management application.

In summary, online file storage can often be a smart choice for organizations seeking to better protect vital business information as service based solutions are generally more focused on performing back-ups, providing redundant storage and disaster recovery solutions than most individual businesses are prepared to do themselves. The problem is that once organizations begin storing documents online expectations can quickly grow to include other, more collaborative processes.

Some online storage services have evolved to offer document sharing and even some basic document library services, like version control and document check-in/out. This is where careful service evaluation is a must. Once online storage becomes a shared resource it’s critical that you consider group authentication methods, file level access controls and features to track and report upon system usage.

Its quite possible employees will even want to scan documents into the service’s online repository and once it becomes larger, cry for search tools to help them find everything they’ve uploaded. You may want to begin automating document processing tasks in order to achieve greater business efficiencies. At this point you’ve already crossed over the line into the realm of online document management. 

So as you can see, it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself and a few thoughtful employees what they would want to do, if they could store their documents online. You might be surprised about where those responses could take you. Of course, If you'd like to learn more why not try out Xythos on Demand? It's free (for 30 days) and is an easy way to get more familiar with what online document management can do for your own business.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where is ECM at Educause 2008?

Educause is just a few weeks away and even with all of the bad economic news it would seem that little can stop the popularity of this event. It’s been sold out for months and sponsors like Blackboard and Xythos have been busy preparing to make the most of it both on and off of the show floor. While the higher education community certainly isn’t immune to economic downturns it is somewhat comforting to know that it won’t disappear overnight as the investment banking industry seems to have done.

However, we are experiencing increased requests from institutions about how to reduce administrative costs and better streamline business operations in response to tighter operating budgets. From undergraduate admissions processing to alumni relations there are still a lot of paper documents passing through colleges and universities and, as a result there remains plenty of opportunity to automate these processes and reduce waste.

Enterprise content management (ECM) technologies would appear to be a natural fit to address these campus-wide challenges. Yet, when I look at the list of content management vendors planning to exhibit at Educause I see just a few familiar names such as Oracle, Paperthin, Perceptive Software and SunGard. While Oracle’s Stellent based applications are true ECM solutions, I suspect the primary reason that both SunGard and Oracle attend is to promote their dominant ERP and student information system applications, vs. content management. That basically leaves a couple dedicated web content management suppliers, and Xythos representing the ECM industry to higher education institutions this year.

Of course, Google and Microsoft will each have a big presence at Educause and I suspect both will feature plenty of document collaboration solutions, including Microsoft’s ubiquitous SharePoint. But what explains the absence of traditional ECM leaders like EMC/Documentum, Filenet and OpenText? Are they simply ceding the market to smaller competitors while they focus on healthcare and financial services? Perhaps the academic market is considered unable to afford enterprise quality content management solutions? Maybe the institutions themselves haven’t focused enough attention on the business side of education and the technology needed to help them become more efficient.

I suspect a combination of the above factors contributed to this situation. Coincidentally, most institutions have already become familiar with managing electronic content through their adoption of learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard, and WebCT. According to ECAR (EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research), over 82% of higher education institutions have already adopted an enterprise standard LMS. Once content management technology has succeeded improving the core mission of these institutions, it would seem reasonable to expect that it be considered for related business processes. So, perhaps we’re close to a tipping point in the adoption of ECM for managing the business side of higher education.

While success selling to academic computing departments doesn’t guaranty the same in administrative computing, I suspect leading LMS vendors like Blackboard could have an advantage. If solutions from Xythos can appeal to IT administrators in medical research institutions or government agencies, what’s to stop campus admissions or athletics departments from being next? After all, ECM can deliver a wide range of cost saving benefits across distributed campus environments. In tough economic times it would seem to make sense to take advantage of technologies like these to reduce operating costs and keep constituents satisfied

Friday, October 3, 2008

Evaluating ECM Options – Where to Begin?

Even with SharePoint popping up in businesses all over, we still get plenty of questions from prospective customers about how to assess their ECM alternatives. Perhaps because Xythos has been an open standards technology champion they think we might be more neutral offering advice? I’m not sure, but it might suggest that while organizations will have to support SharePoint at some level, they understand they’ll need more help to meet their complete ECM needs.

My recommendation to best understand current ECM options would be to look at the guides published by the folks over at CMS Watch. While Forrester, IDC and Gartner also do a good job of analyzing the ECM market few provide the deep level of up to date product comparisons that CMS Watch offers in its 2009 edition of their ECM Suites Report. It’s not cheap at about $1,000 - $4,500 depending on your subscription size, but it’s worth it. Besides, you probably couldn’t pull all this data together from other suppliers for twice the price.

Yes, Xythos is included in this report too. However, I’m not promoting the report because we received a perfect rating. The report really doesn’t do that kind of stuff. I think Xythos did get a fair and balanced review and that’s really the outcome that we should hope for in these publications. Ideally, well-researched and balanced assessments result in better matching customers with the right ECM solutions. That can save everyone from a lot of hassles in the long run.

Like most ECM vendors, we’re looking at how our technologies can work together with SharePoint. It does a good job of helping MS Office users collaborate among themselves, but its also kind of Microsoft-centric in its approach. We know of organizations whose need to safely manage and share other types of files is equally as important. We’re also hearing requests for more flexible content storage models and easy integration with other web services. Oh, and what about Mac users? I guess these are things Microsoft is still working on?

How are you dealing with SharePoint in your organization? Will it replace older ECM systems or, do you expect it will eventually compliment them? I’d be interested to know.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Scanning to the Cloud – ECM Helps Clean up Our Physical World

I’ve written about this subject as it relates to my own desktop and possibly yours too, but the response to the web seminar we hosted about the potential organizational benefits of cloud computing and ECM convinced me that there’s more for us to discuss. Over eighty organizations registered for yesterday’s seminar, titled “Can you scan to a cloud? The benefits of scanning documents to electronic storage repositories” and we received a lot good questions from the attendees as well. The whole seminar is recorded for your viewing pleasure at the above link.

I think the interest in the combination of ECM and the cloud is driven by the increased benefits that can be realized by organizations vs. individuals engaged in using these technologies. While it’s great to get documents and files off of my desk and stored more securely, organizations gain the advantage of being able to multiply the value of content stored in the cloud amongst their employees and trading partners. It’s kind of like a network effect scale of improvement resulting from improved content discovery, re-use and an overall enhanced ability to respond to the business environment as a whole.

Organizations will still need help migrating content to the cloud. It’s not as simple as pointing all the MFP’s to some new web-enabled repository. New policies will need to be created. Not all documents may be permitted in the cloud, as legal restrictions often trail technology advancements. Cloud service providers will need to be carefully investigated and able to prove their ability to support various service level agreements. Additional integration work will probably also have to be performed between cloud services and the software and scanners, or MFPs that will become the on-ramp to the cloud.

Fortunately, this process has already begun. A growing number of hardware vendors including Canon and Ricoh are supporting open standards for document transfer over the web, like SSL and WebDAV. ECM connectors from vendors like Captiva or Xythos also help automate the classification of documents during or after scanning helping improve discovery and aiding business process automation. Bar code support and zonal OCR can also help distribute large scanning jobs across an organization or to third parties who can perform the tasks of migrating content to the cloud more cost effectively.

While public data clouds may not be suited for sensitive institutional content, organizations can look to cloud services providers or host their own “internal” clouds to achieve the same network benefits. Most will probably want to take a step-by-step approach beginning with public oriented content first, such as marketing or sales collateral. As they gain experience, they can begin adding native electronic content together with scanned documents, creating complete workspaces of reference and work in process documents in their clouds.

For those of you that would prefer to migrate to the cloud from the comfort of your own office vs. visiting that MFP down the hall there are plenty of options. Check out Fujitsu or Kodak desktop scanners or a new one that’s caught my attention, Neat ( There are even client applications like our own Xythos Drive and Xythos Filer that can help make uploading and classifying documents a snap. Once those files are off your desk, you’ll feel better. More importantly, once they are safely stored in the cloud your organization will perform better. Have fun!