Thursday, November 20, 2008

Economic Content Management – ECM for Tough Times

I don’t know anyone who is feeling more prosperous today than they were a year ago. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 2008 will soon be over and many of us are busy planning for what will hopefully be a better 2009. It’s probably not going to be easy though and I suspect we'll have to make some tough decisions. When we can’t be confident about the economy or our future business prospects it makes sense to focus on those factors that we can positively influence.

The feedback I’ve received at this fall’s conferences and web seminars suggests that IT leaders are still optimistic about being able to deliver improved business value through the prudent application of web technologies. Even if budgets get squeezed, some have told me that they are confident they can achieve meaningful cost savings in 2009 from the infrastructure improvements they’ve already put in place. I’ve also heard talk about better leveraging Web 2.0 services (yes – even the free ones) to enhance business responsiveness.

When it comes to saving money there are practically countless ways that content management technology can be put to work. Obvious targets include reducing the number of documents organizations actually print, distribute and store. Managing electronic documents costs money too. Especially if they are scattered across dozens of individual file servers or worse, left as attachments in email systems. Automating document workflows and migrating paper-based processes to the web are proven cost-savers as well.

What’s less obvious, yet potentially more costly for many businesses is the amount of time employees waste searching for the information they need to perform their jobs. In fact, some analysts have estimated that time spent looking for documents and files can exceed 25% of an average knowledge worker’s day. What’s worse is that when documents can’t be found, sometimes they must be reproduced. That’s like having to pay double for cost of goods - hardly a recipe for success in tough economic times.

So, if managing content more effectively has the potential to help save some serious money then why aren’t more organizations doing it? Well, just like trying to go on a diet, getting started is often the most difficult part. Staying on the plan isn’t always easy either. In addition, the fact that unstructured data (all the different types of content) continues grow at an exponential rate practically demands that businesses begin with a well-conceived plan.

This post isn’t intended to review content taxonomies or best storage practices. Instead, the goal is to provoke action and help identify realistic cost-saving opportunities that can benefit from basic applications of content management technology and know how. So with the emphasis on making getting started easy, here’s a short list of “low hanging fruit” that might be worth adding to your 2009 project list. (I’ve collected these examples from a number of different types of businesses. If you know of an obvious one that’s missing, please feel free to contribute to this list).

Simple Cost-Saving ECM Projects for 2009

The theme around these suggested projects is “start small” so that you can develop early successes that will hopefully promote the use of ECM throughout other parts of your business in the future. It’s also important to identify project’s that provide an easy opportunity for cost-saving measurement, just so there won’t be any misunderstanding the project’s results. (I’ll post the first one today, and try and get the rest of these listed before the end of the week).

1. Scan documents intended for distribution
This is an easy project to begin with because it doesn’t require significant re-architecting of how your business manages or stores documents. It also creates visibly measurable benefits. Begin by looking at those processes which require documents be exchanged with either external parties or geographically separated offices within your own organization. Consider items like contracts that require multi-party review or service and support agreements.

First develop an estimate, of the average monthly costs related to the printing and delivery of these documents. You may even want to assess a storage cost fee if office space is particularly expensive in your location. Don’t forget to include all transport costs, including express and courier service fees if documents aren’t always faxed or sent via email.

Create a client or project based folder structure in your document store. If you don't already have an ECM system, you could even use a networked file server, but a web-enabled system such as a SaaS ECM solution, like Xythos on Demand will probably be much easier for external parties to use.

Next, determine if your current scanners or multi-functions devices can scan files directly to your document store. This is an ideal method, as it requires the least amount of employee interaction. Look to scanning software vendors like eCopy, or Kofax to help connect your input devices if they are not compatible. Newer MFP’s like those from Canon, Ricoh and Sharp can generally connect directly to the repository via http and WebDAV, or FTP. That will allow documents to be scanned directly into the folders you want them stored in.

Once your contracts, etc. are scanned into the system the real fun begins. Now employees can embed links to their documents within their email correspondence. This will allow them to monitor when customers read them and track changes as contracts are being negotiated and reviewed. Of course, a complete history of each document related activity can be maintained, helping you do a better job of supporting the business process.

That’s just the beginning of the benefits that can be gained from scanning documents that need to be distributed. However, the cost saving can add up quickly. Express delivery fees can usually be reduced significantly. Even documents requiring signatures can often be submitted with a digital version and thus avoid physical exchange. If your business is required to save its contracts as records in protected facilities, electronic records storage may also become a cost-saving alternative, once the documents have migrated to electronic form, of course.

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