Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Introducing Enterprise Content Management (ECM) at School?

When I was in school content management mostly consisted of storing my documents in a three-ring binder. If I could keep the papers for each of my classes organized between the color-coded page separators for a whole semester it seemed like a real victory. Archaic as that may appear today, when you think about it, learning those content organization skills was preparing me for work in the “modern office” of the time. At least I learned not to pinch my fingers in binders or open more than one upper filing cabinet drawer at a time.

Obviously, a lot has changed in decades since I was in grade school. More and more students are using online resources to supplement the learning process in addition to tracking and reporting on their progress. Learning or, course management systems are rapidly replacing traditional methods of content delivery and introducing fundamental changes into how students and teachers interact.

Students using today’s online learning management systems are also developing the skills they will need to succeed beyond the classroom. In less than a few years, IDC expects that over 70% of US employees will interact with their managers remotely. These workers will depend on a variety of content management tools to help them collaborate and work together across distances and time zones. They will probably expect to have access to tools like the one’s that allowed them review a lecture online or participate in a class discussion remotely.

While it may seem strange to discuss students using content management systems at school, that’s exactly what they are doing. Over 85% of higher education institutions have adopted an LMS standard and a growing number of K-12 districts are doing the same. Among the many advantages these systems offer, managing and sharing content online is fundamental benefit. As a result, students are learning how to access, create, modify and collaborate on learning materials at younger and younger ages.

Just as I learned to organize my own documents and later access others in the school library, today’s students are discovering new ways to search for information online and associate it with their own academic histories. As parents already know, it’s not unusual for class projects to be published on web pages these days. In fact, a growing number of students are now maintaining their own web portfolios, often using the same systems that help manage their class work. The concept of re-using content between applications or business processes won’t be foreign to these digital natives.

What does all of this learning management system experience mean for the ECM industry and the workforce that depends on its technology? A significant opportunity for change, I suspect. The common metaphors we use for organizing information are changing as content becomes more complex and abundant. Metadata is becoming more important to content discovery while file and folder hierarchies seem ever more cumbersome. Just think of how you last searched for rich media content (a photograph, perhaps?) on Google (Picasa) or Facebook.

My understanding of storage hierarchies and taxonomies may become as useful as my old three-ring binder as search technologies become more capable and our applications produce more useful metadata. This could be good news for ECM applications. It might allow them to become more flexible and easy to use, just like the web-enabled learning and social networking technologies that students are becoming comfortable with today.

It’s reasonable to expect that tomorrow’s knowledge workers will need to become even more efficient than today’s and ECM technologies should help support that demand. As students continue to gain familiarity with content management via their work with learning management systems, it will be interesting to observe how that experience shapes their expectations in the workplace. At a minimum, I expect that the mobility afforded by web applications will be demanded at the office.

A Web 2.0+/social network-guided education experience may also prepare future employees for a very different office computing and content management environment than we’re familiar with today. Who knows, that might leave hierarchical filing systems and the computing technology that’s enforced them back in the closet with my old binders and hanging file folders. I would at least expect it to increase demand for similar learning management solutions to support continuing education in the workplace. That’s something we’ll need to look into next time.

Until then, you can learn more about learning and content management beginning at Regards, Jim

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ECM & Email – The End of File Attachments?

I remember a marketing campaign we dreamed up years ago called “No More Attachments”. It was intended to encourage businesses to abandon attaching documents to email messages long before the concept was mainstream. Back then; most organizations weren’t familiar with social networks or storing much online, except for website pages.

Reading a recent AIIM ECM survey reminded me of the misconceived campaign because it suggests that even in 2009 many organizations remain overwhelmed with managing email. While email is certainly one of the most successful applications ever developed, its popularity and ease of use have created serious IT headaches.

For example, 55% of AIIM survey respondents report they have “little or no confidence” that important emails are recorded, complete or recoverable. (That’s just a small improvement compared to the prior year’s results of 62% “non-confidence”). Considering that US courts regard email as an electronic record, that could become an expensive problem should a business find itself involved in litigation.

In the same AIIM survey 27% of respondents also reported that email attachments were “very unmanaged”. I’m not sure which of these statistics scares me more? I suspect some organizations consider documents and files to be vital records, but if they’re being managed and stored as attachments in individual email accounts that could be a recipe for disaster.

Most mid-large sized businesses require employees to remove email from corporate servers or risk having it deleted after a specified period of time (30-90 days usually). If standard archiving rules aren’t supported, employees usually copy files to local folders on their PC, or possibly store them on portable drives or CD’s. What happens to that vital content then? What if the only remaining copy of an important document was a file attachment?

Email is simply a dangerous place to store important documents. Searching for documents in email clients like, Outlook is notoriously difficult. Trying to do the same in Entourage is worse (trust me). I rely on Google desktop to help get me out of these kinds of problems, but even that doesn’t always work. A well-intentioned IT admin recently updated my email identity to better manage my storage. Suddenly, I could not longer access any of the messages or attachments I could find with Google. Loss and theft of portable data storage devices is an even bigger problem.

I’ve learned my lesson to keep all my documents in an online content management system – no matter what they are about. The fact is, I can find them and share them much more easily and my employer can monitor and classify them, if needed as well. Once my files are stored online, I can skip attaching them to messages and use file links instead. These days, that’s really no different from how I share photographs and other content on the web outside of work.

So much is being written about the benefits and challenges of social networking in the enterprise. I think if employees could simply harness their new web collaboration skills to abandon sending file attachments they and their employers would find managing content could be much simpler. For example, replacing file attachments with links to documents stored in a common content repository significantly eases the burden on mail servers. Businesses could actually monitor and control content access more effectively as well.

Of course, this suggestion presumes that everyone has access to content management solutions. Well, if you don’t, here’s a somewhat radical suggestion. Get your own. That’s right; sign up for an ECM service online, like Xythos on Demand, or even use Google Docs. It’s free! I know that’s not probably IT-approved advice, but it will be an improvement, and your team will gain valuable experience using Web 2.0 tools to collaborate.

The better-known services, including Google Apps, Microsoft’s new SaaS version of SharePoint and Xythos on Demand all employ industry standard security methods to ensure your content remains safe. The rest is really up to you and your team. If you follow accepted workplace practices and don’t share content with unknown parties, you should keep out of trouble. Consider the advice you might tell your child about Facebook, and you’ll be OK.

Once you’ve learned how your own team can benefit from sharing document links, try leveraging your experience to convince your organization to adopt its own sanctioned solution. That way the rest of your co-workers can benefit from being able to find and share files more easily. Don’t forget to ask for a solution that scans email messages as well. That way you can take care of two content management problems at once.

Who knows, maybe AIIM’s survey will show some more improvements in this area next year… In the meantime,  if you run into trouble, let me know. If you end up with some good stories to tell, please share those as well! Oh, I almost forgot. Make sure to get your hands on a plug-in, or Xythos Drive for your preferred email client to replace “paper clipping” with a link to your ECM system. It will accelerate your independence from file attachments almost overnight!

Regards, Jim

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Will iPhone, Kindle and Online Collaboration be the end of Printed Documents?

What was the last document or file that you actually printed yourself? Was it something that you wanted to share with others, or did you simply prefer reading it on paper instead of on screen? Maybe it was something you needed to sign and submit, or perhaps you were just following a common work habit?

I remember the last item I printed. It was an airline boarding pass I needed a few days ago. The “document” before that was really just a discount coupon for parking. The last time I printed a business related document was about two weeks ago, when I decided to review a program summary outdoors. My MacBook display is quite bright, but it still isn’t useful in the sunlight. (I always wonder about those laptop adds staged near swimming pools….)

Anyway, I’ve been observing my reduced printing behavior as a sort of personal experiment. It’s encouraging progress from a green perspective, but that’s not really my motivation. I’m simply finding that my growing reliance on web based document delivery, editing and sharing is largely a matter of convenience. I’ve grown tired of re-typing my own freehand notes and my intended output format has largely become electronic as well.

The addition of new content delivery devices like the iPhone, and Kindle are also changing my expectations about how and when to consume and, sometimes edit content. I’m having no trouble reading news using the New York Times and Wall Street Journal iPhone apps. While I don’t do much serious document editing on this device yet, it’s easy to use email, Linkedin or Twitter, and reviewing an Office document isn’t impossible. I’m looking forward to iPhone OS 3.0 software updates for improved editing as well.

Using my iPhone to access and manage documents in an ECM system

I’m not sure where the Kindle would fit into my own content management lifestyle as my MacBook is with me at most times, or if it’s not my iPhone certainly is. However, the combination of these devices appears to have profoundly changed my appetite for printed output as both a content creator and consumer. For those who mostly consume content and maybe use another device for email, etc., the new Kindle DX may become their “green” alternative for newspapers and magazines. While a bit expensive, it will certainly help keep fingers and clothes cleaner.

A lot of business, legal and medical processes still depend on paper documents, but I think that may change sooner than most think. The cost-saving and security advantages of doing this have been well documented. While the process of change is not simple, I suspect some of the fears associated with managing electronic content are somewhat inflated. We simply need to become more comfortable with paper-less content in general, in order for it to be better accepted as part of mission-critical business processes.

Online document collaboration software and devices like the iPhone and Kindle may be just the enticement we need to become ready to embrace a paper-less future. I’ve even begun using my iPhone WSJ app to read the “paper” before it gets delivered. I wonder how much longer I’ll continue with home delivery of the “old” version…?

An easy way to test this whole hypothesis is to become more engaged in social networks like Facebook, Linkedin and even Twitter. I’ve noticed that the more I use these networks, the more I want all my content stored online – whether that’s photographs, music or documents. Pretty soon, having content stored anywhere else just seems like a hassle. And of course, that means printed documents too.

Has your paper document consumption and output begun to change also? What’s causing that to happen and how is it affecting you or your business? Please let us know.

Friday, May 1, 2009

ECM in the Cloud - Data Still Under Your Control?

Let’s face it; there are still some documents we just don’t want to leave anywhere but in a fire-proof safe or a deposit box at the bank. The challenge only increases for businesses or larger organizations. Unfortunately, the status of some banks has become questionable lately and frequent natural disasters are a tough reminder that physical media storage can still be risky.

The advantages of electronic document storage have been well chronicled. The value of backed up and redundant document storage is undisputed and the benefit of accessing documents over the web has become well appreciated by many. However, many organizations unable to deploy their own document management, or ECM systems have not rushed to adopt hosted, or online document management services as an alternate method to improve document security.

Some businesses may simply be unwilling to permit vital content to be stored outside their domains. Organizations in some regulated industries for instance are prohibited from doing this at all. For many others businesses though there exists a need for secure, web-enabled document storage that most software as a service (SaaS) ECM solutions cannot address very easily.

These organizations are often larger than typical SaaS ECM customers. Many already support their own IT infrastructure including standard security and user authentication methods, email and other business-specific computing services. As these companies have grown they’ve experienced common challenges associated with managing arrays of networked servers, storage systems and the increased demands of a mobile workforce.

As these businesses investigate options to improve service delivery and streamline IT budgets, outsourcing content management and storage can appear attractive. However, requirements for system customization and integration can often exceed the capabilities of the best SaaS providers. For organizations with transient user communities, such as academic institutions this can be particularly challenging. Frequently changing user identities and roles can pose a significant risk to the institution and its content.

So, how can an organization leverage the benefits of a hosted ECM service without discarding its security and technology investments? As you might have guessed, the solution may consist of a hybrid approach commonly referred to as “managed hosting”. It offers a virtual private data cloud for clients which can be customized to integrate directly with their authentication and security standards, as well as other applications. While it may not offer the same shared economies as SaaS solutions it can still provide significant cost savings, even from individually managed instances of a hosted application.

Managed hosting ECM clients can enjoy a variety of cloud-like operational benefits, as well as a level of personalized service not typical of SaaS solutions. In addition to not having to hassle with owning and operating ECM systems themselves, managed hosting customers can expect a level of application expertise better suited to their own business. It’s not unusual for managed hosting providers to specialize in select vertical markets so that they gain performance efficiencies of their own. This focused service model contrasts with the more common one-to-many plan offered by most SaaS vendors.

Customized integration, on-demand system scalability and guaranteed service delivery agreements are each designed to help keep the ECM managed hosting customers in control of their business without having to continue to worry about how and where documents are stored. Some service providers even go a step further offering remote system monitoring applications and dedicated systems engineers to ensure that clients know exactly what’s happening with their data 24x7.

For growing businesses, managed hosting offers clients a unique opportunity to evolve their applications as their needs change. For example, if a client decides they want to integrate certain application plug-ins or 3rd party modules the services provider typically can help them do that. More often in the SaaS environment customers must wait until the SaaS vendor determines that new service features are appropriate for the majority of subscribers.

Don’t expect that hosted ECM solutions will cost as little as SaaS options though. That’s almost like comparing a well-tailored suit to a mass-produced alternative. However, for organizations which have become more complex and especially those concerned with maintaining the greatest degree of control over their data as possible, managed hosting may prove to be an attractive option. 

I wouldn’t forget about SaaS altogether. It can be a good way to experiment with ECM delivered as a service. It may also be well suited to meet the needs of specific departments within organizations not yet ready to begin a complete migration to a new ECM solution (whether it be hosted, or on premise).

Blackboard and Xythos recently introduced its of own set hosted ECM solutions intended to leverage Blackboard’s successful history of worldwide service delivery and the uniquely scalable and distributed capabilities of Xythos technology. This service could be particularly attractive to highly mobile and geographically distributed organizations. Of course, knowing that it’s delivered with 99.7 uptime guarantees including multiple and redundant daily backups will probably help comfort the control freaks as well.

You can learn more about it here.