AI's Well and Good, But You Still Need Enterprise Content Management
Recent headlines on generative AI, digital twins, edge computing and other cutting-edge technologies may at times appear to suggest content management problems are a thing of the past. But don't throw out your enterprise content management (ECM) system just yet.
In Reworked's 2022 State of the Digital Workplace, 65% of organizations surveyed said document management is the most important technology in their digital arsenal, and traditional email the most effective communication and collaboration tool they have.
These findings were further corroborated by Expert Market Research, whose research also forecasted that the enterprise content management market would grow by 14% this year alone.
Remote and Hybrid Models Driving ECM Adoption
While the proliferation of content being created, shared and distributed across multiple collaboration platforms has driven companies to seek ways to better manage and store documents in a structured way, a big part of the ECM growth being forecasted stems from the increasing rate of adoption of remote and hybrid work models.
According to Evelyn McMullen, research manager in charge of covering ECM at Miami-based Nucleus Research, the shift to remote work has underscored the importance of having a modern ECM solution in place to maintain end-user productivity while reducing security risks. The proven value of such solutions has made them core technologies, she said, even as some organizations return to full-time in-person work or adopt a hybrid approach.
Meanwhile, leading vendors in the space have mostly caught up with each other on baseline functionality, making future differentiation critical to their ability to secure market share.
“While some legacy providers have been able to evolve with the changing needs of their customers through R&D or acquisition, those that have not adapted risk their survival,” McMullen said.
Citing a Nucleus 2022 survey of intermediate content management users, McMullen said collaboration and automation are the primary value drivers of ECM deployments. This has pushed vendor investment to launch tools designed to maximize productivity among distributed teams.
McMullen said it's also likely that ECM will evolve in tandem with the newer technologies that are starting to emerge — though it is still a nascent field. “I have seen use of AI in ECM, but it is currently limited to algorithms that classify data and aid search by analyzing content,” she said.
“In the future, one could reasonably expect generative AI to be used in product innovation for collaboration and content development.”
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New Opportunities for ECM Vendors
The role of ECM today is much wider than it has been in the past. It has evolved to be more of a strategy than a solution.
And the methods for implementing an effective ECM strategy have evolved accordingly, though some vendors have not kept up.
“Today, content has to be managed in the environments in which people work,” Laurence Hart, a director of consulting services at CGI Federal, said. “ECM tools need to work within the modern digital workspace and not insist on being in the digital workspace. That means managing documents inside the collaboration tools that have become ubiquitous the past three years.”
The result is that ECM has done a poor job of meeting the new challenges, partly because the focus of organizations has been on "how to work" in the distributed environment and less on how to manage the output of that work.
“Now that many organizations have settled into a distributed work model, they are looking to manage all the documents that have been generated in the new tools," Hart said. The problem is, most ECM tools are not very effective at doing that.
We could argue that this isn't entirely new. As a rule, many older ECM vendors have not met the challenges organizations have been facing for quite some time. Their focus has most always been on management, rather than on creating a strong collaborative user experience — on the needs of the back office instead of front-line employees.
"You cannot manage content you do not capture,” Hart said. “That is a lesson that the legacy vendors have never truly absorbed. The closest they got to success is content services, which are a great way to support defined business processes and a poor approach to collaboration.”
There is hope though. AI and machine learning (ML) are potential saviors of ECM. Some tools are good enough to learn what documents are important and manage them without disrupting the flow of collaboration.
ECM vendors that embrace this new technology can help organizations understand the content available within their organizations and manage it effectively.
“By leveraging these new technologies and providing end-users a way to find what they need faster, ECM vendors can find a way to bring value to organizations and help those organizations better manage their content and records,” Hart said.
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Enabling Workflows and Processes
From a practical perspective, Kurt Rapelje, director of software engineering at Laserfiche, said the role of ECM in today's digital workplace is as an enabler of data-driven workflows.
If content is data designed for human consumption, not machine consumption, then innovation can happen fastest in how we organize ourselves to respond to customer needs. By that logic, organizations can innovate fastest by changing their processes for utilizing content without needing to overhaul systems to understand the data, Rapelje said.
"The rise of the digital workplace has demanded many changes, most notably the need to access content from anywhere and at any time,” he said. “The shift to remote and hybrid work has introduced new challenges, upending the way in which we create, store and interact with content.”
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In response, more organizations are looking to modernize their processes, recognizing how an effective ECM system can enable them to save time and money by more efficiently managing documents and information throughout their lifecycles.
But the benefits of a modern ECM system don't end there. The technology has evolved just as quickly as the digital workplace, and it is now critical to multiple business functions and achieving strong business results. Leaders are relying on ECM systems to boost employee collaboration, enhance customer experiences, ensure compliance and meet sustainability goals.
Considering all this, Rapelje also believes that AI is an opportunity to make better use of ECM.
For example, he said, search has always been an important use case for ECM. The more comprehensive the repository, the better chance a user will find what they need. With generative AI like ChatGPT, extracting understanding from a broad and deep ECM repository becomes even easier as the system attempts to construct an answer to the question prompting a search of the repository.
“AI will make exploring and understanding the meaning of ECM content more quickly and with greater impact. It will provide even stronger motivation for organizations to harness their content,” he said.
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ECM and Enterprise Collaboration
Rakeeb Rafeek, global product strategy head for Zoho Workplace, said document management and ECM solutions have become the digital gut of the modern workplace, provided these systems are deeply integrated with a broad set of connected tools.
He cites the example of connecting messaging and project management tools, accessing documentation, managing knowledge and co-authoring options throughout collaborative workflows.
ECM, Rafeek said, can enable that level of collaboration.
Better collaboration and more centralized, broadly connected ecosystems also create a layer in which EX and CX co-mingle and improve, without compromising compliance and security.
“In other words, the role of ECM/document management is the same, until the solution is integrated into a broader digital workplace, at which point the benefits are innumerable,” he said.
Already, improvements to many document-management tools allow dispersed workers to do more within the system, with the real value stemming from the tool's ability to integrate with larger collaboration and communication suites.
Many of these adjacent tools — e.g., chat, video conferencing, project management apps — have already proven themselves in remote working environments, so through their integration with document-management systems, they can now benefit in-office employees, remote workers or a hybrid of the two.
Legacy tools face the same challenges. In many cases, users are more familiar with how these tools work, and businesses are historically more confident in the security and privacy of, say, an on-premises legacy system.
“The cloud is still scary to some, but for legacy ECMs to really meet the challenge of a more dynamic workplace, they really need to embrace it," Rafeek said.
AI can help minimize redundancy or maximize efficiency by automating mundane tasks or prioritizing project needs. Generative AI, while still in its early stages, will get smarter and may be able to step up to the plate.
“It's my view that generative AI and ECM will merge to make way for more productivity elevators between teams such as meeting summarization, automatic document drafts based on prompts and artwork creations,” Rafeek said.
About the Author
David is a full-time journalist based in Ireland. A partisan of ‘green’ living and conservation, he is particularly interested in information management and how enterprise content management, analytics, big data and cloud computing impact on it.