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What is enterprise content management?


Explore the goals, benefits, types, elements and best practices of enterprise content management.

Read time: 15 minutes

Enterprise content management (ECM) refers to the processes, strategies, tools, and platforms an organization uses to manage its content. The term itself includes different components like:

  • document management

  • file and records management

  • capture and scanning

  • web content management

  • digital asset management (DAM)

  • workflow automation

  • collaboration tools.

The definition and idea of enterprise content management continue to evolve. In 2010, it focused primarily on documents and other content. The Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) recently evolved the term into Intelligent Information Management (IIM). It accounts for the way data contained within documents can be captured, analyzed, and used for better-informed decision-making.

Today, if you search online, you’ll likely find different organizations defining ECM in different ways. Why?

The simplest answer is that today there is so much content. And so much more that we can do with it.

  • Website content supports marketing, sales, customer service, and brand initiatives. 

  • Marketing content engages online and also includes files for physical material printed, used for events (like banners), and more. 

  • Business content like invoices, sales orders, contracts, and more contain valuable information and require time and effort to manage, extract data, and file.

  • Customer service content features instructions, drivers, and other content your customers use with your product or service. 

These are only a few examples. You can certainly identify more.

To really understand enterprise content management, we need to understand:

  • Why an enterprise would need it

  • The goals

  • The benefits 

  • Its role in the content lifecycle

  • The different types of documents

  • The common elements of an enterprise content management system

  • How to choose the right one

  • How to implement a system that has so many varied components

Why an enterprise would need an ECM system

Enterprises have so much content. Individual departments produce reams (to borrow a term from the heyday of paper-based content). It can be hard for people in a department to manage and keep their own content organized.

With all this content, it’s nearly impossible for different departments and teams to know what content is available outside of the one that created it. And that’s a problem an enterprise content management system can solve.  

An ECM isn’t just about storing content. It’s about making it usable. By tagging each piece of content with meta-data (searchable information about the content), it becomes “find-able” by anyone with access to the area where it resides. 

Suddenly, information becomes available, usable, and more easily shared. Plus, the content can be tracked to meet compliance and information governance standards. And management of documents throughout their entire lifecycle becomes more automated, simplifying document retention policy management and enforcement. 

For some enterprises, an ECM system makes business intelligence possible. Advanced data capture solutions extract the data from your documents for analysis, transforming documents and content into business intelligence.

So, why would an enterprise want an ECM? Perhaps the simplest answer is business agility.

7 goals of enterprise content management

Information and data are the lifeblood of business. Documents and, even more generally, content in all its forms exist solely to organize and communicate that information and data.

How information is found, accessed, moves, and is stored form the primary purpose for developing your enterprise content management strategy. But your goals for it should be much more focused.

Here are 7 common goals of an ECM strategy.

1. Improve access and responsiveness

Have you ever misplaced a document?

Like most of us, the answer is probably yes. It’s maddening, right?

And it’s worse when you or one of your customer service representatives can’t find a document when talking with a customer.

Creating a centralized and structured way of organizing and handling your documents and content reduces the risk of lost documents or missing data. This ensures documents are available to your employees when they need them. And when they have what they need, they can be more responsive to your customers and vendors, and to each other.

2. Support remote work

This goal may be relatively new, but it may be one of the most important today.

Although enterprise content accounts for all created content, the simple reality is that the majority of content today is created and stored digitally. This makes it ideal for a remote workforce

The challenge? Having all of the content secured, organized, and accessible. An enterprise content management system implements the processes, tools, and systems needed to achieve this, turning anywhere into a workspace.

With internet access and a VPN connection, authorized employees can access documents, data, and other content to work with, review, or approve, keeping digital workflows moving.

3. Shift document and information management from a capital to an operating expense

File cabinets, paper, and, of course, other physical media used for content production and storage require capital expenditures. Software applications, especially cloud platforms, typically bill as an operating expense.

For those of us not in accounting, this means lower costs upfront and a much lower barrier to use. 

4. Reduce document-related costs

Creating and storing documents and other content comes with a cost.

Producing physical content requires the media and print supplies to create it. There is also the time required to proof (as needed) and get it where it needs to go.

Then, there’s the space and physical containers (file cabinets, boxes, etc.) required to store it. For enterprises, that can be quite a bit of space, and offsite storage is not cheap.

Finally, retrieval of hard copy documents – particularly those stored offsite – takes time. Third-party storage like an Iron Mountain involves added costs. 

While these content creation and storage processes were fine once, today’s technology makes them a burden to customer service and business agility.

And while unstructured digital document storage may introduce some improvements, it comes with its own burdens. For example, have you ever struggled to find a digital document? Most of us have, and some of us may have even thought, "This wouldn't have been a problem if I'd only stored it in a paper file."

Enterprise content management gives structure, control, and centralization to your content, eliminating almost all of these challenges.

5. Streamline and create agile workflows

Today, paper or any other physical media simply moves too slow. Companies know that structured digital and automated workflows allow them to respond faster to customer requests, increasing the speed at which they do business. 

Many content management systems include workflow automation tools, further enabling businesses to increase the speed that work gets done. Documents never move, but employees can complete their tasks working from anywhere. 

Almost all systems allow companies to build workflows for recurring processes like AP/AR (some even have out-of-the-box workflows built). Most also allow for ad hoc workflow creation, adding to the agility businesses can take advantage of.

6. Increase employee productivity

Documents interfere with productivity when they need to travel from one PC to another and live in disconnected systems. Waiting for a file creates downtime.

The centralization, access control, and structure offered by enterprise content management remove barriers to productivity. By removing the physical element of movement, employees can retrieve, interact with, and store documents quickly. Many systems offer automated capture to reduce manual tasks like data entry. 

Plus, by storing all content digitally and in a single location, employees can stay productive wherever they find themselves.

7. Ensure business continuity

Digitally stored documents can be backed-up easily. And cloud backup and disaster-recovery-as-a-service (DRaaS) solutions make it easy to store your backed-up content offsite. 

Cloud-based enterprise content management systems typically offer multi-location redundancies. A service as much as a platform, these systems give companies the comfort of uptime guarantees, meaning your content and data are not only backed-up but guaranteed to be available. 

In a world where remote workforces have become the norm, these uptime guarantees help meet business continuity goals.

The benefits of enterprise content management systems

The way enterprise content management helps businesses meet their goals may sound like benefits in themselves. In reality, the benefits go much further and include:

  • Better decision-making. When employees have access to all the information and content they need when evaluating the option, they make better-informed decisions.

  • Content security. The only way to access any piece of content is via a password protected interface. Yes, this requires strong password practices, but no one will just happen upon a document like those that might be left on top of a file cabinet. Plus, if you use cloud content management, the data centers (should) use multi-layered security protocols and encryption to ensure your content remains secured.

  • Enhanced document controls. Access rights go beyond merely granting access to documents – they define what a user may do with a document. Basic levels of access would be view, edit, and admin. These controls add another level of document security while still granting access to employees to help achieve a faster response to vendors, customers, and prospects ready to buy.

  • Lower document storage costs. Without a need for physical media or storage, costs become more predictable and manageable.

  • Better use of office space. With more available office space, you have more flexibility to meet changing work environment needs such as for health, safety, and adding staff.

  • Increased productivity. Everyone spends less time looking or waiting for documents and more time getting work done. Being in a controlled and centralized system, employees can find documents and other content quickly. Many systems allow for quick searches based on key data fields in the document. Invoices, for example, could be found by invoice number, customer name or number, or other fields. Automated workflows move and share documents for review and approvals at the speed of a click. Real-time collaboration tools support meeting productivity.

  • Greater employee satisfaction. Employees stay engaged and energized when they can stay productive with the bonus of flexibility that improves the work-life balance.

  • Greater customer satisfaction. Your sales and customer service teams will be able to access the information they need to respond faster to customer requests whether they are working at the office, in the home office, or on the road.

  • More available data at your fingertips. A well-structured enterprise content management program puts all the relevant content at everyone’s fingertips, empowering informed decision-making.

  • Content lifecycle management. You’ll optimize data storage and prevent files from becoming bloated with outdated documents and content. Enterprise content management systems enable you to manage the lifecycle of every document from creation through archiving and, as appropriate, even deletion.

Managing the Content Lifecycle

Every piece of content shares the same five elements in its content lifecycle:

  • Capture

  • Publish

  • Retention

  • Archive

  • Deletion

How long you keep a piece of content depends on the document type, its relevance, and often any regulatory compliance requirements. As content volumes grow, keeping track of each piece of content becomes a bigger challenge. It’s easy to find a document in a mostly empty file cabinet. It’s more difficult in one bursting with documents.

The centralized and digital nature of enterprise content management makes managing the entire life of content simpler. Every piece of content gets a creation date tag when added to the system. It's always in the same location. In many cases, you can even add retention dates to a document or group of documents. This way, as a document reaches the end of its lifecycle, you can decide whether to set it for deletion or continue to store it as needed.

At this point, we’ve looked at enterprise content management from the perspective of digitizing all files. Realistically, you may have some files that must live on paper such as legal contracts. Cases such as these still belong to enterprise content management. To facilitate the management, you would engage with a system for tracking these documents. This might look like:

  • A barcode on each document, scanned and recorded in the document database.

  • Boxes of the content likewise barcoded and scanned and then stored in a secured facility.

  • Regular audits to ensure security and validate the presence of each document.

We live in a digital world, but it isn't completely paperless yet. It's important to know that even paper documents can be managed via a centralized application to ensure your enterprise contents' accurate and efficient management.

Types of content ECM's support

Structured content 

is the data stored in databases, enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, customer relationship management (CRM) tools, and line of business applications.

Semi-structured content 

are those documents like invoices, HR forms, and order forms that have specific data types, although the actual documents themselves may vary in layout and design.

Unstructured content 

includes correspondence, presentations, and other media for which the data and the design are different from one document to another. 

Different types of ECM

You may see a variety of answers if you search "enterprise content management" online. The range of definitions has expanded as technology has increased the amount and type of possible enterprise content. You may see it referred to as follows:

Web content, especially for enterprises, includes a lot of material. You’re likely to have articles, blog posts, videos, webinars, and more, not including the web pages and corresponding material related to the product or service offering. Web content management systems like SiteCore® can be quite extensive to handle and organize all of your web content. 

These systems manage the creation, revision, approvals, versions, and tracking of single documents, often legal contracts and documents. SharePoint would be an example of this type of system.

This term refers to organizational content related to the sales and support of the products or services sold and may include both digital and paper-based content. It typically includes all three content types: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured content.

Elements of ECMs

The Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) identifies five elements of enterprise content management systems:

1. Capture: The creation, scanning, saving, or digital recording (in terms of documents that still live in paper) of content into the system.

2. Manage: How you store, retrieve, and use the documents in the system based on your retention policies.

3. Store: The different platforms used that house your content, including any IT or cloud infrastructure and backup and disaster recovery services.

4. Preserve: This is your lifecycle and records management policies put into practice for storing, archival, and eventual deletion of the materials.

5. Deliver: The ways you share, collaborate, and send the content where and to whom it needs to go. Workflow automation tools such as automated routing with applications like our Smart Integration Solutions belong in this category.

Although these five cover the many different elements, we include two more elements in every enterprise content management system – 

6. Information governance: The policies that define how you manage your content should exist for every type of content. Best practices include written policies and employee training to ensure everyone understands proper handling of company content.

7. Reporting and analytics: See detailed analysis of user access, content usage, and more to better understand the content lifecycle, user behavior, and to track access for compliance reporting.

Is document management the same as enterprise content management?

Document management is an aspect of enterprise content management, but ECM involves more than the system that manages, stores, retrieves, and archives electronic documents.

For example, website content management systems solely store all the material that lives on your website. Databases, CRMs, ERPs, and line of business applications store data and other business-specific content.

A document management system like DocuWare can act as a content management system for small and mid-sized businesses but would not have the full range of tools enterprises require. An enterprise may use a document management system like DocuWare as a departmental solution, a small component of the larger enterprise content landscape.

How to choose an enterprise content management solution

The following steps can help you choose a content management solution for your organization.

1. Determine the scope of your need. Do you need a system for your entire enterprise or only for select departments? Which type of ECM do you need: for web, collaborative, or transactional content? Effectively, the first step involves determining who will be using it and what they will generally be using it for.

2. Identify your objectives. What problem are you trying to solve? Starting with questions can help you define and prioritize your objectives. For example, questions to consider may include:

  • Do you need to make your content more easily available to remote workers?

  • Are you trying to reduce the time spent searching, filing, and organizing content?

  • Do you have compliance requirements you need to meet?

  • Is there a need to reduce the time currently spent on capturing data and routing semi-structured documents like invoices?

  • Have you found a need to digitize and automate workflow processes to help employees stay productive in a more mobile and remote work-oriented world? 

  • Do you need to integrate documents into a more streamlined process with your current line of business applications, ERPs, or CRMs?

  • Are you looking to reduce infrastructure? 

Once you identify your specific objectives, you will find it easier to determine what element of ECM you should start with.

  • If you need a document or data capture solution, you might look for products like Kofax ControlSuite.

  • For data capture and analysis tools, a platform like the Intelligent Business Platform (IBP)℠ can deliver the applications that complement an enterprise content strategy.

  • A web content management solution like SiteCore may deliver web content intelligence to enhance your web presence. 

3. Find a partner. Many companies provide ECM products and services, but that doesn’t mean they are the best fit for you. You want to consider: 

  • Does the provider understand my business?

  • Do they have the resources to support my implementation?

  • Will the provider be able to scale the product to your need?

  • Does the vendor have the expertise needed to ensure seamless integrations with line of business applications?

  • What kind of training is offered?

This step may be the difference between a successful implementation and frustration and a lack of adoption by your organization. Take your time here and research your options, see a demo and understand how the application will work in your implementation, and talk to partner references.

4. Define the requirements of the implementation. Take time to understand the roles and responsibilities for the implementation and onboarding process. Although the vendor will likely create the Scope of Work document, view your organization’s role as coauthor. And make sure to understand how you will be able to scale it as needed. 

5. Deliver. The ways you share, collaborate, and send the content where and to whom it needs to go. Workflow automation tools such as Kofax TotalAgility®, XM Fax (fax over IP – FoIP), or, at a departmental level Smart Integration Solutions, address enterprise needs.

How to implement enterprise content management solutions

Many ECM systems reside in the public cloud, data center infrastructure hosted by a third-party provider and outside your network. Amazon Web Services and Salesforce are examples of this.

Public cloud – often just called cloud hosted or cloud-based – application setup fastest, making it only necessary to create users in a new system implemented specifically for your organization.

An installation in a private cloud will require software deployment and setup. If you choose an on-premise installation, you will need hardware infrastructure setup in addition to platform deployment and setup.

The details of the implementation – whichever you choose – should be outlined in the Statement of Work document.

Once the system is ready for use, your first step will be to complete your initial configuration. Working with your partner at this point can help administrators gain a quick understanding of how the system works.

Then, it’s time for training.

Stakeholder and user training can be casual but should be mandatory, follow a well-defined plan, and involve multiple stages to ensure adoption and maximize the benefit of the system.

Finally, work with your vendor partner to create any initial dashboards and reporting to monitor system usage.

For more information about enterprise content management…

We invite you to check out our other articles on ECM.

Using enterprise content management systems to achieve your goals

Enterprise content management systems increase document security, boost productivity, and empower you to reach your organizational goals.

What to look for in an enterprise content management tool

Think strategically about the role an enterprise content management system plays in everything from business processes to change management.

Your ECM is not just about technology

Enterprise content management encompasses everything from your information and data to your mobility, governance and security policies.

Information Governance through Records Management

Records management should always be a critical component of your integrated information governance and enterprise content management strategies.

If you have questions about how ECM could benefit your organization, contact us.

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