Can ECM ever be Agile?

  • 15-Sep-2009

The past year or so IBM has been promoting the concept of "Agile ECM" in its marketing for FileNet P8. It is an interesting concept both at a marketing and implementation level regardless of whether P8 itself really fits such a label itself.

The word agile can be used in different ways, as a term for a development methodology, or just more generally in terms of ease of redeployment. Yet however it is defined, agile is not a word that often gets applied in conjunction with ECM systems. ECM has traditionally been a seen as a standalone solution, sold most commonly as a business application to meet a very specific need. That need can vary widely from managing case matter within a legal firm to check-processing for a bank. Public and private organizations have many such specific and critical business needs to address. ECM technology can manage those needs well.

But today organizations are trying to be ever more flexible.  Fewer processes are set in stone, given paramount requirements to respond to customers' and partners' seemingly ever-changing needs. Hence the goal of "Agile ECM" --  functions, processes, and technology that can be adapted to meet changing needs with ease. It's a great vision, and one that more buyers are demanding, but it is one which ECM vendors are hard-pressed to truly deliver.

Frankly it's a tough thing to architect, and there is no one correct way to meet such agility requirements. Consider the following for example:

ECM vendor A could go all out to build every module of their offering based on available open standards

ECM vendor B could provide everything as open source

ECM vendor C could provide highly scalable, integrated, and usable BPM services

ECM vendor D could provide a cheap and easily-scalable product set

ECM vendor E could provide an authentically SOA-based infrastructure

ECM vendor F could provide a dynamic application development environment with well-documented APIs

Truth is, as our subscribers  already know, most of the ECM vendors claim to do all of these things. But in recently updating the CMS Watch product evaluations of Objective, FileNet, NewGen, Nuxeo, Microsoft, EMC-Documentum, Alfresco, and Open Text, I was struck once again by how their approaches to adaptability in the face of changing business needs differ so markedly from each other. Consider the following:

ECM vendor 1 tries to follow opens standards, but accidentally does not support a couple of the most important ones

ECM vendor 2 has a somewhat proprietary view of what open source actually means

ECM vendor 3 has outstanding native BPM services that cannot talk to any other BPM services

ECM vendor 4 has an initially cheap pricing model that escalates dramatically at a certain seat volume

ECM vendor 5 has an impressive set of services-based modules, but keeps a couple of key licensing components out of the equation

ECM vendor 6 has a great application development environment but produces indecipherable APIs

Vendors are not evil, and these shortcomings and inconsistencies do not signal nasty intent. But ECM systems can become highly complex, and typically very expensive to deploy and maintain; meanwhile, customers' technical environments are almost always heterogeneous (i.e., a complete dog's dinner of technology components).

So "Agile ECM" is an understandably difficult place to reach. But it's not impossible, and smarter buying decisions would go a long way towards obtaining it for your enterprise.  But whether you get your in-depth research from CMS Watch, or you opt to do it yourself -- you need to get beyond the marketing and the PPTs and dig deep.

In a truly agile development environment, one learns through an iterative process, whereby a team (or a group of teams) collaborates and continually reviews progress, correcting the path toward the final goal. ECM needs to be more like that.  We need to recognize that many people have very specific needs to meet, but that there are many ways to meet those needs. The key is to find the route that suits your organization, your culture, your skills and your pocket best.

Selecting the right vendor as a partner is a major part of that process. To select the right vendor you need to fully understand their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and be honest about your own abilities in the process. Truly agile ECM is worthy goal, but it will sadly and likely remain a real world misnomer for some time to come.

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Eric L. Reiss, Author of "Practical Information Architecture"

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