As far as metaphors go, a 1920s-era steel filing cabinet remains a rather apt construct for considering the management of enterprise documents. Documents were traditionally organized and stored in hazard-safe corporate filing cabinets according to proprietary categories such as customer name, date, or department. For a specific document, an employee either had the key to unlock the cabinet in which it resided or didn't. Before the advent of commercially viable copy machines in the first part of the 20th centuries, multiple copies might be made only by hand, discouraging the production of superfluous versions. And when a document outlived its usefulness, it was simply torn up.
Of course-as enterprise knowledge has exploded, broken through the physical plane, and become overwhelmingly resident in electronic format-filing cabinets are no longer an appropriate or desirable means of performing all the various aspects of document management-archiving, sharing, protecting, and ultimately disposing of them in accordance with regulatory practice. Modern corporate information exists not just in discrete documents but in structured databases, unstructured email and instant messaging conversations, wikis, social networks, video, audio, and slides.
However, the digital successor to the file cabinet, enterprise content management (ECM), has too seldom taken into account the way that people wanted to access documents within their workflow, the mental model to replace that steel filing cabinet. "Many of the early document management systems were designed for their architects, the systems people, and not for the way that people were used to working," points out David Mitchell, president and CEO of Global 360, a provider of business process management (BPM) solutions.
A February 2008 study by Forrester Research titled "Enterprise Content Management's Next Step Forward" by Craig Le Clair and Ken Poore highlights the problem of corporate ambivalence toward ECM. In 2007, when a group of IT decision makers was asked, "Next year, where will your organization be in the adoption of enterprise content management (ECM) software?" more than half said that they would either not be using, or using but not purchasing, ECM solutions. It was a proportion that had remained fairly steady for 3 years, despite the growth of enterprise digital content during the same time frame. That sort of stagnant adoption rate may reflect the perception that the complexity of traditional ECM solutions outweighed their value.
Today, however, there is renewed pressure to rethink the concept of people-centric document management. It comes in the form of increased regulation, a demand for heightened productivity in the face of economic contraction, and the recognition that social media adoption in the workplace is fundamentally changing the idea of content in context. Reflecting those trends, when Forrester's researchers asked IT professionals in its 4Q 2008 "Enterprise And SMB Software Survey" about plans to adopt ECM software in 2009, fully 69% were either piloting, upgrading, considering, or implementing ECM solutions.
With this confluence of trends, the time is ripe to implement document management systems that work for people, and not the other way around.
The systems-oriented approach of traditional document management solutions is understandable given the origin of early ECM platforms, which were designed with one overriding concern: the mitigation
of risk. Corporations in heavily regulated industries such as finance and pharmaceuticals sought electronic solutions that would provide an audit trail for regulators and control who had access to which documents. "Content management started as imaging and content capture," says Forrester Research principal analyst Craig Le Clair. Apropos of those early days, Le Clair says that early ECM players such as IBM, Oracle, and EMC initially approached the issue of content management from an archiving standpoint.
Helping to expand corporate demand for ECM beyond its initial regulatory and archiving focus was the call for "the paperless office," first bandied about in the 1960s as a vision of the office of the future. Theoretical savings in paper and print costs were meant to save both the environment and millions of dollars for corporate buyers. The problem is that with the advent of cheaper printers, personal computers, and millions of interesting webpages and emails that beg to be printed off and studied, global paper products consumption has actually increased over the past 3 decades. One measure of the trend cited by authors Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper in their book The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2001) is that the use of email in an organization causes an average 40% increase in paper consumption.
The premise of a user-centered ECM solution is that enterprise content is presented to qualified users in the right time and place, in whatever format it exists, such that workflow is uninterrupted and printing unnecessary. Only if an ECM solution can truly present content in context and be easy for companies to implement will a regulation-compliant "paperless office" move from vision to reality.