Picture the scene. It is January 5th, 2017. People are just coming back to the working world after their New Year celebrations and are expecting to spend the first days settling back after the holidays. Then bang - news of “The Death of ECM” starts spreading like wildfire.

Many thought this was a joke - fake news if you like. Then the reality hit that it was Gartner saying this. Wow.

As the news sunk in the ECM community started to experience, and share, the wide range of emotions that often accompany the death of someone special - disbelief, mourning, anger, and denial to name a few.

One unnamed industry expert remembers thinking “Who's this... To say ECM is dead? I've been in ECM for twenty years. [We’ve] talked about the "Death of ECM" since 2012. We always backed it up with "why"? There was no explanation here.”

Alan Pelz-Sharpe of Deep Analysis Group was slightly more pragmatic “When I read the original blog post I understood they were trying to make a lot of noise and stir things up. I respect that, but not sure everyone understood what they were doing at the time. In fact they explicitly stated that they wanted to kill the term ECM.”

It is fair to say that 2017 had gotten off to a lively start. But why did Gartner feel the need to kill off a term that had been around for well over a decade, and why had the associated community reacted so vehemently? To find the answer to both of these we need to take a journey back in time.

What Is ECM?

If you’re reading this blog then the likelihood is that you have heard of enterprise content management, or ECM. The term ECM was coined by AIIM in the early 2000s and was essentially a natural progression from the term “Document Management” that had presided in the 80s and 90s.

AIIM defined ECM as "[...]the strategies, methods and tools used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and documents related to organizational processes.”

Pelz-Sharpe adds “[ECM is a] term from the early 00’s description a platform of content services ranging from records management, workflow, library services to document output. Few people ever used the full suite to full capacity but the term stuck.”

The challenge was, the term stuck - within the industry. But honestly, it never really resonated with a lot of people within the business world. It seemed to not entirely do justice to what these folks were trying to do with their organizational information and documents.

Marko Sillanpaa of Simflofy concurs “I'm not sure that it was understood as a term outside those that knew it existed. The 2016 AIIM World Paper Free Day Hero stated they had never heard the term before attending the AIIM conference in 2017.”

But whether people knew what the term was or not - there was still a need to for something to describe how to manage content across the enterprise. So ECM it was - until Gartner killed it.

Who Killed the King?

Chris Walker of e-Wave Solutions proffers that “[ECM is not] a technology, methodology, or process. Rather, .. a mindset or framework designed to get the right information to the right audience, in the right context, at the right time. [Enabled] by tools and processes that help capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver information.”

Sillanpaa added “Organizations manage documents for a purpose. I think ECM vendors missed that. Managing content was no longer the end solution that it was in the 90's. It was part of a larger solution.”

ECM was also not a single solution, as most organizations actually had more than one ECM solution, often one per department. These various solutions were likely completely separate, with no connectivity, no common language or structure (no taxonomy, to use the correct term), and each with varying levels of functionality. This made it very challenging for IT to manage, but also virtually impossible to get a single version of the truth - one of the key selling points of any ECM solution.

So a new concept, of being servant and not master, began to form. A world where software vendors and enterprise solutions would work together, each providing a piece of the puzzle and not the whole.

This not a comfortable view for many legacy vendors in the space - many of whom are used to being the only king in town. Sillanpaa quipped “It's a little humbling to see your entire industry become a utility.”

But perhaps this re-alignment is necessary.

The term ECM and the associated market have never really reached the same peaks as say CRM or ERP solutions. Both of these types of application serve a specific business purpose, they do it in the language of the end user, and they do it very well. ECM always struggled with its own language, proprietary information stores, often horrible user interfaces, and never really understood that they formed part of a bigger organizational ecosystem of solutions.

The New King In Town

Gartner obviously believe that the way forward is less about realignment, but more about killing the old king and replacing him with a new one called Content Services. (Very “Game of Thrones” if I may say so.)

The term content services is much more generic than ECM and covers a wider spread of technologies, such as EFSS tools, content federation and migration services (sometimes referred to as Extract, Transform and Load or ETL), as well as standard ECM tech such as capture, classification, workflow and document management.

This is less revolution and more evolution in the eyes of many. Pelz-Sharpe offers that “I think we saw the birth of the term content services, even though many of those services have been around for a while and many more will come to market in the coming years. So this is a natural progression and one that is inclusive of a lot of technologies. That's a good thing... driven by buyers in the marketplace who have been buying content services (whether they used that terminology or not) for years.”

This evolution, or natural progression, however comes with certain requirements of the new breed of solutions.

Firstly it calls for a platform approach, with one central content conductor if you like. This conductor is responsible for knowing where content is, what it is, who has access to it, and how to share it. The conductor analogy is deliberate.

The conductor of an orchestra is not a world class pianist, or violinist, or percussionist. The conductor’s skill is in being able to conduct - to know what resources he has available, how to manage them, how to connect them together to deliver a product to the end user. This only works at it’s best if the conductor has both good band members, plus all of the relevant band members for the piece they are performing - it is no good trying to play a horn concerto if you have no horns.

And this is a key feature of a modern content services platform. The instruments that a business needs for any given task will be spread across the business - instruments that may contain content, processes, and user interfaces across many existing systems. A content services platform needs to be able to bring those pieces together and conduct the content orchestra to deliver the claims management, employee on-boarding, or contracts management piece that the business needs.

As per Chris Walker “ECM suites and platforms are [becoming] nothing more than pieces of real business solutions.”

So, Is ECM Dead?

Pelz-Sharpe offers an interesting perspective - “I have learned to my own cost that buyers not analysts define the market. ECM is still a $3B [market] so it is certainly not dead, nor is it kaput.”

So were Gartner wrong, misguided or simply listening to the market?
What is clear is that:

  • the position of ECM within the business landscape is changing - to become part of an orchestra as opposed to a one-man band. Walker adds “vendors realize that the products they make are really better suited to be in the background, much like infrastructure. Their value is in serving up content to people and systems that need it”.
  • the legacy ECM providers of the past are going to struggle in this new world - unless they change, and quickly.

The connected, platform-based, repository-neutral nature of content services solutions cannot be delivered by solutions that were crafted before the days of the SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) stack. Many ECM solutions have been around for 10+ years and need to be radically re-architected - just to compete with newer offerings.

Beyond that the volume of content and information needing to be managed within the business is growing exponentially and a content services platform must count scalability to billions of documents and interactions (user or machine) as a key criteria. Again, vendors providing capabilities such as scalable cloud infrastructures and associated technologies such as elastic-search will be top of the list for organizations looking to deliver content services.

2018 - One Year Later

With 2018 rapidly approaching and almost 12 months having elapsed since ECM officially passed, the desire for something to connect data, information, content, people and processes together still remains strong.

Information still needs to be managed and it always will, and this is a continuous cycle - as per Chris McLaughlin of Nuxeo “This is the nature of technology, to change, to evolve”. The way in which this is done might be changing slightly, with an emphasis on distributed datasets, cloud-based scalability and resource access, and increased use of automation and artificial intelligence, but the underlying fact is that there is a need within organisations to manage their content - effectively, securely, easily.

2018 will be a pivotal year.

Modern content services platform players will start to overtake the legacy ECM providers on a regular basis, in terms of functionality, connectivity, price and ease of use. Gartner is recognising this in their MQ reports, and other analysts will follow - but more importantly the market is responding. The lure of solutions that address real business problems without the need for expensive system migrations, re-training, and huge maintenance costs is an attractive one.

Can Content Services deliver where ECM failed? Have we finally reached the point where connected, intuitive information management hits the mainstream? Only time will tell, but I think we just might have.