One to Rule Them All

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One Ring Couldn’t Rule Them All, and Neither can One Content Platform

ArgonDigital has long worked with Enterprise Content Management platforms that truly can address a wide range of content management problems and use cases. Twenty years ago when we were talking to our clients, the discussion was centered around how we can bring one of these platforms into the organization and then move existing use cases from file shares and legacy solutions onto this new system.

The problem with this approach? Even though we were using platforms that truly could be a “Swiss army knife” for organizations, organizations very rarely (dare I say never?) actually went through with implementing that vision. Maybe a single high priority use case would be moved over, maybe a handful, but I’m not sure I ever saw an organization retire ALL of their old systems. And the larger the organization, the larger the problem. What you end up with is companies that have half a dozen ECM products, files systems galore, email, local drives, and cloud systems all storing documents.

So, what is an organization to do? Companies really have a three-prong problem when taking control of their intellectual property. They need to empower their users to:

  • Find the documentation they need,
  • Use those documents in context, and
  • Control those documents.

In short, they need to provide the necessary security and safeguards while making sure users have access to the right information when they need it. Over the last 20 years this problem hasn’t changed. But there is a new trend in Content Management (did you know content management could have trends?) – Federation. But before I go into that, I think it would help to take a look at how we got here.

Where It All Began:
Federated Search

The term federation is not actually a new one – we saw Federated Search solutions start to emerge in the late 1990’s. Remember when we were all implementing Google Search Appliance in the mid-2000s? Federated Search solutions are all about letting your users find content sourced across a variety of systems. Robust search is a key component of any enterprise content management platform, and by adding federated search, results are found not only within the “main system” but also legacy or auxiliary systems. The need to find documents is a huge part of the content problem that needs to be solved. Unfortunately, these systems fall short in solving the entire problem. It isn’t enough to simply FIND the documents, but we need to be able to USE them in other contexts, and CONTROL them no matter where they live.

Phase 2: Lazy Migration

While Federated Search was a great first step in addressing organizational needs, content platform vendors still had this dream that everyone would move all their documents into their official system of record. So, what did they do next? They added what I’ll term “lazy migration” functionality. Basically, this feature allows users to search for documents within a variety of systems. If they find a result in an external system and wish to modify the document, it allows them to move it into the new system at that time. While that sounds great for ECM vendors in whose best interest it is to get all of your critical data into their platform, the problem is it still is really just the same old “one to rule them all” approach, but without a big migration project at the start. It still assumes you WANT to move your content into the new platform. It doesn’t take into account that sometimes those other systems add specific business value or have high usability and adoption by sets of stakeholders.

Phase 3: Conceding Connectors

As platform vendors began to concede that the specialized functionality that was provided by business applications could not simply be built on top of their platform (or could but really shouldn’t), they took a new tactic – creating connectors to serve up content from the ECM to those applications. If you recall, I had mentioned that our content problem was trifold, we needed to:

  • Find our documents,
  • Use our documents in context, and
  • Control our documents.

The idea here was that we would keep the documents in our central repository so they would be controlled, but by creating connectors to the business apps where the users spent their time, they would make them easy to find and use from within the context of those systems. Over the last 5 years or so, this has been the main approach that we have seen in the market. It started out as custom connectors leveraging vendor APIs and has today turned into marketplaces of apps supported by the platform vendors or 3rd parties that provide this 1-1 connection between systems.

And to be honest, this approach can work great if you have the foresight to have this in place when you start. If you have the luxury of saying “our corporate system of record is XYZ platform – we want to start using business system ABC – instead of storing our documents in ABC, we will leverage the connector and store them in XYZ.” The problem? Most organizations don’t have this luxury. They are already in a world where their documents are stored in a variety of systems. And they really don’t want to start back at square one.

Today: Federated Content Management

Today we find ourselves in a world in which we have come to realize and have started to accept that there are going to be half a dozen content repositories in our organization. Instead of fighting against that and trying to consolidate into a single system, we want to find a way to truly embrace this reality while still meeting our original three objectives. The industry is reacting again and this time, we are truly finding ways to break the “one to rule them all” paradigm. Solutions are coming to market that allow content to continue to reside in bespoke business applications, but where the organization can layer on metadata and governance policies outside of those systems. When combined with automated workflows and rules engines, they can regain organizational control even when not supported natively by the source systems themselves. This is the promise of Federated Content Management. And frankly, here at ArgonDigital we find it refreshing that even in a domain that is so well established as enterprise content management, things are still changing and evolving in exciting new ways.

Where are you on your enterprise content management adventure? If there is anything we can do to help you take the next step in your journey, please let us know – we are here to help!

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