"Content is king," or so went one of the most common clichés of the dot-com era. But as companies generated ever more "content," all that Web-site verbiage, not to mention reams of internal reports and other documents, started to seem less kingly and more of a royal pain. Often it can be so difficult to locate and adapt a product brief or marketing report that you know exists somewhere in the corporation that it's actually faster to create a new version.
Enter "content management," a technology category that got its initial foothold in helping companies manage all the information they were posting to their Web sites, but that has now expanded to address everything from annual reports to spreadsheet templates. Content management, or enterprise content management (ECM), can be thought of as a grand index and repository of every piece of corporate information you might want to get your hands on and reuse.
As three-letter abbreviations go, ECM doesn't have a fraction of the name recognition of its big-ticket brethren ERP or CRM, but it will get a boost later this summer when Microsoft releases its Office 2003 suites of desktop applications. The Professional Enterprise Edition, which is aimed at businesses, will offer a new application dubbed InfoPath (heretofore known informally as "XDocs"), an "electronic forms" application that will bring some aspects of ECM to the masses.
Meanwhile, Adobe Systems Inc. is addressing ECM and related document-management issues, having teamed with SAP last year to configure its Acrobat product to display in document form information that resides in SAP applications. And such longtime ECM specialists as Pleasanton, California-based Documentum Inc. hope the new visibility the space is about to enjoy will open companies' eyes to the value of soup-to-nuts ECM suites.
Corporations will pony up more than half a billion dollars this year for software to manage Web content alone, according to Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm in San Jose, California. Jarad Carleton, an analyst there, says that while separate products now exist that address Web content, internal documents, digital rights, and other areas, there will be a push to integrate all these functions under the rubric ECM.
(Info)Path of Least Resistance
Microsoft's InfoPath can't do everything, but it can give users a taste of ECM. Anyone who has used the Wizard feature within Microsoft Word to create a résumé or fax cover sheet will understand the idea behind InfoPath, which extends that concept to facilitate the creation of a variety of templates that allow a worker to create invoices, expense forms, bills of lading, health-care forms, and a vast number of similar items.
Once specified, fields from a form can leverage rules allowing them to validate against a database to make sure that an order form, for example, doesn't contradict company policy on minimum order size or pricing. InfoPath forms are XML documents that can be sent on to a variety of databases or posted on Web sites.
Possibly more important, InfoPath can act as a data-query tool for tracking down information a company has tucked away in its electronic cellars. "We see InfoPath as a front end for gathering many types of information," says Bobby Moore, product manager at Microsoft. In fact, finding the right document, form, or data when you need it may be the most business-worthy feature of any ECM.
"Finding and reusing documents is critically important," says Harry Vitelli, vice president of business development at San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe. "Companies can lose a great deal of time because they can't find crucial information assets. You only want to create those assets once." Health-care giant Kaiser Permanente even uses ECM technology to make information available to patients, allowing them to check on appointment times, site locations, physician information, and more via a Web site.
Adobe is now integrating its Acrobat technology with SAP's applications to make it easier for, say, an SAP CRM user to view sales data in an Adobe PDF-formatted document and to then send that document to others. Most SAP customers currently use SAP's own SmartForms technology, a set of templates, to create and manage forms within SAP applications. While they are likely to continue to use SmartForms, the standard formatting of Adobe's documents greatly facilitates sharing them.
Companies that already have ECM systems in place think they're definitely worth the investment. "The project we have in Iraq will get a great deal of scrutiny, and one of the advantages of an ECM is that it provides us with an audit capability to know what happened," says Darrell Delahoussaye, portfolio manager of engineering procurement construction systems at Bechtel Corp. in Houston, which uses Documentum to keep track of all of its documents and files worldwide.
Another ECM fan is Corporate Express Inc., a leader in office supplies. "We leveraged our enterprise content management system to help us do more than $1 billion in E-business in 2002," says Wayne Aiello, vice president of eBusiness Services at the Broomfield, Colorado, firm. A $5 billion North American operation with an average order size of $150, Corporate Express uses ECM to not only present vast amounts of data on its Web site but also store and access millions of invoices. The "paperless office" is still a fantasy at most companies, and only about 20 percent of the millions of invoices Corporate Express generates each year are handled purely electronically. For the rest, "a lot of documentation results," says Aiello.
Carleton of Frost & Sullivan says that in the near term, it's a buyer's market. Larger companies are offering customers deep discounts on long-term maintenance and service contracts, which could lead to a shakeout. Longer term, he believes that vendors will have to make the software easier to install and use in order to drive down implementation and consulting costs.
Despite the price pressure and success stories, however, most companies don't feel a compelling need to spend big money on ECM. Not only are times tight, but the inefficiencies ECM addresses are often so baked into an organization as to be almost invisible. Whether Microsoft's InfoPath opens people's eyes to the further possibilities of creating documents and forms quickly, finding them, and reusing them remains to be seen. Companies that are currently content with their content may rethink their approaches. Then again, a recent online job search for "file clerk" returned hundreds of openings.
Sidebar: The Worldly Web
As more companies expand globally to serve new markets or to conduct business online with partners overseas, the need is growing for Web sites — and their associated content — that are multilingual. A whole subset of content systems, called globalization software, has sprung up in the past year or two to support the needs of international E-commerce.
These software packages not only translate English content into a huge number of other languages, but also provide what one vendor calls "cultural adaptation," which may include adjusting a Web site's terminology, look, and feel to suit local norms. The technology can also help companies extend a consistent brand image across global sites, and often includes workflow capabilities so that content developed in one location can be easily deployed on sites hosted around the world. Some of the better-known vendors of globalization software are Lionbridge Technologies Inc., GlobalSight, and Uniscape Inc.
GE TradeWeb, an E-commerce Web site run by GE's Global Exchange Services division, will use GlobalSight's globalization package to transform the English-only site into a multilingual one serving customers in German, French, and Italian. GlobalSight's system, which also is used by the World Bank, provides an automated process allowing central management to have control while enabling local country staff to adapt content for their market, a mix-and-match of centralized and local control that many experts say is essential to most multinational Web strategies.