Immature Complexity

I'm working with a colleague on a project that integrates structured content and processes (in SFA/CRM and ERP) with unstructured content (ECM).

We are coming at this unified need from very different perspectives – he from a background in telecom process support (what Geoffrey Moore in 'Dealing with Darwin' would describe as a Volume Operations model), and me from content management in a software company (what Moore would describe as a Complex Systems).

As always, such interactions serve to challenge your assumptions, helping you to broaden your perspective.

He understood that we need to capture content created during interactions with customers and had made provision for it in his plans.

I kept saying, "But unstructured content represents more than 80-90% of the information," as most of ECM practioners routinely claim – I don't think he believed me in a tangible way…

Then I shared some research I did four years ago. I looked at how many pieces of content we typically collect before a first sale to a customer. At that time (2005), the number was an average of 88 objects. Since that time we've gotten better – we collect more. As part of the same research I also looked at content associated with customers of many years standing – in the case of one conglomerate we had over 28,000 content objects! Again, that has continued to grow.

And it's not just content volume, but a growing variety of formats and subjects.

I believe my colleague was stunned, which of course led to a discussion of how we can best manage such volumes. I can go one for some time about best practices in ECM deployment – content architecture, governance, user training, permissions, controls, etc.

But I came away from this discussion with a reinforced feeling that ECM is hard. If it was easy this software sector would be more advanced – it would be like ERP is, not as it was 15-20 years ago. The enterprise content management sector is relatively immature because it is tackling a harder problem – unstructured is more of a problem to manage than structured – and there's more of it.

Although some content types are becoming at least semi-structured, and so are arguably easier to manage, the growth in completely unstructured and diverse content types far outpaces it.

So the immaturity of ECM is a reflection of its complexity. Meanwhile the value of ECM continues to grow, but we still have a way to go before all information professionals really understand it, although with maturity comes understanding…

Nothing original, but I enjoyed re-examining my assumptions and testing them against the perspectives of others from a different background.


  1. Martin - I enjoyed this post. I was having a discussion recently with a potential client that I couldn't convince that ECM was just as hard as implementing ERP. My argument was look at how much you spent in changing processes and creating a structure for managing 20% of the information your organization creates and/or maintains. Why should you not expect to spend a substantial amount in maintaining the unstructured information, which accounts for the other 80%? I think it may have been an ahha moment for them.

    I also loved the title of this post. It reminded me of the time I was told in a performance review that I needed to be more flexible with my consistency in how I interacted with my employees.

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