Attacking ECM complexity

In my last post I discussed the inherent complexity that develops as ECM systems are used for an increasing range of business applications, and more importantly, as they are shaped by growing numbers of users and groups with differing perspectives. Another source of complexity is technology itself.

The term ‘Enterprise Content Management’ was developed to try to describe the result of the convergence of a wide range of previously distinct technologies – document scanning, records management, document management, workflow, collaboration, archiving, etc. This convergence was a result of technology and market maturation, and the fact that these technologies generally addressed common business needs and dealt with the key digital files (i.e. content) that have value to enterprises.

Enterprises need to treat content in standard ways and make it available to their users irrespective of technology. Since all of the component technologies cannot realistically be re-written, they must be made to work together. This need was the genesis of the Open Text ECM Suite released today.

On the face of it, adding more features increases complexity. However, sharing resources and services counters that. Making available a better tool also reduces the necessity of warping a simpler application to serve a requirement for which it is not suited.

ECM Suite not only provides a wider range of capabilities, but also updates the interfaces of some core elements, especially including the new version of Open Text Content Server – version 10. This version (of a product once called Livelink) includes a modernized interface, which is simpler. When you are trying to drive user adoption, simpler interfaces are better if they enable users to learn how to use a system quicker. But simplification can remove things that veteran users have come to rely on, and you need to guide them through the changes as I discussed previously.

I’m looking forward to the new things that are now enabled with the Suite. I’ll be embracing reduced technical complexity while accepting potentially greater operational complexity. Other people have other perspectives (video).

Syndicated at http://conversations.opentext.com/


Content Managment Systems as Cities - I feel like a Mayor!

I recently realized that large enterprise content management (ECM) systems are like a city, but most ECM practices treat them as if they were a building. There’s a big difference in complexity that impacts the operation of an ECM system.

Architects can design a building to suit its intended purpose and building management can maintain it. In the same manner an ECM expert can design a system to manage digital content in support of particular business processes. Much of the ECM literature talks of the benefits of clear system architecture and good governance.

As an ECM system is deployed across an organization the breadth and number of applications grows rapidly – often into the hundreds – with many different business sponsors and champions! It becomes increasingly hard for any one person to understand all of the different ways that a system is being used, and to exert any effective control. The flexibility accorded users through collaborative, social tools further increases the heterogeneity of an ECM system.

Not all ECM application deployments meet with equal success or longevity. In many ways the applications in an ECM system resemble buildings in a city – different sizes, different ages, different investments and different degrees of success. Some buildings are abandoned and some never get off the drawing board!

No one designs cities – they are just too complex. Sure there are examples of attempts to do this – the initial design of Brasilia or the redesign of the center of Paris by Haussmann – but over time the efforts and activities of many other people determine how a city develops. In fact cities are very much an expression of human behaviour, culture and society.

Overall city management falls to the Mayor and City Council, and their most important tools are Building Regulations and Permits, Ordnances, etc. While you can’t and shouldn’t control everything in a city, you can nevertheless provide some direction and minimal standards. The architects of the many buildings need to get approval for their plans before a building is constructed, and the building operators need to comply with other standards.

When ECM was a new concept, the focus was on how to best design and operate a first application for the new system – a new ‘building’ standing in a ‘green field’ if you will. As ECM matures we need to think about how to operate large, multi-application systems. For me a better role analogy for the person with overall system responsibility is Mayor, not Architect. It’s not that we don’t need ECM Architects – in fact we need many of them – but we also need a Mayor and Council to provide a framework for oversight and long-term strategy. And we have to accept at least a degree of disorder that results from the activities of many different people that are only loosely coordinated – Mayors are necessarily politicians, unlike Architects!


Value for Knowledge Workers

Demonstrable value goes a long way to supporting the deployment of new software tools.

For structured business processes, return on investment (r.o.i.) is comparatively easy to estimate. Where unstructured or semi-structured digital content items (e.g. documents, spreadsheets, faxes, etc.) enable a given structured process (e.g. accounts receivable) their contribution to the overall value created is also typically quantifiable.

Where the process itself is unstructured the measurement of value is much harder. Perhaps the largest class of unstructured processes in a company fall in the category of knowledge work. The difficulties organizations have in understanding knowledge work is highlighted in an article just published in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled: "Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers".

  • Aside: Unfortunately a subscription is required to read the full article – hopefully you have one.

The article starts with the proposition that few senior executives can answer the question: "Are you doing all that you can to enhance the productivity of your knowledge workers?" This is unfortunate because, "Organizations around the world struggle to crack the code for improving the effectiveness of managers, salespeople, scientists, and others whose jobs consist primarily of interactions—with other employees, customers, and suppliers—and complex decision making based on knowledge and judgment."

The authors, Eric Matson and Laurence Prusak, describe five common barriers that hinder knowledge workers in more than half of the interactions in surveyed companies:

  1. Physical
  2. Technical
  3. Social or Cultural
  4. Contextual, and
  5. Temporal

Physical barriers include geographic and time zone separation between workers, and are typically linked to Technical challenges – where workers lack the necessary tools to overcome the physical barriers that separate them. As the article notes, there are a many software tools available that can help – these would include the various collaborative and social media tools, as well as the more classic document management applications that are encompassed in the broadest definitions of Enterprise Content Management (ECM).

Of course the availability of software tools does not guarantee that users will use them effectively; indeed, Social (e.g. organizational restrictions, opposing incentives and motivations) and Contextual barriers (e.g. not knowing who to consult or to trust) play a large part in hindering adoption.

The fifth barrier is Temporal. Time, or rather the perceived lack of it, is also a critical factor. In my experience knowledge workers do not consider time spent using social media and collaborative tools as important as other activities. Under time pressure they will stop using these tools if they need to spend more time on other activities they perceive as "real work".

What struck me in reading the article is that while an increasing proportion of staff in companies are knowledge workers, it is clear that what knowledge work is and how to best enable it to drive productivity gains is not clear. Given that, it is hardly surprising that people struggle to define the value of those software tools best able to support knowledge management.


Job One in the upgrade of a major ECM system

"Upgrade it and they will run away!" is a risk scenario with any major upgrade of a business-critical, enterprise system, including an enterprise content management (ECM) system.

Often the people promoting an upgrade are technologists who are almost always 'early adopters', but many staff just want to get their job done and will often be confused by, resent or even resist changes – telling typical users that they will get a whole bunch of 'cool, new features' isn't likely to make them enthusiasts.

Here's a typical persona of such a user:

  • Doesn't read corporate communications (newsletters, emails, etc.)
  • Doesn't like technology
  • Couldn't care less about the product or site provided it 'works'
  • Just wants to 'do their job' without external disruption

One of the big challenges is to ensure that when such a persona comes to work on the Monday after a major upgrade that they don't say, "What the *#% happened to the site," especially when the interface has changed.

I'm struggling with these issues in advance of a major ECM system upgrade. The system is called Ollie and has been in production for 15 years. It now has over 5.5 million objects and 4,000 users – 93% of whom use the system every month. It's actually the main internal Enterprise Library of Open Text and is pretty much an un-customized version of the product we sell now called Content Server.

  • Content Server version 10 is just about to be released. It is the latest iteration of a product first called Livelink, and provides the underlying shared services of the Open Text ECM Suite.

Without doubt the newer version provides a better, more modern interface that will be preferred by most users – once they learn what's different and how to use it. I know most users will prefer it as it has undergone extensive usability testing – but I also know that you can't please all of the people all of the time and most people don't like surprises at work.

So 'job one' is to create a short, effective video that overcomes the shock of the unexpected, since no matter how good our communications strategy is, many people will be surprised. The video also has to smooth the way for further change, because while some of the benefits of the new version will be available on Day One, others depend on subsequent work by knowledge managers using new capabilities that become available after the upgrade.