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What is enterprise content management?

Drowning in digital assets? The right software can help you stay on top of your data


Enterprise content management (ECM) may sound like a repackaging of a long-established business tool, the content management systems (CMS), but it’s not.

A regular CMS is typically used to keep a website fresh, which means it’s all about what’s new: your audience is interested in what’s happening today, not yesterday. ECM tackles the other end of the attention-span spectrum, as it relates to storing items with a long, useful lifespan, or which need to be retained for regulation and reference reasons. This means it needs a different design philosophy – one that’s ready for the day in the far future when today’s trivial edit turns out to be the pivotal statement at the heart of a billion-dollar lawsuit.

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ECM systems are used to manage more than standard text files. Modern company data can easily include videos, CAD pictures or even algorithms. One client I’ve worked with regularly handled drawings of oil tankers, as part of the documentation for a particular contract. Some digital assets might even exist solely in long-defunct file formats, which can only be accessed by maintaining a complete fossil operating system in a virtual machine – and yes, that too needs to be managed.

An unnecessary security risk?

If you’re worried about losing data, your enterprise repository ought to be read-only, and both you and your CMS provider ought to be keeping both backup and frozen-archive copies of everything. As for hacking, most ECM systems are just too unwieldy for intruders to digest; if it’s big enough to be in this delivery platform, it’s going to be expensive to extract much value out of it.

The two are related. “Intelligent information management” (IIM) means appraising your digital asset mass and being intelligent about what you get back out of it. Admittedly, that’s a can of worms these days, because while “intelligent” ought to mean transparent and auditable, many decision-makers are AI fans, and prefer their conclusions with a whiff of godlike inscrutability about them. Either way, you can think of ECM as the mechanism that feeds your IIM processes.

ECM doesn’t mean holding onto every scrap of data forever – even if big data advocates might suggest you should do that regardless. Most of the questions you’re likely to ask of an ECM system will, in any case, be time-limited – not by your reserve of cloud credit, but by market conditions, which tend not to last as long as the computers and databases that represent them. Smart asset management can call for an ice sculpture-type approach; shave away what you don’t want to expose what you do want. 

A tool for companies big and small

The question might not be how little your business is, but how digital it is – and who it transacts with, because that will leave a footprint in any number of external digital asset platforms. If you’re just starting out down the ECM path, perhaps the most important lesson comes from BT, which has a person in charge of saying “no” to data-search requests and the like that would be too onerous or time-consuming. Building such a role into your own plans could save you a lot of worry and expenditure in the future.

ECM use cases

Like most good things, ECM systems require an investment of both time and money. Therefore the first step towards deploying one is to identify whether it’s actually needed. Is your business concerned with complying with government or industry-specific regulations? If so, chances are an ECM tool would be useful. 

Use cases can then be explored in order to further justify the investment, with a deep-dive into the basics of what an ECM system has to offer surfacing benefits in addition to ensuring compliance.

For instance, ECM systems are a mobile and remote workforce enabler, supporting wider digital transformations. Content management tools often support hybrid cloud deployments. Sensitive information is stored on-premise, with everything else easily accessible in the cloud. Choosing a hybrid ECM deployment gives enterprises security and control while getting all the benefits of the cloud. 

At their core, EMC systems offer basic file sharing and library services that allow users with certified permissions to access repositories. A repository can be created, read, updated, or even deleted. Comprehensive user authentication allows documents to be shared across the system with ease and the knowledge that only the correct eyes are privy to the information they contain.

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