3 Dirty Secrets of Enterprise Content Management

May 11, 2010

Posted in Governance and Technology.

Every year universities and colleges embark on a quest for an elusive beast: the content management system. Many of these organizations have a dream: a single system for the entire university to store, manage, and distribute content. They call it enterprise content management (also known as eCM).

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Enterprise means “does everything”

Enterprise content management represents a $3 billion market, with major software players including IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and EMC. These companies offer robust systems that do many things, from web to search to email to document management. They are intended to own the breadth of services around content.

So how do these companies offer everything? They buy companies and glue them together. Or they build lackluster solutions and tack them on. The result is a mess of software that acts inconsistently, creates data islands, and often fails to keep up with more specialized competition.

Look at the separation of Google Analytics and Feedburner as a simple example: Google bought Feedburner and spent the next few years trying to integrate the authentication, migrate data, etc. So why can’t I link my Feedburner data with the rest of my Google services? Imagine tracking feed subscriber counts along with your Google Analytics data. This is a phenomenal opportunity for integration, but sadly these great services are on separate tracks.

Features means broad, not deep

Large institutions have a lot of differing needs. Because one tool does everything, it’s easy for customers to be fooled into believing that they can have one solution to many problems. This forces nearly every single user to compromise something for the sake of having a single tool. It might save money or time and it might be easier to support, but it doesn’t necessarily do the best job. It’s practically an institutional admission that we should sacrifice quality, innovation, or results for the sake of easier management.

An alternative is to use many different tools to accomplish many different jobs. There are two problems with this. First is the time spent searching for, evaluating, and selecting the right tool for the job (often by people unqualified or ill-informed to make these decisions) – and with no guarantee that they’ll end up getting the best option. This can be handled by selecting a small set of specialized tools that may serve a wider range of needs. The second problem is that of integration: enterprise content management is about eliminating redundancies, improving efficiency, and repurposing content. The answer? Interoperability.

Interoperability means duct tape

How easily can you push data in and out of a system without a manual (upload a CSV) process?

Software should not hold you hostage. In fact, software should be built with the realization that new services may pop up that the vendor didn’t anticipate. So rather than play catch-up all the time, software should have an API. In other words, it should allow for integration with outside software packages. Yes, this may be a custom job for many of the independent pieces of the software puzzle. But it’s what will allow your Development Department and the Admissions Office to have their own tools without forcing one or both to compromise on what’s critical to them.

Let’s imagine that Development (read: fundraising) needs a CRM tool to manage all the people in their system. Every phone call to a donor, letter to a prospect, etc. will need to be recorded and tracked. They’ll run reports by donor frequency, readiness to give, capacity, etc. It will probably include some donation processing mechanism. Meanwhile, Admissions wants to use a CRM to track every interaction with a prospective student, use workflow to manage an application, track yield rates, etc. While the overarching concept (CRM) is the same, the solution is not. Admissions has very different needs than Development, and any tool that claims to be perfect for one will likely be terribly frustrating for the other.

However, you may wish to store all of the actual people records – the names, contact info, etc. in a central database. Or you may wish to push all of the dollars into a single place for accounting purposes. Maybe you have a great email marketing tool that both offices could use. This is what we call integration (or interoperability, if you want to use a fancier-sounding term). A few well-placed software tools to glue these together could create a more functional and effective system than a single, all-things-to-all-people package from a major eCM vendor.

So what should you do?

Just because large enterprise products are expensive and aren’t necessarily the best at every little thing doesn’t mean they’re worthless. The reality is that you don’t need the best in every category, and the professional level of support is a very useful and attractive feature. But with a bit of vision, the right attitude towards software, and some creative engineering, you can cobble together your own vastly superior system.