In the beginning, there was paper. Files were cumbersome, and often were lost. Storage was costly in terms of both space and finances. Processing was slow and inefficient. As organizations struggled to control their paper, they looked for ways that technology could help them manage their documents. The advent of enterprise content management (ECM) addressed this struggle head-on, providing businesses with opportunities to organize their content and process it more efficiently. Continuing advances in ECM allow organizations to control paper as well as other media, including electronic images and forms, voice mails, faxes, and emails. At the same time, ECM provides businesses with an opportunity to re-examine processes and optimize efficiency throughout their organizations.
Microsoft® Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) brings several of the benefits of ECM to the mainstream. For organizations that are looking for ways to create and access content, it certainly looks on paper like an impressive technology. SharePoint’s collaboration and rudimentary workflow tools—which integrate with the entire MS Office suite—offer user-friendly options to help boost productivity. SharePoint serves as an accessible front end where users can create and collaborate on documents.
Because of its accessibility and familiarity, SharePoint is an attractive option for organizations that use MS Windows. As you evaluate software strategies to find the best fit for your company, consider your options carefully—and don’t allow yourself to be swayed by hype over substance. By examining the benefits that each technology has to offer, you will gain a better idea of the benefits and challenges that each would offer to your enterprise.
MS SharePoint and its ability to manage content
SharePoint’s greatest benefit to organizations is that it provides a user-friendly front-end to an ECM solution. Users and groups can go to a familiar place to collaborate and create documents. Collaboration functionality in SharePoint—although somewhat limited in its original release—has evolved to become very robust. Microsoft is marketing SharePoint as the tool that companies should use to create their own intranets and extranets.
The internal portals that are associated with SharePoint offer security, storage capabilities, and templates. Portals can be personalized without the need for programming knowledge. Users have easy access to pertinent listings such as announcements and discussions. SharePoint offers the benefit of Microsoft support, and its ability to integrate with the entire MS office suite creates a comfortable, easy-to-use interface for end users. Users are afforded easy access to different (heterogeneous) applications, all through one customizable interface.
SharePoint’s ability to serve as a single point of contact is extremely appealing. It provides a means for document revision—as well as a workspace for teams—that is not limited by the physical location of group members. That said, however, there are areas related to functionality where SharePoint has limitations in its current configuration. The free version of the software does not offer tools for lifecycle management. Organizations that are looking for this functionality may have to invest in the Enterprise edition. Alternatively, they could purchase this functionality from a third-party vendor whose products are able to integrate with their current system. SharePoint can be built to do workflow-type tasks, but configuration usually requires extensive .NET programming and long term in-house support of programs created.
In addition, SharePoint uses a database for storage, rather than a repository. Information is saved in binary format within the database. Potentially, businesses that are using SharePoint as their only method of ECM may have to invest in difficult and costly backup strategies as the volume of their stored information expands. Judging from the current trends in digital storage and regulations pertaining to document retention, the likelihood is that their stored information will increase.
Organizations need to seriously evaluate their plans for growth, and determine whether a prospective ECM solution has the scalability and functionality to handle expansion. If the price point is one of your main concerns when choosing an ECM product, consider carefully the reality that SharePoint may be costly to license, extend, develop, and support. It will be valuable to determine whether you will need to have the capability for advanced workflow, high-volume auditing, and sophisticated records management so that you are prepared as the needs of your organization change.
ECM solutions and their ability to drive business processes
Unlike SharePoint, conventional ECM software provides a back-end solution. Users are able to work in their familiar applications, and ECM works behind the scenes to provide storage, retrieval, automation, and connection to information that is housed within legacy applications. ECM offers a variety of ways to optimize business processes, and is surprisingly affordable even to smaller organizations. Unlike SharePoint, ECM provides significant benefits to organizations whose processes are still dependent—to some extent—on paper.
ECM allows organizations to scan, manage, and store high volumes of paper documents, as well as voice files, jpegs, wav files, email messages, and other types of documents. It can also capture and store faxes and non-Office documents such as PDFs. Benefits such as long-term storage, robust workflow and automation capabilities, advanced security, life cycle management, advanced search, and a Web services API fulfill the needs of many organizations—especially those who are beholden to industry compliance demands. Although SharePoint might seem like a cost-effective short-term solution to your ECM challenges, consider the cost of not having sophisticated audit capabilities. ECM offers organizations the ability to provide the detail that they need to prove compliance with regulations and internal policies. If your organization is ever exposed to stringent litigation demands during eDiscovery, your ECM solution will more than pay for itself.
Advantages and disadvantages of a simultaneous installation
The fact of the matter is that these technologies are not mutually exclusive. SharePoint is certainly not a replacement for ECM. The two technologies can serve to complement each other’s strengths and to make ECM more accessible throughout your entire enterprise. Organizations that are able to wade through the hype have been able to reap tremendous benefits by using ECM in tandem with SharePoint. ECM does the heavy lifting in the background, providing archiving, security, lifecycle management, workflow, and other benefits. SharePoint is implemented as a front-end solution for collaboration and creation of documents. When documents are ready for archival, they can be migrated to the ECM repository, where they are conferred the aforementioned benefits.
SharePoint’s main differentiator from conventional ECM is that its components are designed to support content creation. ECM, on the other hand, consists of a set of tools that are used to increase efficiency by delivering content and driving business processes that are based on existing documents and data. A SharePoint implementation by itself, in most cases, does not offer a complete solution to get the most out of your business processes. Clearly, it is wise to consider whether a dual implementation would be a good fit for your organization.
Bear in mind that a dual implementation should not be undertaken without extensive planning. It is imperative that you eliminate any potential for duplication/redundancy between the two systems. If your organization is using both technologies, be sure to look holistically at your processes. Create an architecture that proactively eradicates redundancy. Ultimately, you want to ensure that your organization does not invest in overlapping solutions. If you are using both technologies, make sure that the purpose of each is clearly defined. An overlap in purpose could counteract efforts toward consistent, uniform processes.
Make a determination as to what should be stored in SharePoint for short-term access and what should be stored in your ECM repository for long-term archival. Be sure that you have consistent classification of documents and records throughout your entire enterprise. A taxonomy scheme is integral to successful retrieval of information, and will enable staff to use a common interface to search for information in both repositories by search criteria that is logical for them.
The marketing blitz surrounding SharePoint would have you believe that it is capable of offering all things to all organizations. Indeed, some of that hype is justified—SharePoint certainly has capabilities that can significantly enhance the process of document collaboration and creation. As a complete ECM solution, however, many organizations are finding that SharePoint is falling short.
If SharePoint has not lived up to your expectations, consider augmenting your system with ECM. It can provide you with robust behind-the-scenes functionality that will enable you to optimize your existing investment in technology. ECM allows organizations to do more with those documents after they are created, and provides the engine to automate routing of materials for efficient processing. Best of all, your end-users will be able to accomplish more with the applications they already use, without having to learn any new software programs.
If you are in the early stages of identifying an ECM solution that will be the best fit for your organization, consider your organization’s future needs as well as today’s. Find out if your ECM vendors offer a solution that can integrate with both SharePoint and your existing applications. Talk with organizations that are similar to yours, and do your best to see which technologies offer hype and which deliver substance. Find a vendor who is truly invested in listening to your needs, and in working with you to achieve far-reaching solutions to all of your business challenges.