“From silo busting to silo bridging” (Steve Weissman)

Archive room of the Choir Music LibraryMany enterprise software packages, which are working with electronic documents, have their own ECM-extensions, like SAP, SAS, Siebel and Microsoft Office. The documents these applications create are saved in the ECM-extensions. The processed documents remain in (or by) the system. Each system has its own method of document processing. As such this is useful, because the document storage is closely integrated within the software package.

This “out-of-the-box” integration saves a lot of work. The applications are already integrated with a document management and archive functionality. Integration with separate document systems does not need to be built and configured. Organizations that have many of those software packages in place, will however notice that the documents are scattered across multiple platforms and locations.

Working with documents in this fragmented IT landscape isn’t easy. Users have to access different ECM systems in order to search, edit, or manage the documents. Each ECM system has its own user interface, its own classification schemes and its own functionality. Collecting, presenting and managing documents in a coherent manner is not that simple.

For example, when all documents, related to a customer, have to be searched, all environments have to queried separately. In one system it can be done with a customer number, in a different system, it might be the customer’s name and address and it could be an invoice number in a billing system. If that particular customer is on the other side of the telephone line, it will create frustration for the customer and the customer service employee. This would take a long time before the documents are collected, and chances are that not all relevant documents are found. Can we do it better? How can we bring in  substantial time savings for both the customer and the employee? Would it be possible  to handle more customer calls in less time and with less costs?

The obvious solution is the integration of the various document collections in one logical system. The customer service employee needs only a customer number, or the name, to display a complete view overall customer related documents; including all the correspondence, orders, invoices, etc. The question is: How can we achieve this?

A centralized ECM system

The centralization of all ECM systems into one central ECM system has been and will be the solution for working with documents in a uniform and consistent manner. The decentralized ECM systems are replaced by a central ECM-system. All documents and other content are moved to one place, with one access method and one records management system. With a centralized system, it will be simpler to create a complete customer file, or any other cross-section of the document collection. This is the way to get structure in the chaos of documents, at least theoretically.

Unfortunately, experience shows that the configuration of such a system is complex. First, because there are all sorts of technical interfaces with the source systems need to be bought or build, to let the systems involved communicate with each other. Second, source systems and document storage systems need to understand each other. The source system must communicate according to the classification schemes, metadata schemes and semantics of the central ECM system. In many cases, this implies changes in the source system, which in many cases leads to change in the software configuration and processes and tasks of the users.

Many ECM projects have failed because they have failed to integrate the source systems with the central ECM system. Due to problems of a technical or organizational nature. The implementation of the central system could not be aligned with all of the processes that it had to support. It is just very complicated to align data and functions, causing the projects and systems to fail.

For lots of administrative organizations, centralization of all the ECM systems is not a realistic option. The investment in adaptations of applications, processes and practices is too big in relation to the expected revenue.

Three solutions to the problem

The solution is to leave the documents in their source system and to employ a different way for accessing, presenting and managing documents. Without migrating documents to a central system. How can this be done? In my next blog post I will describe three methods for making this strategy possible.

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Matt Scott, via Flickr.