The integration of ECM systems is still a challenge (part 2 of 2)

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“From silo busting to silo bridging” (Steve Weissman) In my previous blog post I described how large administrative organizations can have a lot of different and dispersed ECM systems. Each system has his own functionality, user interface, metadata model and so on. Migrating all document repositories in one centralized ECM-system is the best way to […]

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

Archive room of the Choir Music LibraryIn my previous blog post I described how large administrative organizations can have a lot of different and dispersed ECM systems. Each system has his own functionality, user interface, metadata model and so on. Migrating all document repositories in one centralized ECM-system is the best way to tackle the diversity of ECM systems. Thus creating a common document repository with uniform methods of storing, handling, managing and accessing documents. But 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.

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  this blog post I will describe three different methods of standardizing document handling, without having to migrate to one single ECM system.

1. CMIS (Content Management Interoperability Services)

In modern service-oriented architectures web services are used to glue systems together. ECM systems support these services more and more. The good news is, these web services are standardized. CMIS (Content Management Interoperability Services) is nowadays an excellent approach to standardize the interaction with ECM systems from different vendors. When ECM systems meet the CMIS standard, each ECM system can be addressed the same way. Now ECM-systems can extend their own document collection with the documents from other systems, presenting them in one user application. In this way, you can create a ‘virtual’ organization-wide document collection, or sub-collection, if you so desire.

Not all ECM platforms have a (full) CMIS implementation, but lots of ECM vendors are working hard to implement them. Other vendors are working on getting CMIS to work. For example, leading BPM vendors, like IBM and Pega, have CMIS built in, to use documents from ECM systems in their processes. CMIS is still not available in many software packages, but the support for CMIS is growing fast. According to Forrester analyst Cheryl McKinnon, the presence of CMIS support should be an important criterion in the selection of ECM packages (*).

2. Front-end integration

The document data can, of course, be brought together on the desktop. From the front-end, source systems can be accessed directly. The widget-based interface will allow the developer to quickly create different applications to wire systems together. They can quickly create specialized user interfaces for specific business tasks. In this way, our customer service employee will be able to create a customer file with only a customer number or a customer name. This key is used by the front-end components query different simultaneously. The front end application will put all data together in one view. When CMIS is used, the interaction with the ECM-systems can be standardized.

Tools such as IBM Content Navigator offer a web-based interface. The tool can create user interfaces for different devices, i.e. desktop, mobile, or tablet. Depending on the functionality of the interfaces, it is possible not only to query and view documents, but also to modify and manage them.

When an ECM system changes, adjustments of the front-end application may be needed. That has always been the case and that will not change. The promise is that this can be done much faster. The extent to which that promise can be fulfilled, depends on the ‘agility’ of the organization where the tools are used. From an ECM perspective, with the help of CMIS, the changes needed are limited because the language for dealing with documents is the same for all ECM-platforms.

3. Back-end integration

With back-end integration, I do not mean replacing decentralized ECM systems by a central ECM-system. As I’ve already described, this is not really going to happen. Back-end integration implies that the local ECM-systems remain present. Users will keep working with those systems. The integration consists in centralizing certain generic, organization-wide document functions. This includes functions such as Enterprise Search and Records Management. For example, an organization-wide Records Management system can manage all documents in a uniform way, wherever these documents are located. All in accordance with the organization-wide rules for ‘governance’ and ‘compliance’.

Tools such as IBM Federation Server and Content Collector offer interfaces that are capable to access identify and manage documents stored in many types and sizes of ECM systems. Because the range of functions is limited, the functionality of the interfaces also limited and therefore easier to maintain. Above I have already described, these interfaces can make use of  CMIS.

Uniform document presentation and handling

When it is not possible to centralize ECM systems, you’ll have to keep on working with the decentralized systems. This is not a problem, because there are all kinds of solutions available for integrating documents from different systems. For the end user, it looks like the documents are stored in one system. When this is achieved, documents will be processed in a uniform manner. The quality of the document-related processes will increase and costs will decrease. Anyway, it is worthwhile to consider the possible benefits for your organization.

*) “Mobilize, Monetize, and Harvest Enterprise Content with Interoperability standards” by Cheryl McKinnon, February 28, 2014; Forrester Research, Inc., Cambridge MA, USA.

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Matt Scott, via Flickr.

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