Chances are that the economic climate is taking a toll regardless of what industry you’re in. As a response, you may be seeking cost-effective measures to optimize your business processes. The trifecta of regulatory scrutiny, increased competition, and the need to improve turnaround practically demands that you find ways to continually improve performance and obtain measurable results.

A free ECM platform seems like the ideal solution. But is it? That depends on your definition of ECM. It also depends on your definition of free.

If you are planning to implement (or augment) an ECM system, you will definitely want to do your homework—especially if Microsoft SharePoint® is on your short list. As a collaboration tool, SharePoint offers a lot of benefits. It excels at allowing organizations to create a recognizable interface that can serve as a single point of contact. And SharePoint does have some light workflow functionality that may be of value to certain organizations. Unfortunately, however, as a complete ECM solution, it may do more harm than good—especially when you consider what’s missing. You can find a glut of articles that claim otherwise from Microsoft partners who—along with the Microsoft marketing conglomerate— spend significant time and resources defending SharePoint from perceived mudslinging. The contradictory messages confirm that you need to do your research. ECM implementation is no place to cut corners.

Is SharePoint a complete ECM platform?

Is SharePoint a complete ECM platform? In a word, no. This is not an attempt to discredit or sling mud at SharePoint. The fact is that there is no such thing as a complete ECM platform in today’s market. Unstructured documents come in every size, shape, flavor, and file format. The objective of ECM is to get control of all of that information, put it into a virtual repository, provide secure access, control its lifecycle, streamline processes with digital distribution, provide audit trails and reporting, and have the ability to retrieve your information on demand. As such, ECM encompasses a tremendous amount of depth and complexity. And no matter what the Microsoft marketing machine would have you believe, there is, unfortunately, no one solution out there that does it all.

In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. It helps to differentiate the market, and provides targeted options to the business world. But when Microsoft touts SharePoint as a complete ECM solution, it creates confusion. And to be perfectly honest, legacy ECM vendors have done a fine job of creating confusion in the marketplace without Microsoft’s help.

A robust ECM solution is flexible and extensible. Ideally it should be comprised of an integrated suite of components that can be used to address organizations’ specific needs. SharePoint does have the ability to work with 3rd party products, but its openness often masks its existing shortcomings as a comprehensive solution. The components will likely evolve to offer more complete functionality, but today SharePoint is more of a toolkit than a complete ECM solution.

SharePoint can’t compete with legacy ECM systems. Even if a conventional ECM system doesn’t present a complete solution, it usually offers a much more rounded platform that reflects decades of industry experience. To find the best ECM solution, organizations need to look to their business processes.

Growing pains

When looking for an ECM solution, consider carefully the issue of scalability. Will the system that you implement today be able to handle your needs ten years from now? How about twenty? One of the concerns about SharePoint is that Microsoft stores objects as BLOBs (Binary Large Objects) in the database. This architectural model was discarded years ago by 95% of the ECM industry because it doesn’t account for scalability. The BLOBs will eventually grow, which leads to congestion and causes your database to grow. This slows performance significantly. Ultimately, database management will become unwieldy. SharePoint partners may offer unique hardware customization to address this issue. Understand that there is a price point for this customized architecture.

Alternatively, you could choose an architecture that legacy ECM vendors have adopted, which involves storing only the metadata and the pointers in the database. Objects are stored on fast, secure storage systems that support lightening-quick performance. The questions about SharePoint’s scalability are valid. I’m not saying it can’t scale, because you can put enough power behind any system if you have the resources. To implement a system that is truly streamlined, however, you would be wise to investigate the storage and bandwidth disadvantages that are associated with data BLOBs.

Adding value through collaboration

To get the best of both worlds, many organizations have implemented SharePoint in tandem with their legacy ECM systems. This provides them with the collaboration tools that can be so beneficial to a thriving business, and backs them up with the strong records management, compliance, and BPM tools that are available with ECM. Microsoft partners summarily dismiss this option, portraying it as a last-ditch effort on the part of legacy ECM systems to ride SharePoint’s coattails.

It is important to consider the strength of the Microsoft marketing blitz as you weigh ECM options that will best suit your business needs. The notion that SharePoint is—by itself—going to be the best fit to everyone’s needs is myopic. On one hand, the literature would have you believe that an integrated system that uses both an ECM system and SharePoint is redundant. At the same time, the very same literature states that SharePoint doesn’t have enough tools to satisfy what people need from an ECM system today so they have to integrate with other parties. It’s a Catch 22.

Again, SharePoint is a good product. It obviously has a place in the marketplace. But the fact is that its workflow functionality must be developed by IT staff so it is more like a toolkit. It doesn’t offer the drag-and-drop simplicity that is available with most workflow products delivered with legacy ECM systems. The Microsoft marketing team would advise you to bring in a BPM solution and integrate it to address its workflow shortcomings. But then you have to do the same thing for records management, because it doesn’t have a records management tool. And you have to bring in a lifecycle management tool. According to their model, you’re going to have to bring in four or five different products to integrate with SharePoint to create your ECM solution. SharePoint integrates well with other applications, but it also has more holes than a legacy application. Alternatively, you could bring in one integrated ECM solution to interface with SharePoint and handle the functionality that is lacking.

The best of both worlds: Backing SharePoint with breadth and depth

SharePoint does have a lot to offer. It has a fabulous interface that people are already familiar with because Microsoft essentially designed the desktop. This is a tremendous advantage, because businesspeople all over the world already recognize Microsoft and how it works. To this end, putting a Windows-centric front-end on something makes a lot of sense. But trying to integrate five unrelated products into SharePoint because it has ECM shortcomings does not make sense.

It seems logical to put SharePoint as a front-end to an existing ECM solution that already is completely integrated. You have the best of both worlds. SharePoint can offer its wonderful front-end pieces—the collaboration tools, portals, etc.—while an existing legacy ECM system can tie in full-blown integrated life cycle management, BPM, workflow, audit trails, security, reporting tools, dashboards, reports, full text searching, and other technologies that have been around for years. ECM works behind the scenes—invisible to end users—and adds all that value to SharePoint’s front end. ECM solutions are here. They work today. Why wait for Microsoft to finally round out SharePoint and hope that all of the marketing material about it being a comprehensive solution actually comes true?

You get what you pay for

SharePoint is exploding because Microsoft’s marketing dominates the media. And the perception is that it is more cost effective than a conventional ECM solution. Again, I don’t want to take anything away from SharePoint. I respect SharePoint. It has created the perception that everyone can have and leverage ECM. Everyone recognizes it. The collaboration piece is creative and useful. But it still has a lot of holes, and is not a complete solution for the enterprise. And unfortunately, Microsoft has made it seem too easy.

And at the end of the day, SharePoint is cost effective in the way that a puppy is cost effective. You can get a puppy for free. But it takes time, resources, and experience to housebreak it, let it out, and feed it. You’ll have to make an investment in bowls, leashes, chewed furniture, ruined shoes, soiled carpets, and veterinary bills. People don’t usually think about that. They see a cute puppy and they hear the word “free.”

Microsoft has made it see like ECM can be done inexpensively and easily with little cost or planning. But SharePoint isn’t inexpensive. And ECM isn’t necessarily simple. There is more to it than merely turning on the product. SharePoint may be cost effective at a certain point. But, again, only the basics are free. As you extend it, you need more database CALs (client access licenses) to use it effectively. You need more SharePoint CALs. To make the most of your implementation, you will probably want to invest in an experienced consultant to determine your needs for ECM. You’re going to have to buy third party products to integrate into it, as well as additional server storage. The manpower alone that you will need to put it together may require additional services unless your staff already has not only SharePoint experience but ECM experience. Hidden costs abound.

Legacy ECM solutions have been around for more than 20 years. Training is already planned. Project plans are available, as are historical models, etc. The software is already integrated, and built to streamline the enterprise needs of small and large businesses. They aren’t toolkits.

And here’s another scenario to consider: when you buy a legacy ECM solution off the market, you’re going to buy maintenance. You’re going to buy support. When you buy SharePoint, and you put it together, and you build out your structure, who is supporting you? Microsoft may be supporting the pieces and parts you use to build it, but they are not supporting your solution. Organizations may find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place when their IT team informs them, “Why buy this when we can build this ourselves? We can build it cheaper.” Maybe they can build it cheaper. But most organizations that have gone that route don’t get the full functionality that they need. And, inevitably, they find themselves being held hostage by their own IT staff. If they leave, who is going to support that product that they built? Ironically, it is possible to create significant maintenance overhead as part of an attempt to streamline processes.

Assessing the capabilities of today’s technology

I do believe that SharePoint will evolve at some point by employing the same methods that customers use today. This involves purchasing the technology. But until Microsoft decides which legacy ECM solution to purchase, it still has a lot of holes to fill before it can be considered a platform or a full solution.

Like people the world over, businesses come in all shapes and sizes. Each has different visions and requirements. Consequently, no one solution can solve everyone’s needs. But some of the more rounded-out ECM solutions that have been around for many years offer fuller solutions that can work across an enterprise. From an architectural standpoint, legacy ECM solutions offer all the major components: scalability, flexibility, and extensibility. From a feature/functionality standpoint, they have a lot of the key pieces in compliance, document management, workflow, life cycle management, capture, security, auditing, etc.

Any solution should have the capability through web services to integrate with other software to allow a customer the flexibility to bring in a complementary piece. And SharePoint’s true niche at this time is as a complementary piece to a full ECM solution. The reality is that as a complete ECM solution—regardless of Microsoft’s marketing agenda—it is just not there yet.

Original Article


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