Enterprise content management (ECM)—it’s a term that’s evolved with technology and the multi-faceted needs of organizations.
The driving force, however, has always been constant—to do business better. Whether you work in the healthcare industry or you ship fertilizer to banana plantations, chances are you’ve got content that needs managing.
So let’s explore the subject of ECM at its most basic level, so you can start to understand how it might suit your particular needs.
What is Enterprise Content Management?
Let’s break this rather abstract term down into its components.
Content describes nearly anything that passes through an organization and contains information. Invoices from vendors, resumes from job applicants, patient health records and student transcripts are just a few examples.
Most people might imagine these examples in paper form, but from its earliest days ECM has envisioned a paperless world (think e-mail, PDF, TIFF, JPEG, etc). Therefore, the “content” in ECM is digital, and everything about ECM stems from the possibilities of digital processes.
How is your content organized, and how does it move through all the necessary channels? Invoices need to be signed, records need to be archived and so on. Again, the traditional methods rely on paper documents, which lead to all manner of disorganization and bottlenecks. Enterprise content management aims to reduce or eliminate these paper-based complications, but merely converting paper documents into electronic ones doesn’t give you a blueprint for better management.
There are only two ways to simplify content management: manage less content (and say goodbye to business growth) or standardize the way you manage content.
Enterprise is what turns a short-term content management strategy into a long-term business strategy. It’s what transforms a disparate collection of departments, goals, budgets and processes into one cooperative, but still heterogeneous, business structure. Without enterprise, content management is just different departments satisfying their own needs, instead of considering what would benefit the organization overall. With enterprise, content is shared between departments on a consistent, yet customizable platform, IT maintains one standard system and business processes become as efficient and repeatable as possible.
In short, content is the “what” of your organization—the information that it uses to accomplish larger goals. Management represents the “how,” or the methods used to handle that information. Enterprise answers “why”—why manage your content this way or that way? It should be the same answer you have for nearly all questions of business motivation: to provide dependable service and to ensure the success of the company.
How Does ECM Work?
Four components are essential to an ECM system:
Different ECM tools and products can be combined depending on your needs, but these four elements make up the backbone of any ECM system. Let’s look at them individually.
- Storage: Every document that is important for business is stored in a digital repository. Within the repository, users can retrieve documents as they need them, make edits (depending on their access levels, which I’ll discuss later), view information about each document (metadata), and organize each document within a logical folder structure. Every other part of an ECM system depends on the availability of content through the repository.
- Capture: Documents exist in the repository, but how do they end up there in the first place? Some documents start off in a digital format (e.g. an online form) but many others originate on paper. Capture methods can vary from scanners to the camera on your smartphone, but the common goal is to digitize every document so it can be stored in the repository.
- Automation: While the repository solves the problem of physical storage space, it won’t manage your documents for you—that’s where automation comes in. Automation does what a traditional office administrator does: it knows every step of a business process, routes documents to the right people at the right time and catches errors before any extraneous work can be done.
- Security: With every document stored in the same place, you might think that security becomes compromised. A reliable ECM system will allow for customizable security settings so that users can only view information when they have the approval to do so. In this way, system administrators can make documents only as available as they need to be to complete business processes efficiently.
These are the building blocks of any ECM solution, however, with the rapidly rising popularity of smartphone and tablet technology, I’d say that mobile accessibility will become its own essential component soon enough.
Who benefits from ECM?
There’s really no limit to the potential list of ECM beneficiaries. Companies of 50 employees or 5,000, in the government sector or higher education, even entire city infrastructures can use ECM software to transform day-to-day operations. Because enterprise content management can help nearly any type of organization, let’s examine the beneficiaries regardless of industry.
- End Users
The people who are actually using and interacting with the software experience the most direct benefits. Processes that were burdensome become streamlined thanks to automation, sensitive documents that used to lie out in the open are more securely stored and rooms full of file cabinets turn into functioning workspaces thanks to digital storage. End users tend to be noticeably happier and more productive, making for a more positive work environment. No “happiness expert” required.
No longer the guardians of your network’s “on/off” switch, IT assumes a more valued role by installing and maintaining ECM software. By offering standard ECM tools which can then be customized by individual departments, IT gains a better (and more cost-efficient) grasp over software/hardware maintenance.
- Department Managers/Supervisors
For those who have a vested interest in the timeliness and proficiency of their employees, ECM makes several department activities transparent. The metadata collected by ECM software shows details about how work is being done, such as:
- Who is editing or viewing each document
- How long each person takes to review documents
- Who is responsible for tasks related to each document
This type of information is crucial for department heads who want to know how business is operating without micromanaging their employees.
- New Departments
ECM doesn’t just improve the status quo—it lays the groundwork for future endeavors. When a company or organization adds a new department, the department doesn’t have to research or budget for content management software. If there is already an ECM system in place, new departments can piggy back on established practices and models.
Wasting an entire day searching for a file isn’t just frustrating for end users; it’s frustrating for clients too. ECM vastly improves response time for customer inquiries, loan processing time in banks, financial aid processing in colleges and so on. Clients will also be impressed by the improved demeanors of employees using ECM software. It’s like one big cycle of happiness.
ECM is all about having the right information at the right time. Now that you know a little bit about what enterprise content management is and how it works, it’s up to you to decide whether you need it.
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Written by Renee Floyd, Laserfiche