Just as consumers have shifted their use of services, such as banking and entertainment, from conventional on-premises delivery to the cloud, companies have similarly moved away from the long-standing practice of managing and storing electronic documents on site and are instead placing files in the cloud.
The cloud enables organizations to "stretch the enterprise" and create a digital workplace, making files accessible to not only employees in an office, but also those on the road or working from home -- and with some managed access, contractors and freelancers, as well.
Even though many organizations now rely on cloud-based content services platforms (CSPs) for day-to-day file sharing, enterprise content management (ECM) systems are still needed to store files that are deemed more institutional or are under stringent compliance regulations.
Many industry observers still abide by traditional definitions -- ECM for the storage of critical and old documents, and content services platforms for the sharing of more urgent text and photo files -- while others believe content management technology and its purpose have changed enough that they don't need to speak of ECM anymore.
Michael WoodbridgeSenior director analyst, Gartner
"In 2016, we declared the death of ECM," said Michael Woodbridge, a senior director analyst at Gartner. "We don't use the term ECM to describe the market, primarily because ECM -- in its purest sense -- is somewhat of a failed promise. It was the promise you can have a monolithic platform that has all the content you need in one place. That didn't happen."
From on-premises to cloud
To better understand how the technology behind content management has evolved -- and how user expectations have influenced that evolution -- it might help to review a time before cloud platforms such as Box satisfied business needs. A time when only ECM mattered.
The various iterations of enterprise-level, on-premises ECM had a unifying purpose: store and organize the content that drove business decisions. Businesses had to treat vital content with care. This included drug records for pharmaceuticals, maintenance records for airlines, disaster procedures for nuclear plants and documents for large-scale engineering projects, said Geoffrey Bock, an independent research consultant.
"The sweet spot was managing all of the digital documents people would produce out of a formal business activity and put them in a document repository that is certified by a regulatory or government agency," he said.
That focus on critical documents created a separate space for the management of the less critical files office workers produced on a daily basis, Bock said. Management of that fell to client-server architecture.
"You had a small group that had a G-drive that ran on a DOS repository and you'd put that stuff up there," he said. "It was better than the alternative -- sending files through email."
Now, businesses can manage content in more ad-hoc and more unstructured ways, using a number of services and tools that enable people to see what they have in their business, Bock said.
"Now the opportunity is there to ask, 'What do I need to do take my business information into the modern era? How can I digitize and make my company better?'"
ECM still has a place
The ease of cloud content management has only accentuated the shortcomings of traditional ECM, Woodbridge said. ECM failed because the technology couldn't satisfy the many different needs of the four states of content management: ideas, team collaboration, operational functions and records.
"In each one there are different approaches, and in each one there are specific business needs," he said.
For instance, corporate lawyers working with records for a discovery process shouldn't use the same ECM platform as marketing, but they often did.
Niches of business still benefit from ECM, such as accounts payable and invoice processing, Woodbridge said. But Gartner now refers to the ECM space as the content services landscape. The technology can be on-premises, in the cloud or a hybrid model.
"We don't say there's one special breed; they're all trying to solve the day-to-day, ad-hoc work you do with content," Woodbridge said.
Best of both worlds
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of cloud CSPs is mobility, enabling people to share files and photos in an office, from home or on the road. Traditional ECM kept workers in an office. while content services platforms do not.
That's why cloud-based CSP applications such as Box, Dropbox and Microsoft One Drive are big hits, Woodbridge said. They facilitate collaboration, a component of what Gartner calls the "new work nucleus," a digital dexterity that centers on SaaS-based personal and team productivity tools.
Forrester Research hasn't declared ECM dead, but does recognize the potency of CSPs.
"Where cloud plays a role -- where traditional systems couldn't -- is the extended enterprise," said Cheryl McKinnon, a principal analyst at Forrester.
The digital-first way of working is people working outside four walls, collaborating with partners, suppliers and a design agency. Instead of mailing or emailing papers, it's securely sharing a document workspace. And it's the inclusion of stakeholders who don't work in the office but are key to productivity and creativity, McKinnon said.
Yet organizations shouldn't abandon on-site and hybrid ECM platforms, McKinnon said. They can coexist with modern file collaboration platforms.
"We often like to joke that it's not just 'rip and replace.' It's also 'extend and embrace,'" she said. "You might want to use cloud for new programs, but it might take up to 10 years to unwind the usage of old ECM platforms. Migration can be disruptive."
McKinnon recommends keeping older systems up to date.
"Every single longtime major vendor in this space has modernization on its road map, whether it's a comprehensive architecture remodeling or something small like tweaking KPIs," she said.
As long as organizations stay on top of vendors' strengths and weaknesses, the analysts recommend, they can have the best of ECM and content services platforms -- the old and new worlds -- because the old world recognizes it has to be new.