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The Real Problem with ECM (hint: it isn’t the platform)

by Darin Stewart  |  May 4, 2012  |  3 Comments

I talk daily to companies from a broad range of industries. These organizations run the whole gamut of company sizes, from small boutique operations to huge distributed enterprises. Even with that diversity, everyone wants to talk about content management. That’s probably for two reasons. First, regardless of your industry or company size, you depend on information and content to do business. To a greater or lesser extent, every organization is a content intensive enterprise. The second reason is that everyone thinks their content management practice is broken. They’re usually right. Content has become so voluminous and diverse in its forms and how it comes into the enterprise, that pretty much every organization experiences some level of content related dysfunction. This is a big problem, hence why they call Gartner.

Knowledge and information are among the most valuable assets any organization possesses. Most of those assets (Gartner pegs it at 80-90%) exist in the form of unstructured content, such as documents, rich media and web assets. Companies sense that there is untapped value to be had from those resources. Intelligence and insight are trapped in forgotten and inaccessible documents. Money is lost due to inefficiencies in content creation and use. Without consistent and reliable access to these assets it is difficult for an organization to function efficiently and impossible to perform optimally. Companies want to get control of their content, but don’t know how to go about doing so.

So we blame the platform. Actually, we blame the IT guys and then they blame the platform. We start looking at all the moving parts, the search engine, the repository (or more likely repositories. They tend to proliferate like mushrooms), the authoring tools. But the platform is only part of the problem, an often isn’t to blame at all. The real problem is primarily the content itself and the processes and practices surrounding its lifecycle. That is what ECM is really about. Not the technology.

At the root of this issue this the fact that most enterprises simply don’t know what unstructured content they have. Interestingly, they often do have a handle on structured content. For example, they usually know how many customer databases they have and which systems maintain them. However, most information managers would be hard pressed to provide definitive answers to basic questions about their unstructured resources. Where is a particular piece of content? Who owns it? What version is current? How long should we keep it? Answers to such rudimentary questions remain out of reach for most organizations. It is easy to say that there is just too much content to be managed, but this misses the point. If you don’t know what you have, you cannot say you have too much. It is entirely possible you have too little content, or too much of the wrong sort. The real issue is that most organizations have too much unmanaged content.

Unstructured content tends to grow in an uncontrolled, ungoverned manner. Users create, distribute and store information according to their own needs. When they cannot find information they will recreate it. This leads to the ongoing proliferation of redundant and often conflicting content. Organizations in general and IT departments in particular do not know how to arrest and reverse the situation. The most common response when leadership complains is to simply provide more storage thus kicking the can down the road. They never directly address the content problem.

I recently took a look at this problem of creating an effective ECM environment and boiled the process down into six steps. (These are elaborated in the Gartner Solution Path “Creating an Effective ECM Environment“).

  1. Review Content Lifecycle and Define Requirements.
  2. Determine Appropriate Form of Content Management.
  3. Evaluate Current State of Your Content.
  4. Establish ECM Governance.
  5. Establish Content Management Environment.
  6. Perform Ongoing Content Hygiene and Enhancement.


Each of these steps is applicable to all ECM environments. The extent to which they are implemented will depend on resources and circumstances. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t create an effective ECM environment overnight and you don’t do it all at once. Too many companies start with a vague sense that things aren’t working and try to boil the ocean. I’ve seen a lot of rip and replace exercises triggered by a single, highly visible (and often unrelated) incident ranging from a failed discovery request to a CEO with an iPad. Fire drills and knee jerks are never the foundation of a solid content strategy. You have to know in advance what you are trying to accomplish and what the desired end state should look like. Once you have that vision articulated, stick to your roadmap and you’ll get there one step at a time.

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Category: enterprise-content-managment  

Tags: content-lifecycle  content-management  ecm  

Darin Stewart
Research Vice President
6 years with Gartner
21 years IT industry

Darin Stewart is a research vice president for Gartner in the Collaboration and Content Strategies service. He covers search, knowledge management, semantic technologies and enterprise content management. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The Real Problem with ECM (hint: it isn’t the platform)

  1. […] 4) The Real Problem with ECM (hint: it isn’t the platform) […]

  2. Good post.. content is important.. AND.. I think equally is the business value that the “soution” brings to the business and users, and ultimately the available attention of both to devote to and accept the changes that ECM implementation brings about. A content centric approach runs the risk of a technically excellent solution, driven by IM/RM experts, but difficult to use – creating a serious adoption barrier. I think starting with the business / user needs/context, crafting a content solution that works, then looking at the technical platform and implementation based on needs, content architecture and pre-existing infrastructure, when coupled with an agile/continuous improvement approach, would lead to a pretty good solution.

  3. Darin Stewart says:

    Absolutely Dale. Perhaps the most critical and most neglected aspect of any content management deployment or enhancement initiative is training and change management. When tools and technology change, the processes they facilitate must also change to realize the new efficiencies. In some cases, process change is all that is required to enhance the effectiveness of the ECM environment. End users must be adequately trained on the tools, processes and policies of the content environment. Even with training, however, old habits are hard to break. Ongoing oversight and coaching should be put in place to ensure any new practices, policies and procedures are fully adopted and consistently applied.

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