Taming Information Sprawl with a Radically New Approach to ECM


Enterprise content management (ECM) has evolved. Beyond compliance and information governance, organizations are expected to do more with their information than ever before. In addition to the increasingly demanding requirement to quickly find the right information at the right time, business professionals are tasked with exploiting greater potential from their data to gain real business advantages. 

To be successful in today’s highly competitive, information-intensive business environment, organizations must leverage their information assets to glean insights to make informed business decisions, improve operational and process efficiencies, and facilitate collaboration—including connecting with people and groups outside of the corporate walls. 

How an organization manages its information assets is just as important as how it manages its physical, financial, and human assets; in fact, this is a determining factor for creating a competitive advantage. As we enter the next generation of ECM, radically new approaches are on the horizon with an emphasis on integration, personalization, and usability. How well an organization connects and integrates their information and systems, and how effective they are at equipping their employees with the tools and insights they need to do their jobs will become added factors for success. In equal measure, decision-makers need to be aware of these essential capabilities when choosing their ECM technologies and solutions. 

The ability for organizations to effectively manage, let alone integrate, their information and systems is a growing challenge. Business data is exploding, and this has resulted in less effective governance and control over data assets. In addition, it has also become a key factor in data becoming more scattered across various systems and repositories throughout the organization. 

This growing fragmentation results in information sprawl that extends across and beyond the enterprise, as it distributes data to traditional ECM systems, network file folders, file sync and share solutions such as Box and Dropbox, as well as to personal systems, mobile devices, and email. 

In many organizations, disconnected and isolated repositories and databases are proliferating. These information silos expose the business to greater risk and diminished productivity as well as migration and change management roadblocks. For businesses to remain competitive and thrive, overcoming the business hurdles that accompany information sprawl is mandatory. In fact, how well an organization manages its information assets is becoming just as important as how it manages its people or monetary assets. Amidst the chaos, there is information opportunity, and how well organizations handle their information management challenges by leveraging people, processes, and technology is the way forward for competitive differentiation.

Looking to the future, next-generation ECM solutions offer innovative technology and strategies that will mitigate the challenges related to information sprawl and will enable organizations to compete and flourish in this increasingly chaotic environment. Moreover, these next-gen ECM solutions help reconcile the needs of the business with the needs of end-users, which has not been the strong suit of old era ECM systems that have traditionally been complicated, hard to use, and IT-centric. 

Using the AIIM community as a benchmark, this eBook drills down on the pain points driving this new generation of information management and explores how to leverage new approaches to ECM to adapt and thrive going forward.

Endless Cycle of Migration

Over the past decade, the ambition of enterprise content management solution providers has long been to provide a centralized platform to manage all information in the enterprise. This goal has proven to be short-sighted and has caused many challenges. The reality in organizations today is the existence of multiple information management systems, usually lacking in integration. In the recent AIIM industry watch report titled “ECM Decisions – strategic options for managing, accessing and preserving content,” 50% of AIIM community members report having three or more ECM/DM/RM systems, and 22% have five or more.

While the notion of a monolithic, central ECM system to store and manage all enterprise content under one roof would be an ideal setup for most organizations—the reality is that this configuration is exceedingly difficult to achieve. This difficulty is in significant part due to the challenges posed by migrating content and processes from systems upon which many dependencies have accumulated over the years. Presently, 22% of the AIIM community considers their ECM project to be stalled, and often many of these projects are abandoned and go unfinished due to the challenges associated with migrating all enterprise information into a single repository.

Over the years, there has been an assumption that organizations need to buy a full suite of ECM capabilities as a platform, even if the business only needed some portion of those capabilities in a process. Organizations crowded their IT and system real estate with multiple ECM implementations and repositories while finding it challenging (and sometimes impossible) to effectively integrate these systems. Having multiple systems in place that often were complex and difficult to use only complicated matters further. 

The result is siloed content, and a business littered with databases and information repositories that cannot talk with one another. If the business is unable to efficiently and uniformly manage all of its data, chaos ensues. Taking the pulse of the AIIM community, we find that content chaos is the resting condition of the majority of organizations: 64% report chaotic file shares and 48% chaotic email. Thirty-five percent feel their electronic records management is chaotic, and 34% categorize their SharePoint deployments similarly.2 Organizations must rethink their ECM strategies and the tools they select since clearly one size does not fit all.

In a recent AIIM survey, we asked respondents to describe their organization’s ECM strategy, and the intentions of 26% of respondents is to migrate content to ECM systems going forward. Migrations are never easy, and especially difficult if your organization is experiencing information sprawl. When information is scattered across different business applications, devices, network folders, and other silos, the total cost of integration—monetary, labour and time—increases. So does the possibility for delays, increased start-up costs, and abandoned initiatives. Siloed infrastructure also grinds the gears of a new system deployment with increased adoption issues, longer time to go live, and by extension, makes it more likely to stall and sputter out.

Change Management

On all fronts, decision-makers looking to break down data silos are faced with a perceived ultimatum: 

Soldier on with their existing ECM deployment—systems that may not be integrated or are failing to meet the organization’s needs. 

Implement an entirely new system and undergo a costly migration requiring additional capital, expertise and resulting in a slow return on investment. 

Despite a strong conviction that the only way to solve long-standing information management challenges is by purchasing an entirely new system, the risk with the latter option is that this new ECM system may never reach 100% installation. All content may not be entirely migrated, or it may lack integration with other systems failing to solve the original problem it was deployed for. In addition, the legacy systems being migrated away from may not be properly decommissioned and thoroughly uprooted (which is the usual business case) and the coexistence of one or more legacy systems overlapping a primary ECM deployment emboldens information sprawl.

For many companies, turning back the clock to start fresh with an ECM deployment that is natively integrated with cloud services, mobile capabilities, sophisticated workflows, and other necessary functionality is highly desirable. But this is simply not possible for the majority of organizations since there is value in maximizing their existing investments. Seventy-three percent of respondents agree that enhancing the value of legacy content is better than wholesale deletion.3 

Problems arise when the cost of migration creates a situation in which it’s too prohibitive to upgrade or change to a new system. Resistance to change also impedes a potential move to another system, and this coupled with the high cost to migrate can result in organizations becoming locked to a single vendor. Recent AIIM research finds that 50% of the AIIM community respondents feel that traditional ECM providers are relying on user lock-in, and 52% of organizations polled are either unaware of their current ECM supplier’s roadmap or find it unsatisfactory in some way—yet remain partnered.

Enrich Information and Systems with Intelligent Metadata

What if it didn’t matter where an information asset is stored, or which system manages it? This is the guiding question for a repository-neutral approach to ECM, which hinges on the concept that information can be optimally accessed and processed based around the knowledge of context and its relationships, rather than where it is stored.

The repository-neutral approach to ECM may be an effective alternative remedy to the pain points described in this paper: the monolith ECM dream state, information silos, chronic migrations, challenges with change management, and vendor lock-in. 

What is different about this more intuitive approach to ECM is that it does not intend to disrupt existing technology investments or require movement of information assets to a new repository—content can remain where it is. Rather, through the intelligent use of metadata, the repository-neutral approach envelopes a business’s already established technology landscape as a connective tissue that links existing systems and repositories together. The net result eliminates data silos and the need for costly migration and enables those closest to the business—end-users—access to the right content from any core business system or device based on their requirements. Truly repository-neutral, the location of that data becomes irrelevant.

Freed from data silos, a repository-neutral ECM approach allows organizations to chart their own path and have more flexibility when choosing systems, solutions, and vendors. ECM strategy evolves from simply managing and storing content to truly understanding the nature and purpose of the content. For instance, from a repository-neutral perspective, the relevance or importance of a contract or invoice is based on its relationship to a certain customer, project, service, case, etc. Connections are made not only within file shares containing unstructured data and documents but also with structured data systems such as CRM and ERP solutions to provide a comprehensive “content in context” view of all-important enterprise information. This approach is value-based, highly personalized, and results in better user adoption and faster ROI. Radically breaking with tradition, this approach can end the tired challenges of data silos, migration, and the notion of a single repository ECM model.

A repository-neutral approach to ECM is enabled by leveraging metadata and is defined by a key characteristic: nuanced context-awareness. With metadata, information can be tagged with identifiers and presented to users based on its relationship to other information and data, along with its value to the business. Metadata defines information assets in an objective and consistent manner while also highlighting relationships between documents and other core business objects and processes, such as customers/clients, contracts, invoices, projects, cases, etc. A contract is presented as a “contract,” not as “agreement” or “deal,” regardless of department or industry, and is presented in a way that makes sense to users. Business professionals are able to see and engage with information regardless of where it is located and it no longer matters whether information resides in siloed databases, legacy ECM systems, or in modern cloud-enabled platforms like SharePoint as it can be accessed directly from any core business system.

The value of metadata should not be underestimated as it speaks to some of the top complaints end users have with their current ECM systems. Forty-two percent of respondents said connecting/consolidating multiple repositories was their biggest issue. Twenty-three percent said their biggest challenge is standardizing taxonomies and aligning search, while 19% say it is taking the load off end-users with auto-classification.

Closing Thoughts

Metadata can be leveraged to better classify content for the purpose of organization and retrieval and to manage information through its lifecycle. With the heightened classification of information, the benefits are manifold. These include better permission management capabilities, to streamlining information processes and workflows to help the organization run its critical operations more effectively.

In today’s information-driven economy, everyone is a knowledge worker to some degree, and therefore the power of ECM should be in the hands of end-users, not IT. Nevertheless, many workers feel unsupported by management in driving the adoption of mobile and cloud technologies and grow frustrated that the lines separating the technology they use in their home-life vs. their work-life never cross. Nearly 60% of respondents say they embrace content access on mobile, but only 31% have company-wide support2. Adding to this, 87% of respondents are positive about moving ECM content to the cloud, compared to 42% of the organizations they work in.4 

Organizations need to better serve the evolving information needs of their employees. Workers are demanding uncomplicated, cloud, and mobile integrated tools that help them perform their jobs better and work in the manner they prefer. 

Repository-neutral ECM can better address the needs of today’s knowledge workers with its ability to manage structured and unstructured content irrelevant of location and on any core device of business: mobile, cloud, or otherwise. Leveraging defined metadata, multi-repository search, and auto-classification, repository-neutral ECM solutions provide workers with the ability to view, organize, and manage their information relevant to them based on its intrinsic value to the business—untethered to location, system or device.

The notion that one monolithic solution can address all of an enterprise’s content needs is not realistic. Business requirements as well as the technology tools for managing information are rapidly evolving. All the while, content is increasingly fragmented and varied and it is becoming a Sisyphean task to manage information sprawl effectively. 

As demand for anywhere, anytime access to content on mobile and cloud-enabled devices increases, end-users expect their technology solutions employed at work to resemble those in their personal lives. While risk and liability are significant concerns as the touchpoints for capturing, accessing, and managing information multiply, the issue of information sprawl can be viewed as an opportunity for competitive advantage by employing a new, repository-neutral approach to information management in order to tame content chaos. 

To end on a closing insight: 79% of AIIM community organizations report that they have the bandwidth, motivation, and necessary resources for extending and enhancing their ECM/BPM/RM capabilities.2 Alongside emerging next-generation ECM technologies, we may be entering into a period of rebirth for enterprise content management, in which intelligent metadata powers new solutions and strategies. Core to this is the notion of a repository-neutral approach. 

A key benefit of repository-neutral ECM is its integration with other existing systems where information already resides. Future ECM success will be found in technology that functions as a fully integrated, behind-the-scenes facilitator supporting productivity, creating a central point for access and viewership of unstructured and structured content and a means to liberate the workforce with user-friendly tools to access information anywhere, anytime and on any device.


Give up on the idea that one size fits all: we exist in a multi-repository world—we are not likely in the short term to rip out major systems to accommodate new ECM technology. 

Consider repository-neutral solutions: the ability to work independently or with existing business systems and repositories to eliminate migrations and leverage existing ECM investments is a vital asset. 

Drive user-adoption with simple, clean UIs and intuitive tools designed to support and empower the mobile workforce. 

Understand the importance of metadata: metadata is the key to moving from a content storage mind-set to a nuanced, context-aware approach to information management. 

Awareness is business-critical. Evaluate your organization for the following: 

  • The number of repositories in use 
  • The use of personal applications vs. company-sanctioned systems 
  • The degree of taxonomy variation 
  • The degree to which non-structured content is connected to structured data at the granular level 
  • The dependence on existing legacy systems and factors that impede migration 

If you are not sure where to begin, seek out a trusted advisor from the supplier community or reach out to professional associations. Learn best practices and benchmark progress against your peers.For more information on how we can help your organisation please email: peter@documentmanagementsoftware.com.au or visit www.documentmanagementsoftware.com.au

Peter Ellyard

Having spent over 20 years immersed in the document management software industry I have found that by offering a simple to use, highly effective electronic document management solution (knowledge management software) we increase productivity dramatically. Typically by an hour per person, per day! This is not rocket science, just a simple way to streamline your day to day information needs.