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There has been some grumbling in the enterprise content management (ECM) space in recent days. It started with a quiet announcement on Gartner’s blog stating, “ECM is now dead (kaput, finite, an ex-market name). It’s been replaced by the term Content Services.”

It should be expected that a term that defined not only a market but the careers of hundreds of thousands of individuals for 17 years would not die so easily. So, why the passionate debate? Let’s take a look back.

The Birth of ECM

ECM has its roots back in 2000, when enterprise document management (EDM) vendors began to merge the functionalities of separate types of content repositories together. ECM brought together EDM, web content management (WCM), and digital asset management (DAM). This change was big enough to require a shift in the market definition, and so, ECM was born.

ECM brought with it two messages: First, it acknowledged that the content supported by these three previously separate platforms shared common business requirements. Documents, web pages, and even rich media needed to support version control, have different file format renditions, and be managed through its life cycle in similar ways. Second, it promised a single platform for all of this content.

Over time, ECM evolved. New technologies were added to these platforms, like records management. Web pages and rich media were now being defined as "records." At the same time, the way in which documents, web pages, and rich media were being used in an organization started to change as well. It became harder and harder to manage content from a single platform due to the drastic differences in their use cases. So, in all but the most basic use cases, WCM and DAM moved away from ECM. EDM could have re-emerged, but it didn’t. ECM had taken on a new meaning.

ECM Platform or ECM Principles

To vendors, ECM had become a definition of that technology space. They were ECM vendors, just like SAP is an enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor and Salesforce is a customer relationship management (CRM) vendor. That first message of ECM had changed, however. The platforms were more focused on documents and not the more generic content. Web content or rich media were separate again. Yet, the vendor promise of a single repository, now for all the documents in a company, still remained.

To practitioners, ECM had become less about a single platform but more about standard principles. ECM is about the management of enterprise content. It looks at all content in an organization, be it physical documents, born digital documents, web pages, rich media, and now even social content. The principle acknowledges that all content has business value, a purpose, and may be tied to regulations. The focus is now on the call for an enterprise approach to managing all this content, regardless of how and where it is stored.

The ECM Rift

Back to today: The acknowledgement of a single platform for enterprise content has never worked, which came as no surprise. Most practitioners have been pointing to the fallacy of a single repository for years. ECM platforms had stopped being used to manage web pages and rich media years ago. In fact, documents have started to move outside of their traditional platforms and into line of business and operational content solutions, like contract life cycle management. Gartner’s statement conceded the single-vendor repository but also made the strong stance that ECM was dead. Many feel it was not Gartner’s position to rename an industry, and they took exception to it.

The Importance of Labels

AIIM Chief Evangelist John Mancini said, “It doesn’t matter what we call it [ECM]. It matters how customers use it.” As everyone that has ever been involved in an ECM project knows, ECM has its own vocabulary. So exactly what we call it truly hasn’t mattered. ECM has made it easier for us to identify what it is to others.

Gartner’s statement finally put a light on what many have known about ECM. It has become a supporting functionality for other applications. This is a major shift that may require a new market definition. If so, shouldn’t this be a discussion by the industry at large? Should the new term be easier to comprehend by new users? How do the principles associated with ECM relate to information management or information governance? Do we encompass other applications that are now managing more content?

What do you think? Leave a comment below to join the discussion.

Marko Sillanpaa is co-founder of the blog Big Men On Content and the founder of BMO Consulting. He has been working in ECM for over 18 years for vendors like Documentum, EMC, Hyland, and SDL Trados and systems integrators like CSC and Accenture. Follow him on Twitter @MSillanpaaBMOC.

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