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It is about time we admit that a single repository for all documents within an enterprise will not be an achievable goal, at least for now. For 17 years, enterprise content management (ECM) and document management system (DMS) vendors have touted the ability of an enterprise to keep all content in one repository, so much so that ECM has taken on a split meaning to many. No matter how much an enterprise tries to control it, content sprawl occurs.

The Challenge of Content Sprawl

Some content sprawl is inevitable and often unintentional. It starts with the end user. Users will always have content in their emails, and they will also keep personal or local copies of documents. Traditionally, this has been on their desktop computers or network share, but today, these copies are also kept on their mobile devices.

Content sprawl also occurs naturally in an organized way. For example, information technology (IT) may choose different technologies for different business processes. In addition, there may be legacy technologies used with processes that are still needed, but an investment in re-architecting the solution is not in the budget. Furthermore, departments may have made technology decisions on their own to work around IT backlogs. These departmental solutions can be on-premise but are more often cloud solutions. These are often called “shadow IT” or “dark data.”

The challenge is that content doesn’t work efficiently in silos. A contract may involve sales and corporate counsel to work together during the drafting and approval process, but it also may be needed by accounting when reviewing an invoice. Even during drafting, corporate counsel may need to review previous contracts, which could be located in a records system. While these interactions with such repositories might not be a regular occurrence, the user wants it to seem that way. Users don’t care that expired contracts are in Vendor A’s repository, draft contracts are in Vendor B’s repository, and approved and active contracts are in Vendor C’s repository. They just want to see contracts.

Addressing Sprawl with Migration and Federation

One way to address sprawl is through migration. From a conceptual perspective, one would think the easiest way to address document sprawl is by migrating content from one repository to another. From a practical perspective, there are challenges that lie ahead. Migrations need to consider:
  • Volume of content being migrated
  • Connections to third-party applications
  • User adoption of existing systems
Any of these challenges can halt a migration and leave another silo behind. Certain legacy systems can also be a challenge because integrations may not be available without heavy customization. There are even cases with certain legacy systems where their experts are no longer available. Every few years, I hear questions about migrating from hardware-based solutions from the early 1990s.

Fortunately, content federation services, transparent content services, or content integrations are emerging. With content federation, the document does not need to be moved from the current repository. Instead, documents are made accessible inside federated search tools or within other integrated repositories while remaining in their original system. Some of these federation platforms offer read-only access to this content, while a few offer read-write capabilities. In those systems, documents in other repositories can be edited or participate in workflows from the federated repository.

Addressing Sprawl Takes a Mixed Approach

The future of accessing content includes both migrations and federations. Even if an organization hopes to reach the nirvana of a single repository, it will need to use both migrations and federations to reach that goal. Some repositories will need to co-exist, and certain processes, like records retention, will need to be centralized.

There are two things to remember when addressing content sprawl. First, managing content sprawl will be an ongoing process, not a single event. Secondly, content sprawl did not occur overnight, and it will not be solved overnight either.

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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