Summer Readings: The Future of ECM


Summer season started early this year with an extreme heatwave over central Europe this week. To me, summer holidays are the perfect occasion for taking a step back from the day to day business, read, getting inspired and thinking about the next year. My ambition for this year remains the same, although this time I decided to share my views on some topics and maybe inspire others over summer. The summer readings will be a series of posts over the months July — September in where I’ll express my views on the future of ECM (or content services) and touch different domains like Artificial Intelligence, RPA (Robotic Process Automation), NLP (Natural Language Processing), Cognitive Computing, Conversational Interfaces, Cloud, Enterprise Search, Imaging, … and the future role of a SI in the ECM industry.

In preparation of this series, and for pragmatists like myself, I have applied all stated ideas on each topic into a practical example. It’s a set of prototypes and components added to the digital toolset that we currently use at RedTree.

So expect a theoretical read of a new concept, an application of that concept in a technical context and a share of my view on how this can be implemented in other organisations.

Enjoy summer and feel free to contact me on these topics.

Happy reading.

How it all started.

If you asked me 14 years ago, what should be the main driver in our enterprise content strategy, my advise was always in the direction of automation and digitisation. The user, or operator, was but part of the system and we certainly didn’t think of usability. The focus was on documents. Make them digital, store centrally and print on demand autonomously.

9 years ago, that changed. I started working for a hospital in a department called ‘collaborative applications’. The mission here was not to digitise mass volumes of paper documents and streamline the output. It was the next step towards the paperless office by digitising work processes and implementing BPM. Two years earlier, Gartner published a document on BPM: Preparing for the Process-Managed Organisation.

The objective of BPM is to increase employee and customer value through innovative, flexible and efficient orchestration of a business’s process environment. However, a process-managed organisation is more about business transformation than about technology

I joined Panoptic in 2009 and assisted in quite a few similar implementations in large hospitals, before founding RedTree. In all those projects, there was a big shift. We created a top layer for the big repositories, where users interacted with each-other and ‘consumed’ the content underneath. The Systems of Engagement were operating on top of and in touch with Systems of Records, as John Mancini putted it in that era.

People who asked me 2 years ago about enterprise content strategy, might have noticed a slight and evolving nuance in the story. As we implemented numerous ECM projects and assisted customers in buying and architecting enterprise content management platforms, we encountered the many types and sources of content.

The practices and skills in the team changed over the last 4 years. We started as a team that implemented a software product. If I look today to the team and the project flows, we are delivering software and are integrating the traditional platforms like Alfresco, Liferay, … but also integrating other business applications, always related to content.

ECM, defined as a tool, has moved away from being a platform and morphed into a thin layer that supports business outcome rather than the ambition to manage content. This requires a totally different approach and skillset.

Digital Transformation, the most overused term to date, might be just that. Not revolutionising but transforming formerly dominant applications into supportive and invisible layers, offering services that people take for granted. The obviousness of those services is not because people were trained or forced to use them, it’s because they know these concepts from their non-professional lives. The pitfall for enterprises is to define digital transformation as a practice or project and underestimating the technical complexity of those layers. This can be applied to numerous business domains. For ECM, in that sense Mr. Koehler-Kruener putted it right. It has to be technologically focused.

BPM — 2005

Coming back on the topic of BPM and the definition that Gartner gave in 2005:

The objective of BPM is to increase employee and customer value through innovative, flexible and efficient orchestration of a business’s process environment. However, a process-managed organisation is more about business transformation than about technology.

In 2009 I was involved in a huge BPM implementation based on K2, Sharepoint and Infopath. It was part business transformation and part technology. The business transformation existed in eliminating the internal mail system by a form-based application and intranet.

Other than the typical systems of record like SAP, HR software and logistics applications there was no shattered landscape of tools except some MS Access initiatives. The technical challenge was the aim to standardise the implementation, creating reusable components and avoiding huge volumes of code. Gartner however emphasised on the business transformation part. When the technical layer was built, the focus was indeed on onboarding users with this new ‘system of engagement’. As the demand was bigger than the ability to deliver, we strategically selected these processes that were most likely to succeed in terms of user adoption:

  • holiday request
  • computer material request
  • expense approval
  • training budget request

It was nothing more than changing the data entry part for the systems of record and making a digital alternative for the approval steps before the data was entered in the system.

Internal mail preceded the notification for data entry in systems of record.
The internal mail and admin function was being replaced by a BPM suite.

As people in the organisation began to understand the possibilities of the new way of automating business processes, the requests started to boom and were not limited to straight forward business proces automation. We even implemented a light-weight learning management system and legal annotation application. Sharepoint and its lists quickly became a tool for all purpose. The danger was to replace MS Access applications with this new kid in town.

BPM Revisited — 2007

Taking a step forward in time and looking around 12 years later, we see the application landscape scattered again. This time not with self-made MS Access applications but with mature enterprise apps that facilitate in a very limited part of a business process. Looking at our own organisation and staying in the HR domain, the one big system is being replaced by different tools that all have their specific role in the HR landscape. The typical approval workflows are currently part of those specific tools: Holiday approval in an HR system, content publication approvals in a CMS, budget approvals within ERP, … . Each subdomain has its own one or two tools to work with. Overall orchestration as we implemented years ago has no added value.

The definition of BPM from 2005 is still relevant, but the definition of the concepts might have changed:

“Increasing employee and customer value through innovative orchestration of a business process environment.”

Nothing new here, as organisations are constantly looking into ways to increase employee and customer value. The emphasis in traditional BPM used to be on the employee value. Today most companies are striving for a higher customer value. Automating the business process was digitising the interaction between human beings, before data entry and applying rule based logic to route each task to the right person. The business process environment was quite simple:

  • definition of the process (levels of approval, rules, actions)
  • context of the user who initiates the request

The business process environment hasn’t changed a lot, although the multitude on software titles and communication channels might make a classic BPM implementation too complex.

The shattered landscape and the place of enterprise collaboration tools.

Apart from the new shattered landscape of tools, the real challenge for modern BPM lies in the innovative orchestration. And this time it might be technological.

We used forms in the classical BPM implementation as means of interaction with the users. They were accessible through the intranet and were commonly accepted as a way of structured content entry. Although forms are still an important part to capture data, we are used to much more advanced and focused tools to communicate. Chat channels are currently widely implemented in enterprises, with Slack amongst the recent game changers.

The conceptual approach of a process definition and user context is still relevant. The process environment is still actual, although we have to deal with various business software tools and a new way of communication. The latter is the real game changer. Forms were a good start, but the interaction got conversational. In terms of UI, we are still putting energy in designing forms and flows. I’m convinced that this will be replaced by designing models of conversation.

Chatbots are hot, or are beyond the hype if you want to believe some digital experts. I can agree with that statement when you define a chatbot as a single purpose conversation channel like bot to book a doctor’s appointment, customise a pair of Nikes or track your health stats. These are cool features, but too limited to embed within an enterprise and support business processes.

I am convinced that defining a model and technical stack to support a conversational interface has a huge potential in replacing, or at least complementing, the traditional BPM suites.

Pieter Ardinois·
7 min
4 cards

Read “Summer Readings: The Future of ECM” on a larger screen, or in the Medium app!