Content management systems are increasingly becoming back end “black box” content stores. This trend towards commoditization puts a decreasing importance on the system and an increasing importance on the ways in which the system capabilities are surfaced. There are several trends that I have observed and continue to see manifest though customer interactions, blog chatter and market awareness.

I am seeing a resurgence in portal fronted web applications. The difference between these and the all-or-nothing portals that were popular 5-10 years ago is that these that leverage rich ECM capabilities on the back end to provide versioning, document libraries, digital asset management, conversion, transcoding, workflow and other “rich” ECM features.

I am seeing WCM systems that are splitting into two camps –
1. Rich WCM that is fully integrated with and takes advantage of sophisticated ECM capabilities
2. Light-Weight WCM that is more like free public blogging software that is quick, cheap and easy but lacking sophistication of top-end systems.

I am seeing “in application” ECM capabilities surface in back-office and process applications like PeopleSoft, JD Edwards and Siebel. It is noted that EMC/Documentum’s recent announcement about their change of direction alludes powerfully toward a deeper relationship with SAP.

I am also seeing something of a retrenchment in the pure-play content management space. Basic capabilities are being re-discovered, often to the exclusion of other, more advanced features. This seems to be due, in part, to three factors:

  1. The SharePoint effect: basic content management catching on with the average worker rather than just the content management professional.
  2. The rise of niche web 2.0 capabilities in the office setting that do one thing well: for example Yammer does micro-blogging in the enterprise well but is disconnected from other information management strategies
  3. The continued consolidation of software and features from the big enterprise vendors: Oracle boasts massive storage capacity and ingestion speeds when their ECM system is combined with RAC database clusters, Exadata machines, SUN servers etc.

There is an acknowledgment, explicit in most places, and tacit everywhere, that content is the important factor in success, intelligence, persuasiveness and uptake metrics. This realization has had an unfortunate side-effect. There is something of a content-centric systems retrenchment going on. “If content is the most important thing then why bother with all the other features and mumbo-jumbo?” some seem to say. This has disadvantaged many of the long-time ECM players who have invested substantial time, money, research and development building out sophisticated and (narrowly) tailored features to meet the needs of the content management professional. But the market cares little that one vendor may have invested much and another invested little. The market cares that its desires are met at the best price available. The market has changed. Content is still king, but its subjects have changed. The population of the kingdom has grown, and grown dramatically.

The sheer growth in numbers of “knowledge workers”, “content professionals” or others who regularly produce and consume content is overwhelming. But this rapid and exponential growth of users, consumers and producers has, in effect, diluted the expertise of the professional content management workers.

image by slworking2 via Flickr

The rise of “casual producers” or “incidental creators” of enterprise content changes the core characteristics of the ECM market. Microsoft’s SharePoint has expertly tapped this audience with simple and simplistic interfaces and features. Older ECM vendors who have matured their products to a great degree of sophistication are left scratching their heads. They are wondering, why, for all their features, capabilities, elegance and integration points are people still flocking to such a feature-poor (by comparison) system.

The answer is that it is good enough.

For the Oracle’s, IBM’s and EMC’s of the world this might seem like a terrible turn of events. It would be like the neighborhood little league team taking the field in the World Series and beating the New York Yankees. But they would do so “only” because the rules have changed and that’s what the crowd wants to see. Yet in the market, those are the only rules.

Fortunately all is not dire. Audiences and markets learn and mature faster than ever before. That means their demands for sophistication and features are rising. Indeed, much of the corporate angst around SharePoint stems from post-uptake disenchantment. “What do you mean it cannot do ________ without substantial cost and consulting?” they say. The good news is that basic systems are introducing millions of more people to the importance and capability of content management. Those users increasingly desire more of the capabilities that mature systems have delivered for years.

So, with Oracle focusing on ECM size and scalability and portal,
With Microsoft focusing on SharePoint’s viral adoption,
With Autonomy/Interwoven still trying to figure out where they fit,
With IBM‘s WebSphere Portal, Filenet, Lotus Quickr and their host of other ECM related products all vying for a seat at the table,
With Open Source products like Nuxeo, Alfresco, Drupal, Joomla! and others all competing for a shot at the market,
With public blogging software like WordPress, Blogger, MovableType and others positioning as enterprise ready WCM systems,
With an increasing host of Enterprise 2.0 suites like Spigit, Jive, Huddle, Basecamp and others playing in the space but coming at it orthogonally,

Content has never been more important. Still the ECM systems are moving farther and farther into the background. Still users are changing. User expectations are always flavored by their first experience. It is the context and benchmark against which they measure all else. The ECM vendors who have been around for many years must take these expectations into account.
These questions should govern ECM Product Manager’s thoughts over the next several development cycles:

  • If users get content management experience on a team using SharePoint and ultimately walk away from that system because of its inability to meet the increasing sophistication of their needs, what must the next software system do to meet and then exceed those expectations?
  • What are the user interaction patterns that govern user behavior, adoption and success with a new piece of ECM technology?
  • What are the processes, the tasks the responsibilities of average (not super-) users where ECM systems can help?
  • What are the solutions needed – NOT the features desired – by business?
  • What are the overarching industry trends that can combine with ECM systems to yield new and powerful solutions, usage patterns and capabilities?

Fishbowl SolutionsHere at Fishbowl Solutions we are focusing on these questions. We consider and build for user experience, making their interactions with the system intuitive, fun, and (many times) invisible. Our software makes Oracle ECM and Oracle WebCenter accessible to average users to solve their business problems. It streamlines their tasks and processes (Our Process, Contract and Project Automation software). It tailors and personalizes their workflow experiences (Our Workflow Solution Set software). It delivers reusable content to any platform and channel where it is needed (Our Fishbowl Portlets and Mobile ECM software).

The next-generation workplace is not characterized by small teams of specialists working in exclusive offices or at separate desks. Rather, the next-generation workplace is characterized by domain experts working cross-functionally on processes and problems to drive their business forward. They are interested in solving problems with the most relevant information available. They are not interested in learning new technology for technologies sake. They use what makes sense. What is needed by them right now. If all those needs can be met by a single platform, all the better. But they are (obviously) not sweating it if they’re not.