Enterprise content management (ECM) technologies will underpin the compliance strategy of every organisation, from financial services through to public sector, but it's not just about compliance says Ben Richmond, managing director, The Content Group.

ECM can deliver a wide range of benefits from improved productivity and cost reduction to competitive advantage but a blinkered, compliance centric ECM implementation will significantly reduce an organisation's chances of attaining longer term business advantage.

The escalation in compliance requirements, from FSA regulations and the Data Protection Act to the Freedom of Information Act, poses significant challenges for organisations around the globe but it has been an undoubted boon for many vendors of enterprise content management technology.

From scanning and workflow to web content and email management, organisations now perceive ECM technologies as an obvious means of solving all their compliance problems, addressing not only market specific legislation and regulation but also issues such as the Employment Act 2002.

Yet there is an inherent danger in accepting the packaged compliance solutions increasingly being offered by bandwagon hopping vendors.

Every vendor in the ECM space, from enterprise software or solutions to point products, has a compliance solution. But just how much value are these packages offering?

Fundamentally, compliance is not the end goal. Instead, the end goal has to be to address compliance requirements while implementing and supporting processes that will also improve efficiency.

It is these processes which are unique to every organisation; individual requirements that packaged solutions will not be able to address.

Indeed, it is becoming patently evident that those organisations focusing purely on compliance will actually increase the complexity of their internal processes, adding business cost.

Missing the point

The primary question every compliance focused organisation must ask is: just how flexible are these packaged offerings?

Can they evolve beyond pure compliance requirements to address pressing business issues, from streamlining sales and procurement processes to improving competitiveness through enhanced provision of information to clients?

If not, organisations are fundamentally missing the point of ECM. Yes, it will play a key role in achieving compliance to a raft of current and future legislative requirements.

But if organisations are to achieve both a viable cost base and access to information that will transform customer relationships and, hence, competitiveness in an overcrowded marketplace, they need to leverage that ECM investment in full.

Indeed, in the longer term it will be these same ECM technologies that will provide a platform for the exploitation of business critical intellectual capital. But all of these benefits can only be achieved if organisations are aware of the bigger picture when they make the initial compliance focused investment.

And, to be fair, given the penalties for non-compliance, some organisations may be tempted to opt for 'compliance in a box' simply to address an immediate requirement. But, while valid, such a strategy is no excuse for investing in technology that cannot scale or extend in the future to deliver benefits beyond the initial requirement.

For those organisations that can achieve compliance within a scalable framework the long-term benefits will be significant.

Market confusion

One of the main challenges facing organisations keen to achieve compliance within a technology framework that will enable longer-term benefits is the multiplicity of technologies that contribute to the ECM marketplace.

While many organisations may not be in a position to implement a fully integrated, enterprise-wide ECM solution, there is no reason why best-in-class, 'point-of-need' solutions, from document scanning to workflow, cannot be implemented in phases across a business to create an enterprise-wide solution in the longer term.

However, this will only be achieved if the technology meets three key criteria: it is invested in and implemented with the end goal of ECM in mind; it is tightly integrated into the existing technology infrastructure - such as ERP and CRM applications - to provide easy, appropriate information retrieval; and it is scalable to support both larger user populations and increasing business requirements.

And, while the introduction of the likes of .NET products undoubtedly eases the process of meshing together best in class products, it is not a guarantee: product choices need to be made very carefully to ensure technology blind alleys are avoided.

Quantifiable ROI

However, ECM is not just about cost or efficiency savings; in order to attain maximum value, companies need to fully embrace not just the power and flexibility of ECM technologies, but critically also the cultural and process changes that truly underpin a change in working practices.

How many companies have, for example, invested in document scanning and workflow technologies to drive paper from the business, only to baulk at the final hurdle: shredding documentation?

By failing to take that final leap of faith they are massively undermining the financial benefit that ECM can deliver, and unfortunately resigning the company to old, and now outdated ways of doing business.

This, again, is where a strong provider choice is key. ECM can deliver immediate benefits in enhanced productivity and cost reduction and, as a result, many companies left to their own devices, fail to really push the solution to attain even greater value.

To maximize the ECM ROI requires the provider to guide, steer and mentor organisations into making sure that appropriate follow-through is ensured.

In addition, the provider should be revisiting users regularly after the technology implementation is complete to ensure that the solution is delivering what they expect it to deliver. Are benefits being achieved and measured; are those benefits being measured really the key benefits the company should be measuring?

It is considerations such as these that ultimately drive improved information retrieval and authorization processes that are critical to the long-term success of an ECM project and ultimately, can deliver significant competitive advantage.

Beyond compliance

With a raft of deadlines upon organisations from financial services to the public sector, a significant number of current investments are undoubtedly compliance focused. And ECM solutions will play a major role in attaining compliance both today and to future legislative requirements.

However, regarding ECM technologies only within a compliance perspective can be a major mistake that will potentially add cost and complexity to the business. With the right approach it is straightforward to implement technologies that address compliance requirements while implementing and supporting processes that will also improve efficiency.

Compliance is not just about accountability and audit trails, it is about streamlining processes to reduce the cost of compliance.

Too many organisations, particularly in the public sector, are falling into the trap of compliance-centric ECM implementations and, as a result, will struggle to meet other key efficiency and cost savings performance targets that can easily be delivered via the right ECM solution.

It will be those organisations that can consider the broader implications of an ECM investment that will reap the benefits of improved productivity, lower costs and maximized intellectual property once the compliance issues have been addressed.