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ERP and Content Management: Harmonic Convergence?

To drive collaborative processes, businesses need embedded intelligence. BI, focused on structured data, is only half of the story: Businesses need content management for the unstructured stuff. ERP wants to be the point of convergence.

SAP NetWeaver and ECM

All ERP vendors are looking at streamlining ECM processes, either by developing technology or partnering with major ECM vendors. Let's look more closely at what SAP, the dominant ERP vendor, is doing. SAP's approach rests with its unified business-technology platform, NetWeaver, which comprises technologies needed to address service-oriented business application challenges. SAP's intention is to provide more than just a technology stack: Components will be tightly integrated to orchestrate services, instead of requiring customers to spend their time integrating the "integration tools," as many must do today.

You can look at NetWeaver from many angles, but to understand it correctly, let's consider the three major building blocks: Products and related technical components; the Integrated Framework; and Business Content. These components, taken together, are why NetWeaver doesn't really compare head-to-head with IBM's WebSphere because it's much more than a Web services infrastructure.

Integrated Framework is the heart of NetWeaver and drives collaborative business models and processes within and outside the four walls of a company. SAP uses the framework to allow its technical components to participate in business activities modeled in its Exchange Infrastructure (XI), a process integration framework as shown in Figure 3. XI models define not only the "transactional" activities but also the integration workflows needed for collaborative business activity monitoring (BAM), intelligence dissemination monitoring, and content aggregation and consolidation.


FIGURE 3 - SAP NetWeaver: Enterprise content management and collaboration.

Making this process integration work obviously goes beyond J2EE and demands other technologies. Along with predefined knowledge (or business content) there to help businesses implement solutions quickly, important NetWeaver technology building blocks include Master Data Management, BI, Knowledge Management (KM), XI, and the Portal. NetWeaver's business content puts predefined knowledge at every layer: business processes, analytics, business applications, business records, and so on.

Almost unintentionally, SAP already offers key ECM components in NetWeaver, including Web content management, document management, archiving, and records management. These are not clearly presented as ECM in the technology stack; rather, they are part of the overall Integrated Framework for collaborative business processes.

Figure 3 shows SAP's Records Management (RM) Services. RM is an integral part of SAP R/3 Enterprise 4.7. SAP offers more than tools; it has predefined, industry-specific records management layouts and scenarios, such as SAP Public Sector Records Management, mySAP Financials Dispute Management, and mySAP CRM Case Management.

SAP business processes or outside SAP can share content gathered at any NetWeaver layer through open standards. Companies can publish BI content in the KM repository, which in turn enables KM objects to exploit all KM services, such as subscription, discussions, collaboration, information aggregation — and the documents associated with BI, business, and product models. For example, if you made (published) a sales report a KM object, then the portal search engine can also include the report as part of its aggregation, without involving BI reporting tools.

Content convergence in NetWeaver isn't limited to run-time business activities; content can play a significant role in business services design. Let's say that your business is collaborating with a partner in the modeling and design of new analytics. You publish your analytic model in the KM repository. Through the collaboration vehicle, cFolders, you can make the analytic model available to participating teams without requiring them to open a BW developer workbench or have to peek into the metadata or databases.

Similarly, depending upon their authorization level, the same metamodel ("KM Object") is visible to end users at run time. NetWeaver's repository management services take care of this transparently. Collaborative product design scenarios would also use this approach through SAP's Product Lifecycle Management solution. There are many more examples: The main point is that integrating ECM components within a business application platform can reduce complexity in implementing collaborative business solutions.

More to Come

ECM convergence within ERP-driven business applications is still in its early stages. Vendors must learn how to take large content volumes, such as email, voice, images, and particularly big unstructured documents and derive intelligence from them for business use in collaborative processes. SAP's NetWeaver is a good start; we'll see soon what Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems, Lawson Software, and others put together through development, partnership, and acquisition. Business demand for such convergence will only grow louder.

Naeem Hashmi is CTO of Information Frameworks and strategic advisor to International Technologies. He's an expert in emerging e-business intelligence, enterprise information architectures, and portal technologies.