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A New Approach To Collaboration And Enterprise Content Management

Oceans of unmanaged content are swamping companies. It's time to rethink ECM and collaboration to keep your head above water.

Larry Hawkins has a problem. Actually, he has several million. The company he works for, First Energy, generates 2 million e-mails a week. Then there are untold Word documents, spreadsheets, CAD files, videos, and other pieces of content flooding the company.

"We are great at creating information, but really bad at deleting low-value information," says Hawkins, First Energy's director of records and information compliance. "The more stuff laying around out there represents a risk to the company."

It may be cold comfort, but Hawkins isn't alone. At companies everywhere, e-mail, collaboration tools, and Office applications generate a rising tide of unstructured business content. It's not enough to simply soak it up with additional storage. Compliance and e-discovery requirements demand more discrimination, identifying which information should be retained and which can safely be destroyed. At the same time, companies must make sure employees and other users can access the content they need to conduct daily business.

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Companies have two choices: manage this business content, or drown in it.

The choice may require some radical rethinking about enterprise content management systems. Companies have been using ECM products to handle official business records--such as contracts, invoices, medical records, and financial statements--for years. And the policies, processes, and technologies to manage these types of records are well understood and widely implemented. That's not the case for the larger class of unstructured content, which tends to live outside the bounds of an ECM platform. ECM vendors are trying to expand the boundaries of their products to serve as general-purpose information governance systems. In addition to being the big bucket for companies' unstructured content, they're trying to provide a management layer that applies policies to content even if it doesn't sit in the vendor's repositories.

"Compliance and record retention will move from something that a few regulated companies do with a subset of documents to something that lots of companies will do with lots of data," says Mark Lewis, president of EMC's content management and archiving division.

At the same time, collaboration applications--first and foremost Microsoft's SharePoint--are getting into the act. SharePoint's organic integration with Office makes it a strong contender as a content management system.

CIOs rethinking the "save everything forever" approach must make sure strategies can cut through regulations.
On top of all this, new initiatives aim to ensure that ECM platforms balance availability, interoperability, and management in this sea of information. A push for interoperability standards is one such initiative (see story, "Standard Interface Will Open New Options For ECM").

It makes good sense to have a software layer that lets companies apply retention and records rules to business content regardless of where that content resides. Of course, implementing an enterprise-wide system to manage business content requires significant integration and policy decisions, but the alternatives--failing an e-discovery test, missing a regulatory requirement, and locking out people and applications that need to use content--are worse.

The best place to start understanding how to ride the surge of business content is with collaboration apps. They're responsible for generating a significant portion of business information, which makes them an increasingly viable option to control it.

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