One of my favorite talks at the SharePoint Conference in Las Vegas last November was delivered by Shell about their journey to standardizing on SharePoint for their enterprise content management (ECM). Previously they, like a lot of large organizations, had several large scale ECM platforms rolled out throughout the organization filling slightly different, but typically overlapping needs. The end result was increased costs, and an increase in risk. It didn't take much number crunching to figure out that having multiple ECM platforms wasn't cost effective. The solution that made the most sense for them was to standardize on one ECM platform; and they chose to standardize on SharePoint.

Shell is not alone. With SharePoint as popular as it is, organizations of all shapes and sizes are starting to look at the possibility of removing other ECM platforms they have rolled out in their enterprise, chasing the much sought after dream — one ECM platform to manage all of their content.

The benefits of standardizing on one platform are obvious: pay less in license fees, reduce total infrastructure costs, reduce the need for expertise, and reduce the ECM surface area (which should reduce risk for litigation and make tasks like case management and eDiscovery faster, cheaper and more effective.) Standardizing on one platform will also improve organizational information hygiene, streamline training, and increase productivity.

However, you could say that there's a market perception that SharePoint, as an ECM platform, falls a little short when it comes to records management — this was purposeful and strategic for Microsoft and understanding their point of view will help us appreciate the fact that SharePoint can and will act as the sole ECM platform for many organizations.

Understanding Microsoft's ECM strategy

It would be easy to argue that Microsoft was a little late to the ECM party and not fashionably late — the party was well underway and no one really noticed their arrival. Luckily though, the Microsoft wallflower had something up its sleeve. They decided to focus on collaboration — making it easy for users to share and collaborate on documents in the enterprise. Most compliance-driven ECM systems were pretty lousy at collaboration.

Microsoft also ensured that the SharePoint platform was extensible: "While committed to delivering a comprehensive set of ECM capabilities out-of-the-box, Microsoft understands that every industry and organization has unique needs. Rather than treating these needs as afterthoughts, Microsoft product teams have devoted substantial efforts to understanding these types of needs and tailoring product extensibility to support them."

So Microsoft entered the market with a cheap and easy to use ECM platform focusing on "wide spread user adoption" by ensuring ease of use and platform extensibility to meet specific needs. It was hoped that the platform would contain most of the content in the organization, and that as a result, the value of the platform to the organization would increase accordingly. (The inherent value of any ECM platform is tied to how much and what type of the organization's content lives in that platform.) Therefore, if the amount of content in the platform reached some critical point, it would be worthwhile for organizations to complete the whole ECM story in SharePoint — including that of records management, and potentially do away with the other platforms rolled out in the enterprise.

The strategy seemed to have worked. SharePoint has a large and growing slice of the ECM market. The platform has some great functionality when it comes to collaboration and document management and it works really well out-of-the-box with minimal configuration. If anything, the most common problem we see is "SharePoint sprawl" where everyone and their dog gets to have a team site to manage content. Without proper governance SharePoint can quickly become hard to manage. In contrast, the major problem with large ECM roll-outs has historically been user adoption.

Now let's talk about the records management gap in SharePoint. As I noted above, this was purposeful and strategic as Microsoft seldom develops products for specific industries (well okay, outside of IT). Considering that the actual records management needs differ from organization to organization it was unlikely that they could or would align the platform for any specific industry. For example, if you're in the financial sector you'll need to comply with SOX (The Sarbanes-Oxley Act), if you're in the health care sector you may need to comply with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Then of course we have the defacto DoD Standard, ICA, VERS, and MoReq. We can then throw in any applicable legislation, industry specific regulatory requirements, best practices and company standards. Records management can get complicated quite quickly. So it's not hard to see Microsoft's line of thinking: "while an out-of-the-box solution will handle most functions, organizations will have some need to build functionality that is specific to their vertical or compliance requirements."

If SharePoint was configurable enough to meet all possible needs, it would be increasingly complex to the point that it would no longer be usable, at least when it came to records management. Besides all that, let's reiterate that it just doesn't make sense for them to create industry-specific requirements. SharePoint has done a great job of commoditizing the bits of ECM that they can. For specific needs they provide a rich, extensible platform upon which to build – relying on third party products or customization to meet an organization's specific needs.

Completing the records management story in SharePoint

In the past couple of years Gartner has placed SharePoint in the upper-right-hand quadrant (being a leader and a visionary in the ECM space) along with the other major ECM players, sighting its strategy to rely on third party vendors to supply specific solutions:

"SharePoint has attracted a very large ecosystem. Many third-party software vendors are building extensions, and system integrators are generating big business around deployments and customizations."
- Gartner

This isn't to say that there aren't some smaller organizations that use SharePoint records management out-of-the-box just fine. However, anything beyond the most basic needs will require varying combinations of clever configuration, customization, and a third party product.

I've spent over a year reviewing and investigating most of the major players on the market and have decided that the best one I've seen so far is Collabware. What makes Collabware stand out is their focus on user experience and a true enterprise capable design. As I've mentioned, historically large scale ECM projects have a low success rate due to low user adoption. These systems tend to be driven by regulatory and legislative compliance and provide little focus on the user experience. We've seen this many times where compliant systems get rolled out to an organization, but don't get adopted because users need to add 25 elements of metadata, or the records management piece becomes to overbearing on the system. Of course adding a records management dimension to any system will add a certain level of complexity, but Collabware's focus on the end-user experience to drive adoption, and ultimately ROI, is truly a fresh and exciting take in this arena.

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