Deconstructing ECM: How to get started

How can you get started with your SharePoint ECM project? My clients commonly feel somewhat overwhelmed or mystified just thinking about an Enterprise Collaboration Management (ECM) initiative. For many, ECM is one of those topics that feels like it’s all or nothing, and it can seem like there’s no obvious place to start.

In this post, I share my process for approaching ECM projects, focusing on three key areas: understanding ECM itself, using the content life cycle, and then planning an approach to ECM.

ECM and SharePoint

People can have different perspectives on what ECM means, depending on their interests and experience. I think of enterprise content management as the overarching strategy to manage all the units of information within an enterprise.

I use the term unit of information to refer to each piece of content, whether it is a document, a structured electronic form, a blog post, an e-mail—whatever contains information in an enterprise is relevant to ECM. Therefore, I consider the boundaries of ECM to include all information flowing through an organization. This means SharePoint only represents on piece to consider in a broader ECM strategy involving several enterprise systems, but it’s an important piece.

SharePoint offers some key ECM features. Its roots are as a document management and collaboration platform, and it has grown to include web content, social computing, electronic forms, and the like. Some relevant SharePoint 2013 ECM features to consider include:

  • Declaring content as a record and preserving it with a retention policy
  • Using an eDiscovery portal to manage discovery cases
  • Applying metadata and other content classifications to add structure, particularly to unstructured content such as documents

The Content Life Cycle

Content goes through a life cycle within an enterprise, and analyzing the life cycle helps you identify your ECM requirements. Although the life cycle details will vary between different kinds of content, we can generalize some processes for most content in an enterprise.

I use the phases from the AIIM model to group the content life cycle into capturing, storing, delivering, managing, and preserving content. The following describe each life cycle phase:

  • Capture: As some point the content is captured. I’ve divided this up into content a user creates from scratch, and content a user receives, such as when someone e-mails a document to a user.
  • Store: Users can store content in SharePoint using libraries, such as a wiki library, or in a list, such as an announcements list.
  • Deliver: SharePoint also delivers content to users and enables users to discover either transitory content or official records. Users can discover information by actively searching for something using an enterprise search portal, by happening across it when navigating through a site, or through social connections.
  • Manage: SharePoint manages content through policies, such as retention policies. It also exposes functions users can interact with, such as the button to declare an item as a record.
  • Preserve: Once a piece of content becomes an official record, SharePoint preserves it using retention policies.

Content Life Cycle Model

I use the content life cycle model to uncover ECM solution requirements because it can help identify the processes and flow of content through its life in an enterprise. In particular, I analyze:

  • Processes that fit the model: Most processes should fit the model and tracing them can help identify standard requirements.
  • Exceptions to the model: Not every process will fit the model, and through deeper analysis into these exceptions you can uncover whether a process needs to change or the solution needs accommodate the exception, such as storing very large files on a file share instead of SharePoint.
  • Gaps in the model: Gaps help uncover missing requirements, such as when users capture content but there is no process to dispose of it when the content goes dormant.

ECM Project Framework and Approach

The first technique to deconstruct an ECM challenge is to start building a framework for ECM. This lays the initial groundwork that the rest of your ECM solution can build around. The initial framework I focus on is designing an initial taxonomy, defining an initial set of content types, and building on core competencies.

The next way to deconstruct an ECM challenge is to scope iterations—design a culture of continuous improvement. I’ve found that there’s a temptation to tackle too much, too soon. Starting with the fundamentals like a solid ECM framework, and then iterating to continuously improve and progressively expanding your scope will create momentum. One technique you might use is to create a roadmap that lists the sequence of activities or phases, or even the sequence of departments—you don’t have to do all the departments at the same time, and in fact I find when you narrow the focus to individual departments, you put yourself in a much better position for success.

So how do you get started with your SharePoint ECM project? Think about that initial ECM framework you can establish with just a few metadata columns and content types to start, and then pick a department to pilot the first phase. From there, progressively build out your roadmap and work on continuously improving and expanding your ECM solution.