Enterprise content management has become a rather jaded term lately, mostly because the concept has become too vague. Still, whether we call it document and records management or ECM, we know that document-oriented technologies are designed to serve a single purpose: to help change the way businesses work.

Any such technology deployment will involve changes to established business processes and most likely will involve automating some tasks that are currently manual. Yet few projects - even those that come with multimillion-dollar budgets - take into account very much about initial business process analysis.

One of the founding principles of business process change is the concept of understanding and defining the current "as-is" situation before analyzing it and then constructing an ideal "to-be" environment. This concept has been around for many years, and I have personally used it for the last 20, but it's increasingly being ignored - at our peril.

Today, all too often, IT and business managers focus their energy on the future system, with an implicit recognition that the current system needs to change, yet without really understanding the inherent intricacies and challenges in the current system. As a result, we see many well-intentioned projects fail because they either repeat the same errors as part projects or they fail to convince users of the need for change.

Consider two recent projects I encountered. The first involved a document management implementation that failed on many levels due to promised functionality and usability that never materialized. The key reason that it failed to deliver was because the product purchased was Microsoft technology, and the firm operated a near pure Java technology environment.

Unfortunately, this is a common situation. To move forward to a next generation of document management, the firm understood they needed help.

It was quite a battle to get the buyer to focus on products that were a technical fit for their organization; in fact, there would have been a very good chance of them repeating the exact same mistake. Over the three years that the unsatisfactory system ran, people had moved on, memories were short, and the reason for all the troubles was forgotten. Over time, people started believing that they had simply been ripped off by a technology vendor.

In another ongoing engagement, we are working with an international company that is trying to make a radical business change. Their business continues to expand, and their current information management system is overwhelmed with redundant, inaccurate and duplicate content. Moreover, it has become prohibitively expensive to administer and maintain. Though new technology is a part of the solution to the problem, the most important part of the solution is to simply impose the most basic information management principles, including retention and disposition, and applying metadata consistently to content. Of course, the old technology included all this functionality and more, but it had never been utilized in a consistent way.

This particular project will require a lot of work to demonstrate key differences to end users between the as-is and to-be situations in a straightforward manner. This firm learned that information chaos can become acceptable and normal very quickly; people have come to accept it as the status quo. By vividly contrasting the current situation with the future, they are now receiving enthusiastic support from many who had been identified as potential opponents to the project.

Businesses need to constantly evolve and change, and information management technology can play an important role. But more important than new technology is business analysis, which should precede any information management project. Technology alone will never resolve the problems caused by inefficient business processes. And even the best technology will fail to deliver if the impact of the change on both the cultural and operational elements has not been considered in advance. The best starting point to consider those changes is to undertake an as-is review.

It's a simple lesson, really. Your map and directions are only of use to you if you know what your current position is. Never assume you know why or how you got to your current position. Take time to figure it out. You may find that the complex mess you currently work with is the result of simple errors made early on that are easy to correct.

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