Data suggests new strategies, quantifies their success or failure, and informs virtually every operational decision (whether it's made by a person or a processor). It's probably not going too far to say that, in a large sense, the fundamental mission of IT is get the best possible use from data throughout its lifecycle.
And while structured data, like core databases, usually gets most of the time, energy and money; it's unstructured data that comprises some 80 percent of the total in a typical enterprise. This is not the tip of the iceberg, but the hidden bulk of it.
Think of all those Word files, presentation decks, spreadsheets, and PDFs. Think about case notes written up hastily during a phone call; they may never make their way into a database, yet can contain incredibly powerful information. Think of the sum total of data created daily in internal communities, forums, wikis and other collaborative social platforms -- an area that's certainly hot and getting hotter by the day.
Is the enterprise really getting, as I put it earlier, the best possible use from that data?
The answer is almost certainly no, and the consequence is almost certainly diminished agility, creativity, innovation and responsiveness -- all key for the enterprise to succeed.
This is the heart of the argument for Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions. By acknowledging the crucial importance of unstructured data, and leveraging it for as much value as possible, organizations can put themselves in a much stronger, more informed, more competitive position going forward.
ECM solutions must evolve with the changing times
Not all ECM solutions are created equal, though. And not all ECM solution providers have the depth of insight, or provide the mature capabilities, that the enterprise will need for best results.
I recently had a chat with Craig Rhinehart, Director of ECM Strategy and Market Development for IBM, (check out Craig�s ECM blog) and he agreed on that point, calling out that IBM has been developing leading ECM solutions for nearly 30 years and first published research on the topic in 1957, over 50 years ago. That�s longer than most IT professionals have even been alive.
And as enterprise infrastructures, content types, strategies and goals continue to evolve, he told me, IBM Software is continuing to evolve its ECM capability and portfolio in parallel, keeping close pace with the changing times.
�Actually, ECM has never been more relevant than it is today,� said Rhinehart. �These solutions can drive value in an organization's most valuable processes. Think of insurance claims, for instance, they're really the make-or-break center of everything an insurance organization does. And claims processing typically revolves around many forms of unstructured data in the context of case management. All driven from the need to deliver better service to their customers in a highly competitive market. So our ECM solutions are a perfect match.�
That's a value proposition that's becoming more and more applicable over time, too. As unstructured content continues to expand in volume, and diversify in nature, major challenges for enterprises emerge in managing it all -- challenges that will often demand a new approach to ECM.
Five great ways to squeeze more value out of your unstructured data
�These challenges really come down to five different areas where we're seeing customers have problems,� explained Rhinehart. �It's within them that content management gets applied and customers are seeing value.�
One such challenge is document imaging and capture -- basically, grabbing data from non-digital sources, like faxes or snail-mail, then sharing it and managing it in all the ways that digital solutions do best.
This is the sort of thing that can really generate tremendous value if it's done right. I once worked at a state government office where a team of more than 50 lawyers was chartered with responding to all snail-mail questions in two days or less -- no matter how complicated those inquiries might be. Given a turnaround time like that, efficient imaging and capture tools were critical to getting the job done, both right and on time.
And that's just scratching the surface, according to Rhinehart. �There's a global logistics company using IBM ECM production imaging technology to process 600,000 pages per day,� he said. �They expect to process 4 million per day when the rollout is completed. And already, they move shipments across borders with 30 percent fewer resources than before. Really, any company has too much paper -- it's a great opportunity for enterprises to reduce cost and risk.�
Social content management is another area where ECM capabilities can pay off in a major way -- partly because most of this content is extremely unstructured by nature. Collaborative platforms have typically been developed with a focus on empowering user communication, and rightly so, but it's important that all their content still be connected effectively to the organization's repository of record.
�It's the Wild West right now,� said Rhinehart. �If customers don't have a social content strategy today, they need to get one pretty soon. And we at IBM are certainly investing in that area. We think of it as a sea change in business and we plan to continue to lead the way.�
Information lifecycle governance is a third area where ECM solutions can play a hand. Here, the focus falls on how information is managed throughout its lifecycle, in accordance with its business needs and other variables such as regulatory and legal obligations.
For instance, by identifying information of lower priority, then moving that to storage infrastructure of similarly lower cost -- migrating it from, say, disk arrays to tape or optical media -- organizations can preserve what they need, yet drive down the associated operational overhead. It also becomes possible to identify what isn�t needed at all, eliminating it from the complete information infrastructure and freeing up much needed storage resources in the process. Rhinehart adds that �our solutions help our customers dispose of information in a defensible manner. You can�t just hit the delete key�
ECM solutions can add value by automating and optimizing those processes that are content centric. This is Advanced Case Management (ACM). According to Rhinehart, �ACM helps by addressing the ad-hoc, exception-oriented business processes where collaboration is key and where getting the right decision made is the desired outcome. Traditional BPM solutions aren�t the right approach for these processes. You wouldn�t want to use a shovel to drive in a nail. ACM enables a more dynamic solution development process avoiding many of the issues that make rolling out new applications a lot slower, harder and costlier than it should be.�
Some organizations may describe ACM solutions as dispute management, customer service resolution, care coordination, interventions or even claims processing. These cases are not a typical straight-through process. They involve invoices, contracts and other forms of enterprise content and tend to be customer centric. We have a major retailing chain that's doing this and they're now saving US$2.1 million a year in their call center on labor savings alone.�
Finally, content analytics can provide some of the most interesting, and potentially explosive, possibilities for unstructured data in the enterprise today. Just as traditional analytics tools focus on database-driven content, ECM analytics capabilities focus on unstructured content -- surfing through it for patterns or trends, that (once implemented as strategies) can create new business value.
Rhinehart seems particularly impressed with the strides IBM has taken in this area in recent years, as exemplified by the success of the Watson project -- best known for having defeated Jeopardy champions in head-to-head, real-time competition.
�Watson uses IBM Content Analytics technology that is commercially available today for natural language processing. It�s being used to leverage and exploit enterprise content by understanding business insights currently trapped in content. Content Analytics is being used to detect fraud, solve crimes, improve healthcare research, find new business opportunities, understand the voice of the customer and more. Think Business Intelligence for content.�
I share his appreciation on both Content Analytics and Watson. Watson not only comprehends natural language queries, but also leverages many different analytics algorithms, running in parallel, to arrive at answers deemed likely to be accurate. This is well beyond the scope of ECM, or even enterprise IT as a whole, as it exists today.
�When you can pose questions to a computer in natural language, that's just a whole new ballgame --that�s something IT has never even tried to do before,� said Rhinehart. �I've heard it said that every computer before Watson is nothing but a big calculator. And I think there's a lot of truth in that.�
Learn more about Enterprise Content Management
Check out Craig Rhinehart�s blog
Check out the Enterprise Content Management blog
Gain insight into the ECM Forum at Information On Demand 2011
About the author
Guest blogger Wes Simonds worked in IT for seven years before becoming a technology writer on topics including virtualization, cloud computing and service management. He lives in sunny Austin, Texas and believes Mexican food should always be served with queso.
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