Beyond the Sparkling Lights of Technology Nirvana

SOLUTION - Information Management


Kevin Long, Principal - Noah Consulting

The newest Enterprise Content Management (ECM) technology is front and center on the IT stage this month. That is right – probably the most prominent ECM platform was celebrated at the SharePoint Conference 2014 in Las Vegas. Bill Clinton gave the keynote address the Microsoft evangelists were in attendance, and all within the comfy confines of Sin City. The conference highlighted the blends of social media offerings, cloud services, and feature rich ECM being realized through an always-expanding universe of information technology.

Chances are that your company will invest in a conference or two this year and employees will return home eager to implement the latest tech in an effort to maximize company efficiency. That is why it is crucial to look past the neon lights, the dancing waters of the Bellagio, and the glamour of the software nirvana and strongly consider why all of that noise even exists. No, it is not for the conference swag. It is about the business problems and processes that make all of those shiny tools necessary.

These days, when access to “technically validated information” (consultant term) is critical to making better business decisions, access to the right information by the right people at the right time can often make multiple millions of dollars’ worth of difference. Now that we have a keen grasp of the obvious, what is next?

Buzzkill, I know thee well! However, it is better to have the sobering moment now. The alternative could be a bad implementation later, when an ECM strategy is driven by a technology instead of the business requirements, people, processes, and governance that need to be supported. Retrofitting software to accommodate ill-defined requirements is usually the fix to the software (cart) preceding the user (horse). It can also feel like a highway project with everlasting construction and (road) rage.

In energy, the asset lifecycle is standardized into stages depending on the industry. For E&P, the lifecycle stages are planning, drilling, completing, producing, and disposing. For power generation, they are planning, designing, building, operating, maintaining, and optimizing. Regardless of the asset type, the way information is managed within those stages may vary significantly. Thus, a proper ECM approach requires diligence to synchronize and prioritize between not just the systems, but also the people and processes. This is especially true since information management can encompass a large user base, cross-cutting the asset lifecycle. Developing formal requirements along with a roadmap to baseline expectations and methods for fulfilling the data management strategy is, therefore, essential. 

Whether you use SharePoint, Documentum, or FileNet, enabling a strong ECM environment is more about a holistic look at the business problem than the multiple tech options on the table – let alone the emoticon features enabled through, say, Yammer (new to SharePoint). Within your company, it is best to ensure everyone’s compass is pointing the same direction with ECM, so thought leaders and stakeholders will not take divergent paths.

Therefore, a common vision is crucial to the success of building an electronic file solution. Since asset file data, in both structured and unstructured formats, is housed and managed by various people across a multitude of systems, you may struggle to achieve proper information management without a unified vision. The agreed-to vision will probably culminate in a formalized IT document, as if the world needed another document. In fact, just creating the document will most likely take on several ghost writers, a dozen meetings to review the wording, and enough politicking so that no one even sneezes at the final control board. However, the point of the vision document is not for publication or even mass readership. The vision is much more effective as a framework around stakeholder requirements and as a driver toward business processes improvement with ECM. A proper company consensus on information management empowers data strategies and helps realize the value of software solutions.

After the vision document, business requirements and a roadmap are the non-technical essentials. The requirements and roadmap provide insight into gaps between projects, overlap between functions, and ultimately encourage a single-minded approach toward implementation, rather than an IT de jour approach to solution sets.

With your requirements and roadmap in place, you will still find many viable technical options. Content management software is available with a vast array of out-of-the-box capabilities, including portal, search, collaboration, records management, and social media. Capabilities within the software can easily be extended to support almost any information lifecycle, and obtaining customized features is far less complicated than it has been in the past. The mix of enabled capabilities will depend upon your company’s needs and the type of information created and consumed by its users.

A couple of years ago, a client implementing an ECM solution in support of engineering design had users experiencing unusually long wait times when opening a particular project folder. The amount of content in the folder was not too large, but the child folders were numerous. In fact, there were so many child folders and so many users, that the authentication taking place each time a user drilled down the folder structure was killing performance. This example points out how both technical and non-technical factors can impact the solution. In this case, the relevant factors were the software’s authentication process and the lack of governance applied to folder management.

Probably the most maligned, yet most required non-technical aspect of ECM is governance. If an information management solution is going to work, a governance model is needed to sustain the environment. Like all things, proper data governance is a balancing act. The proper balance must be found between overhead versus productivity. Put too many controls on an organization, and excessive resources are spent on audits rather than business. Put too few controls in place, and a company’s digital assets are wasted through one-time use, data storage costs, duplicated effort, or prolonged time-to-analysis. Striking the right balance is crucial.

So before your next conference-induced high, or shortly after it, consider tuning your ECM strategy to be based on the non-technical factors first. This will help establish the proper foundation to ensure business, organization, IT, and data requirements align. Whether your company uses an existing solution or is looking to implement a new one, the definition of the non-technical may enable technical enlightenment. That is when what happens in Vegas, with ECM, may translate beyond the desert.


Kevin Long:

Kevin Long, a Principal with Noah Consulting, is a skilled technologist and information manager.   He has more than 20 years of experience in IT, including work in E&P, human space flight, and the financial sector.  This has included projects specific to enterprise architecture, document management, data governance, server & storage administration, and information aggregation.  Kevin earned his bachelor degree from Stephen F. Austin State University and is known to drink coffee to excess.

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