What is ECM?

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is the skeleton of your document storage, management, organization, and distribution. Learn about what it is, why your business needs it, the best solutions and more.

Enterprise content management, as a practice, was established with the intention of connecting people, processes, and technology together meaningfully. The explosion of cloud resources, SaaS, PaaS, and all the other as-a-service solutions combined with advanced back-end processes has simultaneously connected the business world and created data silos that prevent maximum agility. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that the volume, velocity, and variety of information within most organizations has exceeded our ability to even marginally keep pace with big content challenges.

In all of this information chaos, finding a way to simply connect content and data together across your organization can be exhausting. How do you stay compliant? Is there a way to capture, store, and utilize data appropriately across all of your systems? How do you map out a content chain that makes sense and delivers consistency across the content lifecycle? Do you wish there was a way to glue both content and data to the appropriate channels?

Enterprise content management helps businesses of all sizes and types around the world capture, analyze, distribute, store, and utilize content and data effectively. So, how does it work? What can you take away from enterprise content management, and how can you plan to build your own enterprise content management ecosystem?

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What is Enterprise Content Management (ECM)?

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ECM Definition

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is the strategies, methods and tools used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and documents related to organizational processes. It's the architecture that glues your documents and business content together — making them searchable, explorable, organized, and ultimately meaningful.
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Where is ECM Used?

ECM has a place in many levels of business, from software to processes to strategies. ECM needs to be able to capture content streams across channels (text, video, audio, etc.) But, ECM should also organize, categorize, and structure all of that content in a meaningful, easily explorable manner.

What a Dynamic Enterprise Management System Should Be Able to Do

In the past, we've always referred to enterprise content management's ability to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver. But, for the purposes of clarity let's settle on a different acronym. A dynamic enterprise management system should be able to do CAMPS, or:

  • Capture: A smart enterprise content management solution should be capable of entering content into the system intelligently. This means digitizing paper documents, cataloging video and audio, and managing documents across value segments (i.e., contracts, invoices, marketing materials, etc.)

  • Analyze: With all of these documents and contact types now entered into the system, you need to be able to explore these documents in a sophisticated manner. ECM should be able to extract and infer metadata and create bridges between unstructured content and search capabilities.

  • Map: Creating a pathway between business needs and document storage requires mapping. Content needs to be stored optimally, retrieved intelligently, and extracted uniquely. By mapping content out, ECM not only organizes — but optimizes — your content library.

  • Preserve: Content archiving is mission-critical for compliance and regulatory reasons. Typically, content is saved when changes are made, so content that requires few human touch points risks being removed for space in the cloud. Enterprise content management involves improving archive content across channels to keep crucial content protected — as well as all subsequently connected data sources.

  • Store: Finding content a home within your IT architecture is essential for visibility, preservation, and security. Enterprise content management involves gluing content to specific systems (both SaaS and on-site.) This makes content retrieval natural — since each component is nailed to its parent system and roles are spread amongst multiple systems.

It's best to think of enterprise content management as a sequence of data collection and distribution that overlays your existing systems. This means that business process management, archiving, imaging, document management, collaboration, web content management, records management, and digital asset management all act as streams that can supply data to the enterprise content management warehouse, which then organizes, analyzes, and distributes this content amongst cloud resources, on-site storage systems, and information systems.


Of course, transactional content management, social content management, and infrastructure content management may be solutions that exist within the framework of enterprise content management, but they aren't ECM solutions in themselves. Instead, they act as pillars that provide structure to the ECM architecture. Enterprise content management encompasses these features but also acts as the glue that binds them together with meaning.

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The History of Enterprise Content Management

The history of enterprise content management is as complicated as it is brief. Up until the early 1990s, document management was a relatively simple process — requiring only space, filing cabinets for retention, and a few shredders for deletion. In fact, most document management was handled by a few key employees in a storage room. The idea and subsequent term enterprise content management didn't float into the business space until the early 2000s — where one significant invention changed the pace of business permanently.

Physical files before ECM

The 1990s

Like a hurricane of untapped potential, personal computers arrived in offices in the early 90s. Suddenly, file management and distribution weren't as simple as tucking a few files away in a dusty filing cabinet. Now, thousands of files were arriving daily, each existing in a fractured environment on hard drives. Businesses now faced the challenge of managing multiple channels of data attribution and storage simultaneously. To combat this, early document management solutions were designed to handle digital file management and capture for simple internet solutions (e.g., email, Microsoft Word, etc.)


The Early to Mid-2000s

For a time, the information chaos was contained with these early document management systems. Both physical and digital files were maintained, organized, and stored correctly.

By the turn of the millennium, advances in technology had led to a massive shift away from physical towards digital. Many businesses found they could no longer keep up with the surging volume and variety of content being created daily. This called for a new way of managing information. AIIM answered the call in the year 2000 by coining the term “Enterprise Content Management” and defining the methodologies and best practices required for capturing, analyzing, mapping, preserving and storing information in this new era. 


Innovation in the industry led to a new business Goliath — collaborative systems, like SharePoint. For companies, SharePoint was a beacon of productivity and collaboration. But, it was also a significant architect of data and documents. Suddenly, businesses were handling multiple information silos. Document updates between enterprise content management systems and SharePoint were lackluster, and collaboration efforts were stagnated by document version mismatches and system confusion. At the same time, operational tensions between document openness, collaboration, and governance were fracturing infrastructures and creating data drains.


To combat this, the next wave of content management tools were established. But, with these new tools, came a new form of enterprise content management. It was no longer "good enough" to merely handle, organize, and store documents. Businesses needed a robust architecture that could layer all of these data sources and documents and glue them to multiple customer and business channels.


The Death of ECM

The thought process workflow driving enterprise content management has changed. What started off as a way to combine physical and digital resources together coherently has become the architecture that ensures data storage, retrieval, organization, mapping, and attribution across your organization. This means that the modern ECM approach has to be capable of layering itself over your existing information systems (e.g., SaaS, PaaS, on-site servers, etc.) Today, ECM is an umbrella term for all of these processes that handle documents and data.


The rise of cloud technology and its subsequent as-a-service children have not only increased the necessity for enterprise content management, but they have also helped guide ECM into a new era. Enterprise content management no longer refers to a software set, system, or strategy of managing content. Instead, enterprise content management is the skeleton of your business’s entire document strategy.


In 2017, Gartner announced that ECM — as a terminology — was dead.


ECM is now dead (kaput, finite, an ex-market name), at least in how Gartner defines the market. 
It's been replaced by the term Content Services.   
- Gartner


At AIIM, we've been making a case for an evolved response to content management for years (see our 2015 report "Content Management 2020: Thinking Beyond"). It's not that the core principles driving ECM have changed; they haven't. Businesses still need solutions that help the end user manage the complex interaction between people, processes, and technology. But, the ways that they realize these solutions is evolving with technology, processes, and modern strategies.


In particular, data has radically changed the approachability of the term ECM. Since ECM was originally heavily focused on documentation, trying to position data into the mappings of ECM is difficult. 


The "monolithic" ECM system doesn't fit into the modern business architecture. Not only are businesses changing the ways that they utilize content and data to define customer experiences, but data now plays a role in every significant business decision. And all of those documents are spread out across multiple frameworks and systems.


You have customer data spread out across an extensive architecture (e.g., CRM solutions, ERP solutions, etc.) multiple technologies (e.g., SaaS, PaaS, cloud, etc.) and a plethora of documents that exist across your IT pipeline, and all of that data and content is incredibly fluid and agile.


In other words, data needs in today’s business world are too broad for a single ECM solution. Meaning that the term "enterprise content management" doesn't adequately describe all of the content-based efforts that enterprises are managing and all of the systems being used.


 In fact, we ran a survey in 2016 "ECM – State of the Industry - 2016" where 38% of respondents either agreed to strongly agreed that ECM is no longer the correct language to define content management products.


The Rise of Content Services

 As of 2017, ECM mostly refers to the antiquated content drivers of the past. The industry needed a name for the more robust, complex umbrella that captures content across verticals and presents them modularly. Which leads us to Content Services.


Content services is a shift towards a more practical, modular set of solutions that deliver on the promise of ECM — capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver.


Businesses need the ability to deliver on the promise of impactful content and data management within their particular IT infrastructure. With all of the technology we're consuming and the cloud solutions that we all implement to create bigger, better business practices, trying to build a grand repository or single solution isn't only ineffective, it's likely impossible.


IT ecosystems differ from brand-to-brand, and so does content and data utilization. Trying to shove your practices and technologies into the same box as other businesses won't work. You need to breed independent, specific practices and utilize the correct technology for your particular tech stack. 


While the terminology change from enterprise content management to content services helps de-solidify some of the antiquities baked into the ECM, it doesn't fully capture the complexity of the modern business's digitally transformative needs.

IIM Chart

Introducing Intelligent Information Management (IIM)

At AIIM, we've overcome this linguistic challenge by coining the phrase: Intelligent Information Management (IIM) — where data across business channels is captured, managed, stored, preserved, and delivered as part of a strategy, method, and tool


So, instead of thinking about content management as the umbrella that helps you manage and capture documents and data. You should think about IIM as a way to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver data and documents modularly across multiple technologies via multiple technologies.


With modern solutions like IoT, blockchain, and especially automation, the rigidity of enterprise content management is no longer suitable to sustain the influx of all of these different technologies and their impact on the data and documentation process.

IIM provides the following key capabilities:

1. Content Services: IIM delivers a flexible and modular approach that utilizes content and information whenever and wherever it's needed. This is independent of any legacy ECM preoccupation of where the content is actually stored.

2. Process Services: IIM focuses on process tools that can be delivered with the simplicity of an app, but within a manageable and controllable framework.

3. Analytic Services: IIM gives businesses the roadmap for automation of information — both structured, unstructured, and data-driven.


The most important takeaway from IIM is that it gives businesses the ability to rapidly adopt and utilize new technologies, but it isn't confined by technology itself. Instead, IIM encompasses the business improvements that enable technology and acts as a driver of document and data awareness and manageability.

For the purposes of this paper, we'll continue to refer to this architecture as enterprise content management. Though “dead,” it is a commonly used term.

If you would like to understand why we are promoting a change in linguistics and terminology, check out our free e-book on the evolution of enterprise content management and why we've arrived at IIM.

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Why Do Businesses Use Enterprise Content Management?

The Four C's

For businesses, enterprise content management isn't as much as an optimization tool as it is a document response process. The real power of enterprise content management is that it can overlay all of your existing structures without disrupting data flow. It's like having x-ray specs for your content distribution and organization. The benefits of ECM for businesses can be explained using the four Cs.

Compliance: Enterprise content management gives businesses the power to sift through data and high-value documents by metadata and attributes and treat that data according to its regulatory necessity. Not only does ECM open up regulatory pathways by promoting consistent data safety and retrieval, but it gives you the ability to archive content and data automatically by need.

Collaboration: Connecting employees in the workspace requires digital agility. While most businesses have some form of digital collaboration, many of these exist in silos. Enterprise content management layers connectivity on top of these existing resources and allows adequate data flow between them. So, employees working on multiple projects get updated documents and duplication issues are avoided. ECM powers collaboration through documentation.

Continuity: How do you organize and manage content and data across all of your systems? With IoT sensor data, SaaS content, file platforms, cloud servers, and legacy systems existing in data silos across your workflow, you need to find a way to map all of these data points and content types to one skeleton. That's the power of enterprise content management. It gives you the tools necessary to create a deep tissue content and data management architecture.

Cost: Enterprise content management helps create revenue streams, conserve critical data, and produce value throughout your content lifecycle. Ultimately, this means a better ROI. This ROI can be bucketed in a variety of ways — compliance, access, retrieval, lifecycle value, connectedness, and so forth, but there are certainly returns across the ECM value chain.

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What Types of Businesses Are Benefiting from Enterprise Content Management?

Not every business needs a large, enterprise-sized system that captures and holds documents to apply ECM processes. Justifying a documentation process of scale probably isn't cost effective or necessary for many small businesses. But, ECM still encompasses your content and data organization in your existing architecture, including SaaS systems, IoT, Office 365, and any other technology of scale. So, there is value in enterprise content management for almost all (if not all) businesses.

Let's detail each and get granular with some of the benefits.


ECM is an important and valuable funnel. To start, enterprises typically have an excessive need for better data management (especially in an age where data flow is nearly infinite), and enterprises have the capital to invest in some of the more sophisticated ECM tools.

Finding a way to net all these data points into a smaller stream is crucial for most businesses with scale. But, enterprises need to be careful about adopting an ECM strategy that's one-size-fits-all. Often there are too many silos, too much data, and too many systems for a single solution to map. Enterprises should think of enterprise content management as a skeleton for their existing systems and a blueprint for system integration moving forward. This encompasses discovering an appropriate taxonomy, rethinking existing structures and legacy systems, and even planning out how digital workspaces fit into this overarching equation.

It's important to remember that the scope of ECM goes well beyond products and services. For example, ECM can come in the form of fraud prevention, security, and compliance. For many enterprises, ECM systems can provide immediate resolutions.

Small-to-Medium Sized Businesses

For small-to-medium sized businesses, finding value in ECM may seem far-fetched. Many of these businesses don't have the capital to purchase enterprise-grade ECM systems, and this may dissuade these businesses from thinking about their content strategy. It is important to remember that you don't need to pour your business's "life's savings" into an IBM solution to garner value from enterprise content management. You need to rewire how you perceive ECM. Start small. You don't have to digitize your entire business with the latest-and-greatest trendy solution to make significant deep changes to the way you handle content management. 

Here's a three step process to discovering what ECM works for you.

1. Identify your needs. Do you have too many data silos? Are you looking for a way to automate some document capture processes? Are you looking for a platform to grow collaboration and data storage? Is cloud adoption in the works? You have to know where you're at to start planning your ECM strategy. It won't happen in a day, and you should certainly play it safe. But, adopting ECM solutions can be incredibly cost-effective and help prevent revenue leakage for smaller businesses.

2. Map these goals against the Intelligent Information Management roadmap.

3. Understand what solution providers work within your budget, needs, and roadmap. Now, find an enterprise management solution for small businesses that understands these needs.


Growth Stage Businesses

There are businesses that exist in limbo; small, yet ready to conquer their space and scale rapidly. How do you possibly utilize an umbrella architecture for data distribution if your systems, tools, and content are evolving rapidly? To invest in any type of infrastructure regarding data — beyond compliance — seems complicated and risky during hyper-scale.

If this is how you're thinking about enterprise content management in the growth stage, you need to rethink that train of thought. Not only are businesses in the growth stage well adapted to onboarding an ECM strategy, but they're in the perfect position to use content management to prepare for eventual ECP systems.

Here's the great thing about being in the growth stage -- you're on a fresh slate. You don't have existing legacy systems and antiquated physical content complicating every decision. Instead, you have the clarity and agility to rapidly adapt and scale operations, without the fear of data loss.

ECM not only gives growing businesses the ability to manage their content and data across streams and optimize connectivity and collaboration, but there aren't existing systems introducing frictions into that process as there would be with most enterprises.

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ECM Software & Solutions Overview

Since enterprise content management involves technologies used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and documents related to organizational processes, creating an ECM solution requires some key steps to implement effectively.

Remember, enterprise content management is not a singular technology, tool, or strategy. This means that developing a suitable ECM system will require a broad look at your organizational needs and goals and gluing them to a set of processes. The most common drivers fueling ECM solutions are document management, retrieval, and risk reduction.

But, how do you create an enterprise content management system in an ecosystem that requires document and data fluidity across a plethora of systems?

ECM outline

What Does an ECM System Look Like?

Pinning down what an ECM system looks like is difficult. To be clear, ECM solutions differ by organization. In the past, ECM systems were likely contained in an enterprise-wide suite of systems and tools. For many, the idea of a "golden" enterprise content management system that exists as a single entity is still desirable (54% were still planning to create one in 2017). But, for the vast majority of organizations, that idea will never come to fruition. Data is spread too wide. Emerging technologies and multiple vendor products create loosely integrated systems, and data silos have become normalized across industries.

Today, an ECM system often looks more like a bundle of modular technologies and strategies. Some organizations realize the value of "two-tiered ECM" — where an overall enterprise-wide system provides a parent portal into more diverse departmental or specialist systems. But, for most businesses, an effective content management solution will be modular, contain multiple processes, and may be linked to automation structures.

So, an ECM system should consist of solutions that help you organize your digital workflows, while simultaneously streamlining documentation and data processes across your organization's technology architecture. It's best to think of ECM (and content management and IIM) as the skeleton of your business needs, not as a suite of technologies.

Is an ECM Solution Always Electronic?

A common misconception regarding ECM is that it's an electronic "thing." Like a suite of tools or a bundle of SaaS offerings. But, ECM has never been synonymous with a current set of ECM technologies. Sure, technology is an important part of ECM, especially when it comes to the evolution and fluidity of content management. But, enterprise content management is much more than technology. It's the business goals, strategies, and processes that help guide you towards effective content and data capture, management, storage, preservation, and delivery.

ECM exists outside of technology, though technology is undoubtedly contained within its scope. In fact, you can set up an ECM solution without electronic equipment — though its capabilities would be heavily limited.

Note: An important caveat here is that content services and IIM are hinged to technology — ECM is not.

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What Are The Best ECM Solutions?

When you're first approaching ECM, it can be all-too-easy to fall into the trap of focusing on vendor selection as the guiding force to ECM. The mentality that you can "purchase" enterprise content management is a pitfall you will undoubtedly want to avoid. But, most businesses will utilize some blend of vendor technology to realize content services at some level in their organization.

So, which vendors are the best? What's the easiest way for you to purchase a ticket to ECM land?

Good question. Unfortunately, we don't have an answer. Or, at least, it's probably not the answer you want.

There is no "best" ECM solution. There are only the best solutions for your particular situation. You may need vendor software that helps you realize automation throughout your data capture and retrieval process. Or, you may need cloud document management software that helps you preserve and realize data throughout fractured cloud ecosystems.

When and where ECM is applicable to your organization is dependent upon your organization. But, the processes that drive ECM are immediately applicable to your business. The solutions, on the other hand, they are not.

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5 Frictions and Trends in Enterprise Content Management

As we arrive in 2019, the complexity of content and data management in the business world has created increasingly dynamic and broad definitions of enterprise content management. So, let's look at some of the trends that are reshaping enterprise content management and creating new terminologies, processes, vendor solutions, and business practices.

1. Digitally Transformative Journey

In "The State of Intelligent Information Management: Getting Ahead of the Digital Curve," AIIM made the case that every organization is currently on a digitally transformative journey. With all of the new technologies and data management processes, trying to bake your brand DNA into digital transformation (or "disruptiveness") is crucial towards surviving the digital age.

At the heart of this journey, there are four core traits:

1. Using data and content to understand, anticipate, and redefine the internal and external customer experience.

2. Achieving business agility and innovation through the use of modular technologies.

3. Garnering operational excellence from your processes, needs, goals, and methods.

4. Discovering ways to automate compliance and governance needs within your data pipeline.

These four traits have positioned ECM as a solution that's granular first and broad second. This means that businesses should be focusing on the core processes and methods that drive ECM, and using the technologies that bolster ECM when and where applicable.

2. Progressive Technology (IoT, Blockchain, and Automation)

The most obvious "disruptions" in the ECM space come in the form of progressive technologies like IoT, blockchain, and automation. All of these new movements in tech have created additional ecosystems that ECM needs to respond to in the immediate and long-term.

Automation and machine learning create new methods of capturing, indexing, and retrieving data and content. IoT creates new influxes of raw data from customer touchpoints that need to be approached and handled uniquely. And, blockchain offers alternatives to traditional data storage that require additional flexibility and visibility.

3. Regulatory Complexities

With the rise of GDPR and similar data compliance bodies, finding a way to automate and monitor data compliance across your entire IT framework is mission-critical for businesses that want to stay profitable yet compliant. The ways that organizations handle their data is changing, which means the ways that organizations capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver that content is also changing.

4. Cloud

The move from physical serves to cloud architectures has completely redefined the ways that businesses directly handle data. With cloud continuing to rise in adoption, finding ways to achieve complete visibility across your cloud servers is critical. With all of these tools in your tech stack connected to the cloud, traceability and preservation can be difficult, especially when accounting for stale data and archival.

5. Customer Experience

Data is no longer about direct business needs. Instead, data has become the fuel for customer-centric experiences. This move towards customer-first data utilization requires careful attention to the ways that we think about data attribution. Finding ways to hinge data to every piece of your infrastructure requires a blend of rigidity in operations and fluidity in technology.

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Are You Ready to Transform Your Business?

Enterprise content management is the skeleton of your document storage, management, organization, and distribution. It helps you capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and data throughout your organization. While marketing companies and vendors may push the idea that enterprise content management is synonymous with technologies that enable it, ECM is not a singular technology, tool, or strategy. Instead, ECM is the umbrella under which useful content and data management happens.

As new technologies and business needs arise, the terminology "enterprise content management" is slowly being replaced by both content services and intelligent information management (IIM). While both of these terms are similar to enterprise content management, they are evolutions that incorporate the modern need for data-emphasis in the ECM lifecycle.

ECM solutions aren't monolithic, and applying solutions to your ECM framework requires a modular, granular approach to effective document and data management.

As we head steadily into the future of ECM, we want to make it clear that ECM isn't an ineffective term, nor is it incomplete. We want to move forward with terminology that helps guide ECM into a future that understands the need for modularity, ad-hoc processes, and digitally transformative experiences — intelligent information management (IIM).

What's the Next Step?

Knowing all of this, are you ready to transform your business?

Here are the first steps towards realizing your ECM solution:

  1. Design your ECM plan. At AIIM, we offer a broad range of ECM training courses that can help you familiarize yourself with ECM and become an expert at designing your own ECM map.

  2. Protect your assets. You need to understand what content and data your organization needs to manage and what types of solutions will help you effectively manage that content and data. Not sure where to start? Check out our toolkit "How to Determine the Right Type of Taxonomy for Your Business."

  3. Get management to buy in. Do you have a CIO, an information manager, or an information governance board? You need to align data responsibility to business objectives and get management to buy into both the tools and processes.

  4. Communicate with stakeholders. Align stakeholder visions to your project. Make sure that you know your future goals and what technologies and infrastructures you will be using. We offer a Buyers' Guide for those browsing for technologies and trying to find out exactly which ones will stick to their organization.

  5. Get to know your content. An information survey will provide a present-state of what your content is and where it's located within your organization and how well that is aligned with your business needs.

  6. Make the project real. A business case will help you describe the benefits of ECM to management — in both qualitative and quantitative terms.

  7. Know what you need. Building out a requirement document will help you keep your project focused and ensure that you implement technology that's appropriate for your specific organizational needs.

  8. Make it easy to find content. A business classification scheme (BCS) allows users to find, share, and file documents. This will help you structure your uses for organizing, accessing/retrieving, storing, and managing your information.

  9. Get everyone on the same train. You need to get everyone involved in the implementation process, including during the demo or trial phases of ECM solutions.

  10. Align the technology pieces. You need to use a structured framework for analysis when you're planning, managing, and operating your ECM. This means understanding how all of your IT components (e.g., data centers, cloud, SaaS, etc.) fit into your ECM solution.

  11. Ensure the project will work. By using a Model Office, you can run a pilot test on the ECM solution by selecting users to incorporate your ECM solution/s into their workflow. Then, you can start to spread the solution/s across your business.

  12. Implement your project. When you're rolling the project out, make sure to effectively communicate all changes and rally your employees behind the new technology and processes.

  13. Know what's next! You want to keep up-to-date on all ECM solutions and processes. The world of content management is constantly changing (as you've seen.)

Want to dive deeper into how to implement an ECM system? Check out the full 14 step guide here.

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