That is caused partially by disruptive technology and business models, which these days center on Web 2.0, where community-generated content, like wikis and blogs, is changing the content management game. But more fundamental to the ever expanding content management market is that its purpose is to deal with change and variety rather than predictability, with ideas and knowledge rather than data, and with the endless idiosyncrasies of human communication and collaboration rather than programmable logic.

Companies do well to look at content management as an enabler for their knowledge management strategy. And rather than existing separately from their established systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP), content management acts as an extension of those systems, allowing for exceptions to the repeatable processes governed by ERP, as well as recognizing and capturing processes and data that should be managed in those systems. At the same time, content management is an enabler for machine-to-human, human-to-machine and human-to-human collaboration and communication.

The human communication aspect of content management is surely an art, as is the deep information management foundation that supports it.

So, a seemingly trite but crucial point about ECM is that, in its infinite variety, it’s just plain hard. Vendors that have tried to go after the truly common denominators of content management demand, across industries and business processes, often look like little more than just another kind of database. A more expansive data repository is not nearly enough to solve the most pressing customer problems. Business initiatives—like improving knowledge worker productivity, product development and innovation, customer service and support, and sales and marketing, as well as addressing compliance—require purpose-built capture and delivery mechanisms, interfaces, business logic, analytics and often unique ways of handling data.

So, contrary to what you may have heard, not all content repositories are the same. Even this goes back to the development and growth of the content management market.

In principle, content management proposes to allow companies to manage information independent of its form, format or publishing medium, so that it’s accurate and synchronized across the many places it may appear, and so that presentation can be changed without changing the content’s meaning. Unfortunately, because of competitive factors, specific market demands and technology limitations of the past, many content management products have had to compromise that principle during their development and maturation.

To look more closely, the biggest, most successful and influential providers of content management in the enterprise were formed around two primary categories: document management (DM) and Web content management (WCM).

Document management

Document management systems typically handle content at a file level, organizing, versioning and integrating documents by using metadata, information about the content that’s generally stored separately from the content itself. In effect, document management systems grew not really to handle content but rather to manage the containers of content, like word processing files, scanned images and PDFs.

Document management systems developed that way for good reason. Managing the intricacies of the content in those containers was far too complicated for most companies to face. Furthermore, much of the early demand was to remove paper dependency, so a great deal of the content consisted of scanned document images, which were difficult to break down into content components.

And document management remains a useful and necessary approach in many situations, especially in managing paper—in the many places where paper remains an inescapable reality—and in managing rich media, which can also be difficult to break down into manageable content components.

Web content management

The emergence of the Web brought an urgent need for companies to establish a presence in a new environment, as well as a burgeoning new kind of content management provider. This time they knew the information would have to be published and updated dynamically, and that the same content elements were likely to be seen and viewed in various places. So managing content elements themselves, separate from form or format, was part of the fundamental architecture.

Unfortunately, Web content management was hugely hot and held unique new challenges, so we ended up with vendors that, despite the good architectural principles, supported the Web at the expense of other content management needs. Moreover, because it was new territory, vendors used various often-proprietary architectures and development languages.

The other two major growth categories are records management (RM) and digital asset management (DAM). Both of those essentially use document management techniques, yet were founded on different principles. Records management is specifically used to address a business issue. Digital asset management was largely created to deal with particularly hard-to-manage rich assets, like graphics and videos, which are more difficult than text to manage at any level of granularity, which often require greater bandwidth and networking capabilities, and which often carry an implication of intellectual or publishing rights property.

So, the four major, most successful categories of content management, having been founded on various principles, exhibit a great deal of overlap, especially in their infrastructure, and a great many gaps, especially in their readiness to suit specific, yet universal business needs. For instance, our customers are consistently surprised when ECM vendors don’t directly address product information management (PIM) or technical documentation management, and when they do, it’s only to provide repository level services, which any database could do.

Competitive factors

The overriding reason for ECM’s resistance to PIM and technical documentation, as well as other gaps in the platforms, is the constant pressure over the last 15 years or so for ECM vendors to distinguish themselves from powerful enterprise database vendors. Thus, they’ve continually asserted their expertise in managing growing masses of unstructured information.

But just as those database vendors are resolutely entering the content management space, the structured vs. unstructured argument is becoming moot. At the information management level, content management is largely an effort to bring structure to what was unstructured, so it can be easily searched for, analyzed, automated, audited, reused, associated with business records and delivered to the right audience. To support emerging needs, ECM platforms have to recognize that structured and unstructured exist on a continuum, and technology mechanisms like XML, metadata, search and even forms are already conspiring to permeate that outdated structured/ unstructured wall.

Next-generation CM

Enterprise content management is more art than science. At its highest level, it is what enables companies to communicate and collaborate with their many human constituencies. At an information management level, IT departments have to manage the growing mass and expanding variety of content at an appropriate level of granularity, allowing them to assert control when necessary or worthwhile, or to offer freedom and flexibility when not. That means that sometimes the systems will have to manage containers, and sometimes they’ll have to handle documents, paragraphs, sentences, clauses and even individual words. Sometimes they’ll handle text, sometimes graphics and voice, sometimes video and sometimes all of the above. Most importantly, they’ll have to manage the transition and transformation of content from one mode to another.

The critical business problems and initiatives that call for content management require an even more expansive accommodation for information, spanning everywhere from highly explicit data in enterprise systems to the tacit knowledge in people’s heads. The most successful companies in the world will use the art of content management to benefit from the skills, experience and expertise of their people: their employees, executives, partners, customers and consumers.

All this explains the resistance to complete consolidation in the content management market. It also explains why content management isn’t and won’t ever be generic and commoditized. Yet, while companies can’t expect a single vendor to do everything, they can effectively establish a framework that governs their content management investments and aligns them with enterprise business goals and initiatives.