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One File Cabinet to Rule Them All

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2005-05-04 Print this article Print

An enterprise content management system can function as a universal repository for every piece of data a company produces or receives. Today, though, most businesses use only individual slices of the content management pie.

Four years ago BioMérieux, a French manufacturer of medical diagnostic products, had millions of documents, in both paper and digital form, scattered across offices in 130 countries. And almost none of it was easy to access.

For example, R&D documentation was stored in three "huge file rooms, and it was all on paper," says Ted Walsh, an information-technology project manager at the BioMérieux North American division in Durham, N.C. "People couldn't get to the information quickly enough."

Even information in digital form was hard to access: Documents were in any of a dozen different places, including Lotus Notes databases, Windows file servers or on someone's desktop computer hard drive. "The business ran a whole lot slower," Walsh says.

In 2002, Walsh led a team that implemented a document management system from Open Text that now holds 200,000 documents in North America and 300,000 in Europe. The electronic documents filed in the system range from technical product specifications to packaging labels.

Now the company is phasing out its gargantuan file rooms. And, Walsh says, BioMérieux runs more quickly. For example, before the Open Text system went live, the company received, on paper, monthly results from a major clinical trial involving several hundred patients at three hospitals; teams of clerks then keyed the information into databases twice (to ensure accuracy). The process took 45 minutes per patient. By reading and storing the data from the paper documents in the Open Text system, BioMérieux cut that to 5 minutes. "We can get products out the door faster now," Walsh says.

Enterprise content management systems promise to provide a single repository to handle every type of "unstructured data"—information not organized in a dedicated database—that a company wants to throw at it. The point? Rather than maintain separate, disconnected systems for records, documents, images, Web pages or archived e-mail messages, companies can use an enterprise content management system to provide centralized services and make mountains of data more manageable. Such communal functions include controlling who's able to access or modify particular documents, tracking revisions to files and providing the ability to search for information using keywords.

Historically, however, content management products have been geared to specific tasks, such as handling access to digitized images of legal documents. In practice, most companies use a specific subset of the entire range of capabilities in enterprise content management suites to optimize certain business processes; for example, to publish documents on corporate Web sites (see "Streamlining the Team," p. 69).

Vendors such as EMC, FileNet, Interwoven, Open Text and Stellent have taken different paths to get to their current enterprise content management offerings, mainly by buying other software companies. Storage systems powerhouse EMC, for example, in 2003 bought Documentum, a document management specialist. These players are pushing the concept of managing multiple types of content under one umbrella system—no surprise, since they stand to fatten their wallets by broadening their reach into customers' networks.

But it's not entirely vendor hype. Customers say there are real benefits to storing everything in one big bucket.

Winthrop & Weinstine, a commercial law firm in Minneapolis, has found effective uses for its enterprise content management system. In 2000, Craig Wilson, the firm's manager of information systems, rolled out Web-based content management software from iManage (since acquired by Interwoven), primarily to share documents securely with clients over the Internet.

Last fall, Wilson expanded the system to file e-mail messages associated with individual cases. Previously, attorneys would print out an e-mail and hand the sheets to an assistant, who would lock them away in a cabinet; tracking it down later could take up to two weeks. "Now, every document and e-mail is available to the whole firm," he says. "It allows our practice groups to be more organized with the volume of e-mail everyone receives."

Plus, Wilson says, if the firm's lawyers choose to, they can easily share e-mails with clients via the Interwoven system's Web publishing capabilities.

Those who have deployed content management systems say it's critical to first establish a workable set of meta-data—information about documents, such as date of creation—to let employees find information more easily. That also means keeping that information as simple as possible, says Gary Williamson, director of information technology at Georgia System Operations, a utility in Tucker, Ga.

When the company first deployed Stellent's content management software, employees were forced to fill out 25 fields when checking documents into the system. "People were starting to resist it because it was cumbersome," Williamson explains. His team added a "check in similar" option to the system that automatically enters most of the meta-data information, which has greatly increased usage.

Meanwhile, many organizations aren't looking for the holy grail of content management—they just desperately need a better way of getting a handle on paper documents.

The Virginia Department of Taxation was "drowning in paper" in 2001, says CIO Farley Beaton. The state agency, which generated $11.5 billion in tax revenue last year, receives more than 2 million individual tax returns on paper annually.

In 2002, Beaton and his team installed a FileNet document management system that converts tax returns into electronic images. That alone let the agency reduce its peak-period staffing needs by 30%—to 150 additional employees per year—as well as nearly halve the warehouse space needed to store physical documents, from 48,000 square feet to 25,000. And it speeded up Virginia's turnaround on processing returns: According to Beaton, the state issued 95% of refunds within 12 days last year, compared with less than 85% in 2000.

As the CIO puts it: "The real driver for us is that everyone has instant access to the image of a tax return."

An enterprise content management system can function as a universal repository for every piece of data a company produces or receives—from product specifications and invoices to Web pages and e-mail. Today, though, most businesses use only individual slices of the content management pie.

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