Enterprise Content Management: A Foundation for Useful Information

ECM systems, with their ability to process different formats of information, give CIOs a governance framework.

by / January 13, 2010
Building Enterprise Content Management Systems Illustration by iStockphoto.com/Yacobchuk

At its most fundamental level, government is in the business of information. Yet it's one thing to collect information, and quite another to make it useful. As simple and humble as it sounds, "usefulness" of information and systems has emerged as the gold standard. Unfortunately the sharing and usefulness of information in government are still in their infancy, according to a number of public CIOs.

Many municipalities have Web sites that are essentially billboards to push out information. Some of these sites do have capabilities, such as forms, to pull in information. While these sites are more useful than billboards, they are still far from providing true collaboration -- and useful communication -- with constituents.

Public communication is just one problem. What about internal communications? Many CIOs face quite a tangle of departments, policies, information silos and systems, including legacy equipment. And unfortunately, legacy systems prolong legacy attitudes.

Critical to government is control and security. The challenge is to both control information while allowing it to be processed and accessed appropriately. This is where the role of IT and automation can shine, especially if compliance and e-discovery requirements are incorporated.

Managing information assets is the key to the allocation and delivery of services, but how do we get there? Establishing a channel to allow the free flow of information is fundamental to these efforts. While security is important, locking down content isn't going to enable anything or anyone.

Governance Through ECM

Let's talk about usefulness and start thinking about enabling enterprisewide information management. Let's also talk about governance as where we want to go.

If we consider usefulness to be the gold standard, then government needs information governance as a framework to make information truly useful -- ultimately allowing better services to citizens.

This framework consists of information, information management, process management and risk management. From a technology planning prospective this sounds rather overwhelming. A good, "useful" tactical start here would be to begin a needs analysis that leads to the implementation of a content management application. It's not the answer to all information governance issues, but it is a big push in the right direction.

Enterprise content management (ECM) has moved way beyond the old finding-and-filing days to a technology that not only manages information, but processes it as well. In some of the most innovative uses I've seen, ECM serves as an integrative middleware, which certainly speaks to its agility. It can manage information without regard to its source or use, or it can be the uniform repository for all types of information assets. ECM allows information to be truly useful is a foundational component of information governance.

Specific to ECM in government, there are four forces that are driving the adaptation of the enterprise approach of planning and deploying content management:

  • the compounding growth of content generated by government and citizens;
  • the need to integrate that content within their work processes;
  • the need to support user content access and collaboration within multiple systems; and
  • the need to maintain governance and control over content to ensure security of information and regulatory compliance.

Building High-Impact ECM

So how do you get started? Begin with a governance committee. While it sounds like a grand notion, consensus building and a common approach to knowledge management capabilities are crucial. Rather than approaching it as a burden, look at it as exercising positive control over your methods, data and systems. Include department heads, legal, records management and, of course, the IT staff. Of special note should be the departments that sit horizontally across your organization. The more buy-in you get, the less likely you'll have to deal with the siloed "

it's my way or the highway" attitudes.

This common approach will allow you to develop standards. While sometimes difficult to get to, standards make everyone's life easier. Start by standardizing your metadata across applications. Establish best practices and be willing to let them evolve. Next, build your use cases and see to it that you can enable functional, repeatable processes that take user preferences into account. Interoperability is the key here. In order to do this, you'll need flexibility and agility in your ECM application.

The goal is to enable an ECM architecture that allows activities to have high-impact on operations or services. High impact can be as simple as getting rid of a storeroom of paper or as complicated as letting citizens purchase copies of accident reports via the Web. Some departments might only want search and retrieval, some might require workflows, some might be required to do a lot of forms processing and some might need external access to the system through Microsoft's SharePoint.

Used in these ways, ECM becomes an integrative middleware within your enterprise. It can not only enable processes, but also generate innovative solutions. For example,

  • IT staff for Okotoks, Alberta, uses ECM as a permitting application that generates revenue. By setting up a simple workflow through the city's Records, Clerk's and Finance offices, permit requests now come in through the city Web site; the permit is automatically processed, paid for and issued.
  • York County, Pa.'s Central Booking uses a video arraignment booth and a custom e-form to automate prisoner processing and case distribution through its ECM system.
  • In Bakersfield, Calif., IT Director Bob Trammel has integrated the city's enterprise resource planning and ECM systems so work crews can keep track of costs associated with each graffiti clean-up. In the process, they create what amounts to graffiti mug shots, which the police can use to arrest repeat offenders -- and which the prosecutor can use to mount a civil case against the tagger's family to recoup cleanup costs.

Last, But Not Least: Controls

Finally, you're also going to have to have all of your controls in place. These include security, compliance and records management. An elegant way to approach this is that all of these controls should be transparent to your users. Good governance is transparent. Regarding your ECM strategy, it should allow information control but give users the flexibility they need to do their work. Putting the power in the user's hands will lower the burden on your staff; enable the user to make better, faster decisions and ultimately better citizen services.


Kimberly Samuelson Contributing Writer
Kimberly Samuelson joined Laserfiche in 2001 as a regional manager. She has served the company in several roles, including creative director and director of government marketing.
Platforms & Programs