Interview: Alfresco, Open Systems and Content Management's Inflection Point

A longer version of this Q&A first appeared in CMSWire.

Alfresco believes that we're hitting an inflection point in content management.

Enterprise content management (ECM) might be dying as a market segment, but the pace of innovation and change within the content management industry has been dramatic. Over the next few weeks, we’ll repost interviews by Lane Severson of industry leaders from IBM, Veeva, Microsoft and others to hear their thoughts on the changes taking place in the content management industry.

This first Q&A is with Ankur Laroia, who is the technology evangelist and a digital transformation leader at Alfresco Software, Inc., an open source ECM platform.

Globalization, hyper convergence and the cloud now affect all companies.

Lane Severson: It’s an exciting time in the content management industry. Businesses are adopting capabilities like cloud, open source software (OSS), machine learning, as well as innovative ways of working, like DevOps and Agile, to experiment and deploy new solutions more quickly. It seems like we might be at an inflection point. What are you seeing that gets you excited these days?

Ankur Laroia: We live in exciting times. Globalization, hyper convergence and the cloud have made disruption of traditional business models by smaller, more tech-savvy players possible. In 1975, around 17 percent of the market value of the S&P 500 was attributed to “intangible assets.” By 2005 this proportion had risen to 80 percent—and is holding steady.

The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading U.S. companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University. Today's rate of change, he says, "is at a faster pace than ever." Given this backdrop, organizations will have to transform or die. It's not “grow or die”—but transform or die.

Open systems and the cloud are more secure than on-premise deployments.

Severson: When I think about the issues that come up every time I talk to a client, information security and customer privacy are at the top of the list. There’s still concern in a lot of organizations that using OSS and cloud platforms are less secure options. What do you tell folks?

Laroia: It is counterintuitive. OSS and cloud are inherently more secure than on-premises deploys. Take recent breaches: all are on-premises deployments.

That’s not to say that Cloud or OSS are bulletproof: there is no substitute for good IT governance. But the beauty of OSS is that there are tens of thousands of engineers and developers in the community looking at the code; when exploits are found, they are typically found by more than one person or entity.

Open System Software leads to rapid innovation at a more aggressive pace.

Severson: Another concern I hear in relation to OSS is there’s no product roadmap. On the one hand, you better have some killer developers in house. On the other hand, you are at the whims of the community to get product updates. It seems like this is a myth that just won’t stay debunked.

Laroia: Another great point. Think of the community as a flywheel, where innovative ideas are tested; disruptive models are minted; we release community builds at a much more aggressive pace. In [the Alfresco] model, only the best ideation survives and gets incorporated into our enterprise version(s). (See See Joe Shepley's An ECM Plan for the Bumpy Days Ahead.)

The way to move past content services marketing hype is to focus on modern business processes.

Severson: Gartner claimed last year that ECM is dead and "Content Services" are the way of the future. In my mind, ECM has always been a strategy that had a variety of technologies supporting it. Semantics aside, how do you see the content services approach providing value?

Laroia: Content services is a neat concept if one goes beyond the marketing hype. In order to achieve the benefits, you need nimble content services that were architected in this century, not 20-year-old, bloated cores with layers of wrappers that provide compatibility with newer capabilities. Cloud and an open, modern content services architecture make this possible. (See related CMSWire post: Are We Really Having the 'ECM Is Dead' Conversation Again?)

Process services are the vehicles by which intellectual property can be monetized.

Severson: A huge failure of content management projects in the past was the focus on just archiving a final copy of a piece of content after the business process was over. We talk to people all the time who haven’t received value from their investment in content management. But the magic happens when you combine flexible process engines and a scalable archive.

Laroia: I absolutely love how you put this. One of my customers, a Senior VP at a Fortune 20 global bank, said to me “when our intellectual property is at rest, it costs us money and it can also be perceived as a liability. That same IP in motion makes us money.”

Having an organic, wholesome platform where process, content and governance services inter-operate seamlessly with each other and other applications is a core value proposition. Process services are the vehicles by which intellectual property can be monetized.

Artificial intelligence in the cloud helps curate and inventory intellectual property trapped in legacy silos.

Severson: Let’s get speculative. Imagine a world where artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a common part of the toolkit. What would really good AI working in concert with all of these elements of content management look like?

Laroia: The fundamental ask of the knowledge worker hasn’t changed in the past decade. It [always] has been: “Please give me the information I care about, at the time I need it to get my work done.” It seems like such a simple ask, and yet, as strategists and practitioners, we appreciate the nuances required. With the advent of AI—especially AI engines in the cloud that leverage deep learning networks—we can curate, inventory and provide context to intellectual property that’s trapped in legacy siloes. Leveraging AI engines to identify redundant, obsolete and trivial data is useful for a litany of business and technical reasons.

We’ll be re-posting more of Lane Severson’s Q&A series in the coming weeks.

More Doculabs resources about ECM and content services.

Joe Shepley also recently looked at the ECM industry landscape: Stop Worrying About ECM Vendors: It’s All About Your Approach.

For more on Doculabs approach to Enterprise Content Management, click here.

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Rich Medina
Lane Severson
I’m a Practice Leader, managing relationships with Doculabs’ West Coast clients to improve information management and security.