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Q&A: The Future of Content Management

We know that big data is a big issue. Day by day, the data that businesses create is getting increasingly cumbersome and the value it contains is being outweighed by the complexity its management creates. This problem is one that John Newton has tackled over the last 25 years, first by designing and developing Documentum in the early Nineties and then with Alfresco, the world’s second largest open source enterprise content management company. John has had one of the longest and most influential careers in content management and he has invented many of the concepts widely used in the industry today.

How has the content and document management market changed since you started in the field?

Content and document management started really when the client/server revolution started to take off back in the late Eighties/early Nineties. Windows and Macs provided an environment to create more and more content and displacing mainframe applications. Storage at the time was limited to organising all those files using an eight letter name followed by a three letter extension. Information was considered 'Out of Control', but this was in a pre-Internet era and we had no idea how bad it actually would get. Software was very expensive to build back then without open source, so it is amazing to think we built Documentum on less than $20m.

Now things really are out of control. In an era of the Consumer Internet, everyone creates so much content on our personal machines and even our phones, but with consumer tools we have less control than ever before. We also need to connect processes end-to-end inside and outside organisations to survive a much more competitive world market. Now everything needs to be easy, intuitive, and very fast, and there is zero tolerance for either delay or paper. Open source is now the dominant way that software infrastructure is built and we saw an opportunity to build an open source and open standards platform to solve these problems.

Are organisations still facing the same challenges now as they were 26 years ago?

In many ways, content management is still a similar problem to what we had a quarter century ago, but the scale is much, much bigger. We now have much more documentation-intensive regulation and a greater need for control than 25 years ago with HIPPA, Dodd-Frank, Basel III, ISO compliance, etc. The scale of information that we are dealing with is orders of magnitude bigger, which means it is still very hard to find anything. The solutions backlog is still there, only getting longer. The introduction of workflow still has not solved our automation problems as it needs to get easier. It still surprising how many paper processes there still are.

What are the new challenges they face when it comes to dealing with content?

Back 25 years ago, you could count on a computer literate user base. Companies would have to train their users to use enterprise software. That is not the case anymore and the expectations of new users, some of which were, at best, toddlers when this category was created, simply have no tolerance for clunky software. Apps on mobile devices have replaced the original client-server software with much more targeted, task-specific user interfaces and need access to content and connection to processes. Where we run the software and who runs it has also changed dramatically. The big refrigerated data centre filled with big machines has been replaced with the cloud and the CIO wishes someone else would run the software in the cloud. The legacy vendors from 25 years ago are still trying to eke out as much cash from the old model, which no one really wants any more.

How do you see content challenges evolving in the future?

Content is critical to business running efficiently. Tied to all the essential business processes, it is the basis of business and knowledge work. Even big data is not actionable or analysable without content. As businesses produce and use more and more content, ensuring that employees can engage with it, be able to find the right content when they need it is going to continue to be a big challenge.

What's your opinion on the growth of cloud computing and the impact of it on content management? Has it been a good thing or a bad thing?

Cloud computing has generally been a good thing for organisations, but a lot of that has to do with what you consider the cloud. Many would think about file sync and share services as cloud computing, but these are not really enterprise content management. To the contrary, they add to the problem of finding information and lack of control over what information is delivered. However, companies that have taken judicious steps toward moving their enterprise systems to virtual private clouds have been able to get the benefits of both control over who accesses information as well as access to potentially infinite scaling capacity in public clouds like AWS and Azure. The cost benefits, global scalability, resilience, and even security controls are hard to match by even the largest organisations.

What role do you think open source plays in content management tools?

Mike Olsen, the founder of Cloudera and Hadoop leader, remarked that there have been no significant changes in infrastructure in the last decade that have not been open source. Many industries are recognising this trend and adopting open source for innovation, avoiding vendor lock-in and having more control over the use of the software. This is true for content management as industries, such as government, financial services, and manufacturing, are using open source for mission critical as well as for web and less critical applications.

What new technology do you think is going to have the biggest impact on how we interact with and manage content?

Intelligent processing, especially machine learning algorithms, will have the biggest impact on how we manage and interact with content. There is a wealth of data generated in the form of audit trails, workflows, social activities, actions within web apps and searches that can be used to understand the flow of information and how it relates to users and their roles. In addition, inside the content, there is a lot of semantic information that can be used to tie concepts to the actions and flows. Social-oriented tools can help understand who users, their interests and their organisations fit in relation to their stored information. Finally, there are tools on the Internet that enhance the conceptual and contextual information derived inside the enterprise to help connect to concepts and ideas developed outside in wider industry.

How do you think the way we use content in businesses is going to evolve over the next decade?

IDC predict there will be a 50 times growth in digital content from 2010 to 2020, 90 per cent of which is expected to be unstructured information like emails, documents, and video. For the billions of information workers worldwide it’s critical that they can access this information as easily and efficiently as possible, in order for the organisations they work for to progress and be profitable. Over the next decade we'll see content become more and more valued within businesses, ingrained in everyday process and activities, and become the basis for organisations undergoing a digital transformation.

What three things have had the biggest impact on the way we do business in the last five years?

Without a doubt it has been the rapid adoption of cloud, the migration of consumer technology into the workplace and the growth of mobile devices - all of which has driven us to have far more mobile and flexible workforces.

What three things will make the biggest impact on the way we do business in the next five years?

The rate of change in technology means there new tools emerging all the time which are impacting and changing the way businesses run. Over the next five years I think we’re going to see machine learning and artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and entire data centres in the cloud having the biggest impact on how businesses work. We’ve already seen limited adoption of technologies in these areas but over the next five years they are going to come into their own and be highly valuable to businesses.

What advice would you give someone looking to start their own company?

Give yourself space to think and test out your ideas before you spend too much time on ideas that are a waste of time. However, don’t give up and set yourself aggressive deadlines otherwise you will never release anything. Two very different things kill early businesses: going too deep down a dead end and just talking but doing nothing.

John Newton, CTO and Founder of Alfresco

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