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The three waves of innovation in information management

(Image credit: Image Credit: TeroVesalainen / Pixabay)

Information is exploding, and, like a big bang, it can’t be contained. Witness the growth of all kinds of data, as in documents, databases, and emails, and in the chats, streams and tweets of social media. According to a recent IDC report, worldwide data is projected to grow by 61 per cent by 2025.

Technology for managing information — which includes organising, securing, collaborating on and processing documents and other information — has evolved over time. Now we are entering the third of three major phases of information management, each increasingly more sophisticated and powerful, and each with new and greater potential to impact a business’s bottom line.

The first wave: The monolith

A single central repository for all information — and the proliferation of data silos

In 1990, Documentum was founded, which one could consider the first enterprise document management software company. In time, document management came to be known as Enterprise Content Management (ECM). The first wave of information management was characterised primarily by a goal of moving all documents and other unstructured content into a single central storage location or repository. All documents and content would be in one place, and it would be easy to find and manage. Unfortunately, it was often isolated from other data sources and systems in use.   The first silo was born. 

Early systems structure was hierarchical and rigid, and difficult to change and adapt, especially as larger amounts of information was stored in the system. Those structures were also highly subjective, meaning that the way the company chose to organise information in them was almost entirely based on the preferences of those setting up the system. This resulted in differences not only across industries, but between businesses in the same industry, and even between different divisions of the same business.

The inherent inflexibility made it difficult to adapt without requiring lots of IT resources and impacting groups that were already relying on the system. This often led to the implementation of another, new and disconnected system to solve that specific use case. The second silo was born, and then the third, fourth, fifth and beyond.

Also, at this time a new approach emerged that wasn’t focused on a fixed hierarchical folder structure with primitive metadata. Metadata are properties or descriptive information that you can tag to a document. This new approach relied on metadata to describe what the related data was about and was related to, and not where the data was stored. For example, the metadata would identify the data as about a proposal related to an account, or an invoice related to a contact person within an organisation.

In short, metadata decoupled location from the classification scheme. It focused on describing the information, not on where it should be stored. One didn’t put a document in a folder or library, but tagged it as a proposal or contract, or as a customer, project, or case descriptor – or literally anything. The metadata-driven approach addressed two major shortcomings of the older, rigid, hierarchical systems.

First, it was dynamic. Information could show up in more than one location. The same document could be found by the sales team through its relationship to the customer, or by the services team based on its relationship to a certain project, or by the legal team by expiration date. It could be found with different search terms by different teams, roles and even individuals — the way people prefer to work.

Second, it was objective. A contract is a contract and its relationship to the parties involved is essentially the same, not only within a given business, or across businesses in the same industry, but even across industries, whether in manufacturing, financial services, construction or energy. Maybe it’s called an agreement or a lease, but it’s a common, objective concept.

The second wave: Unification

Breaking down and unifying disconnected silos with a repository-neutral approach — where information can be anywhere.

The second wave, which I refer to as Unification, emerged over time, starting around the mid-2000s, with the realisation that unstructured content, e.g., documents, images, and other content, while in separate files, constituted parts of a greater whole.

The Unification phase is best described by example. A contract or proposal is a critical step in furthering a deal with a prospect. Assume that all data and transactions about the deal are being managed in a CRM or ERP system. What’s more, to efficiently get the whole picture and make data-informed decisions (and actually get work done), an account manager must have all information related to the contract within arm’s reach.  Of course, every CRM and ERP tried to address this by adding its own home-grown content management capabilities, but that resulted in limited capabilities and additional silos.

In addition, the proliferation of silos described in the first wave created a growing problem where people needed information that existed in multiple systems. They were constantly moving from one system to another — context-switching — trying to remember the nuances of the other systems’ interfaces, and often still not finding what they needed. The pressure to break down these data silos and provide easier access to information in a variety of systems steadily increased. Unifying information across the business started to rival, and sometimes outweigh, the importance and complexity of unifying information in a single system or from a single use case.

In this phase, the “what vs. where” factor takes on further meaning. Now it’s really not about where the information is. It could be in any data repository anywhere. The information is now unified based on context — for example, all the contracts associated with a particular customer, project, case or claim. The user doesn’t have to care about where the information is anymore – or whether he or she can connect to the repository where it is located. Instead, the data surfaces according to the context in which it is needed. That satisfies the needs of the information user, but also the needs of system administrators:  information can remain in place without disturbing existing systems and processes, if and until the organisation decides to migrate or transition the data away, let’s say from an older legacy system.

The third wave: Integration

Seamless “in-context” access to information in the user interface of your choice

The third wave we’ll describe as Integration, and it follows logically from the second wave of Unification. This is all about integrating elements from the first two waves into a single common user interface – not the user interface of the information management system (or CSP, as Gartner calls it), but the user interface of other core line-of-business applications. In short, this integration brings about a “frontend-neutral” approach that further simplifies information retrieval. How? The idea is that purpose-built information management capabilities are integrated seamlessly into the user interfaces of other applications — such as Office 365, Salesforce, G-Suite, SharePoint, Teams, NetSuite, SAP, QuickBooks, Workday or Esri ArcGIS.

In addition to the context established by metadata and relationships to important business objects such as customers, projects and cases, a new layer of context is now part of the picture, the context of the user interface of the line-of-business application.

Now directly, from within an application such as Salesforce, a salesperson could work on a given customer file or opportunity, and then, transparently and without additional effort, access information in any connected repository or system that is relevant in the context of that customer. Documents that are stored in SharePoint, Box, OpenText, or even a traditional network file share, are accessible right within the Salesforce interface – eliminating the need to switch to another UI. Salespeople can remain in the Salesforce UI longer.  And that capability and convenience extends to office workers, who can remain in Office 365 — freely accessing information in a network file share, OpenText or Salesforce.

And their new productivity comes without the types of data they need to access.  For example, it can be structured or unstructured content. So right in the Salesforce interface, one can not only see the documents related to the customer of interest, they can see the projects or cases that are managed in a connected ERP or case management system.

This idea aligns almost directly with that of the recently announced Salesforce Customer 360 initiative, which Salesforce describes this way: “Every company wants to deliver connected customer experiences across channels and departments. These experiences need to span siloed organisations, processes and infrastructure across marketing, commerce, sales and service.”

Salesforce is speaking about unifying the data in its various “clouds,” (such as the sales cloud, service cloud, and commerce cloud), and doing so within the context of the customer. This is the third wave, albeit from a slightly different perspective, but the parallel is direct.

Context is king

The old days of the monolithic, centralised location where everything resides is no longer workable. That first-generation approach never really was workable, but rudimentary approaches always give way to quantum improvements. Information is exploding and it’s everywhere. People want to work the way they want to work — not in some top-down, one size-fits-all world that is imposed upon them. Flexibility, adaptability, personalisation, democratisation, connectedness, intelligence — these are the hallmarks of the third wave.

Context is now the key theme, establishing meaning and relevance, enabling people to focus on what’s most important to the exclusion of the less important. When you filter out information that will distract and defocus you, and when you minimise or eliminate context-switching from platform to platform, or application to application, you surface exactly the information you need quickly, and when you need it. Your focus improves, you get work done faster and with higher quality, your productivity increases, and you move big rocks you never could before.

Greg Milliken, SVP of Marketing, M-Files (opens in new tab)

Greg Milliken is the senior vice president of marketing at M-Files, the intelligent information management company.