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Is UK government getting to grips with ECM?
Enterprise Content Management (ECM)has changed drastically during the 10 years or so that it has existed as a concept. It originally started life as localised document management and paper-imaging systems but now plays a much wider role at the heart of modern government, including storing and managing a broad variety of different types of content that simply did not exist until recently.
Local and central government departments are inundated with more information than ever before. Whereas not that long ago the type and nature of that content was fairly limited, the public sector must now keep track of every last plan, proposal, video, tweet, email, white paper, article and much more. This can be a thankless task, deeply frustrating for government employees who have to spend time searching for a particular file that has been badly filed or not even filed at all. This is not only inefficient work practice but in this era of open government it can also leave a department exposed if they cannot respond to requests for electronically stored information.
So not only has the nature of content changed dramatically, but the role of ECM in the public sector has changed with it. The primary aim of most ECM implementations is still to manage, share and process electronic content across an organisation. But it is now expected to extend that content beyond the firewall – to remote staff, to non-governmental organisations (NGO) and other third parties, whether they are consultants, suppliers, partners or something else entirely. Content also must be accessed and managed on a mobile devices, from tablets to handsets.
The public sector needs to store, manage and analyse large volumes of data and content, wherever it is filed and whatever form it might take, and deliver the most relevant information to whoever requires it, in context and when they need it most. This can be internal or external. Effective ECM plays a role in helping to meet efficiency targets, operational objectives and to deliver better services to the public.
Multiple ECM & DM systems
Against this backdrop of changing roles and types of content, many government departments will have accumulated multiple ECM or Document Management (DM) systems over the years. Changes of government, restructures and public sector cuts can all impact on which IT systems and infrastructure are used and it is surprising how often legacy systems are retained and still used in some capacity, whether alongside another solution or by a specific business-line within a government department.
Within all information management systems there is a need to ensure that appropriate levels of security are in place, and that is never more prevalent than for public sector information. The appropriate level of security, of course, will vary dependent on the type of information – from public, through personally sensitive, to highly secret national security information – but security is another important factor when considering public sector ECM.
There was once a clear roadmap for ECM but that has changed and we are at a crossroads. What is the best way forward for government and ECM? Are multiple systems OK? Should the public sector stick with on-premise ECM or is it time to move to the cloud?
ECM at the Crossroads
We sought to explore some of these issues in our recent report ‘ECM at the Crossroads’, which surveyed 538 individual members of the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) community, including a number that work in the public sector.
The findings at first glance make alarming reading for those that work in ECM. On average, organisations manage two or more ECM, DM or Records Management (RM) systems and 26 per cent of those surveyed had more than four systems in place. Four per cent confessed to having more than 10 operational systems.
But even with these multiple systems in place, approximately half of all content is held in non-ECM/DM systems, with only 18 per cent of firms saying they had completed an enterprise-wide ECM implementation. This is just two per cent more than the last AIIM ECM survey in 2011.
On a more positive note, more than one‑third of respondents (36 per cent) said that they were working towards a central ECM system to help address content management challenges brought about by changing priorities, mobile access, cloud, social and email management.
The survey showed that, on the whole, people have bought into ECM. The key question for government is whether to use on-premise ECM or switch to the cloud.
On-premise (or on-premises to some) works on the basis that all information, metadata and access-controls remain within the organisation, on their servers, and firmly under their control – with all access to that information having to be made through well-defined and managed routes.
There are distinct benefits to this approach. If the organisation stores IL3 or above information, then keeping those assets in‑house would seem to make sense – the full force of that organisation’s security can be used to protect the information, and any risks can be carefully managed. Despite needing substantial upfront hardware and software costs, these can be absorbed as capital expenditure and, indeed, many will already exist within the organisation.
However, downsides also exist. The government is fundamentally encouraging the mobilising of public sector information and in order to be able to do that, some form of remote access needs to be provided to this on-premise data. In many instances this requires, at best, additional software modules for in-house software systems – at worst, it requires custom development projects to enable this in legacy systems.
In addition, routes into the information systems need to be made available, directly through the secure firewalls that have previously guarded that very information.
Another option for government ECM is to use a cloud-based solution. These vary massively in both functionality and security, ranging from personal file-sharing tools to comprehensive, enterprise-grade solutions. Cloud-based information management sees both information and metadata stored remotely, on the providers servers. All access is via the internet, but mechanisms for this range from dedicated software to web-based interfaces.
A primary reason for organisations looking to use the cloud is to provide access to content for users outside of the firewall. However, reduced up-front costs, shorter implementation times and the flexibility to vary user numbers quickly and easily also feature strongly.
The downsides of cloud deployments often focus around the perceived lack of security of cloud services. This security sensitivity appears to vary dependent upon size, with larger government departments convinced that their own security is better than that of a cloud provider. An additional aspect of cloud storage for many government organisations is the issue of data sovereignty, or locale.
This concept requires keeping data on-shore in order to comply with local data-protection issues, and also to protect the data from possible intrusion by foreign governments through laws such as the Patriot Act in the US.
A third choice: hybrid ECM
Perhaps there is a third choice for public sector ECM – a hybrid model. The term ‘hybrid ECM’ is used to describe a solution that combines the benefits of an on-premise and cloud approach.
Hybrid ECM sees the main data repository of information sitting on-premise within an organisation – with access to that information from within the firewall operating as a standard on-premise solution.
In addition, a cloud-layer exists that provides a collaboration area for selective pockets of information that need to be accessed or shared outside of the organisation. This information can only be accessed by authorised users and these pockets of information are subject to two-way synchronisation, ensuring that they are up-to-date and maintained as if they were sitting in the on-premise system.
This hybrid approach has significant benefits: the cloud layer only stores information that needs to be shared at any given time – for a specific meeting or project – and remains within the governance regime and controls of the organisation. The cloud system is running in tandem with the on-premise system, so any existing permission integrations (for example, to Active Directory) are maintained in the cloud layer, ensuring consistent application of permissions to both systems. A further benefit is any workflows that operate against the various information assets will continue to function.
Hybrid ECM systems need to provide applications with secure access to content for remote devices – ensuring that content can only be accessed once user-level authentication has been performed on the device itself. At a simplistic level, this may be achieved by connecting to a web-service to perform authentication, but this would restrict offline use and is not desirable.
But there is more to hybrid ECM than just content access. The secure level of integration that the hybrid ECM platform provides to on-premise information and processes delivers a perfect touchpoint for mobile content creation and capture.
A hybrid ECM solution delivers the best of both worlds. It provides the stability and governance found in on-premise systems, but delivers secure extensions of those facilities to remote users via the cloud.
This combination of controlled access to on-premise data, collaborative workspaces, and robust mobile security make hybrid ECM a powerful offering and can help public sector organisations satisfy both their government mandate to move towards the cloud, and in tandem expose the benefits of social and mobile access to organisational content.
All the while remaining within the required governance frameworks and ensuring enterprise-grade security.