How to pick the best content services platform for your business

Modern content services platforms take a flexible, service-driven approach to managing enterprise content. Here’s what to look for and seven leading CSPs to consider.

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Enterprise content management (ECM), an umbrella term for the processes and tools that organizations use to capture, store, secure, retrieve, and manage business data in its many forms, is dead.

So declared Gartner in 2017. Companies still needed to manage all that content, of course, but vendors were adopting a new approach that required new terminology, the research firm said.

The goal of ECM applications was traditionally to store and manage an organization’s content within a single, centralized platform to protect assets, ensure regulatory compliance, and improve business efficiency. But these all-in-one systems proved to be inflexible in real-world use, so vendors re-architected them to be cloud-enabled and much more modular. Gartner dubbed the new approach content services and called the vendors’ products content services platforms.

IDC now uses the new terms as well. “We’ve been about ‘enterprise content management’ for decades — most of which were large, monolithic, on-premises solutions,” said Holly Muscolino, IDC’s group vice president for enterprise content strategies and the future of work. “Then, as we started to see more solutions move to the cloud and become more modular, Gartner created the term ‘content services platform’ because it actually described the solutions better. Today, we use ‘content services’ or ‘content services platform’ pretty much to be synonymous with what we would traditionally call enterprise content management.”

What are content services platforms (CSPs)?

“Content services platforms provide a basic set of tools to store, index, and manage content with the intent that it can be edited and versioned,” states Gartner’s 2023 Market Guide for Content Services Platforms.

Like old-school ECM systems, content services platforms allow users to create, manage, collaborate on, and store various types of content and data, including text, audio, and video, from one centralized, accessible location across all organizational departments using any device. But modern CSPs are cloud-based and provide APIs and pre-built integrations with other enterprise apps and services, so they can retrieve and manage content wherever it resides in an organization.

CSPs serve as companies’ default access points for all internal content, enabling them to embed content in other related documents and records management applications, such as customer resource management, enterprise resource planning, and human capital management apps, according to Gartner. As such, CSPs make critical information available to the appropriate stakeholders who can use that data to support business operations and make business decisions.

[ From monolith to modular: How enterprise content management is evolving ]

The flexibility that comes with the content services strategy gives organizations the ability to create solutions that are built specifically for certain use cases, Muscolino said.

Cheryl McKinnon, principal analyst at Forrester Research, agreed. The on-premises architectures of the ’90s have given way to “much more flexible, service-driven platforms,” McKinnon said. “So developers and designers can really tailor the platform to the use cases that they need.”

Benefits of adopting a content services platform

Content services platforms offer a variety of benefits, including:

  • Allowing organizations to work with content, regardless of the format of the content and where it’s located, enabling better decision making.
  • Enabling users to easily search and find content located in various file storage locations and repositories.
  • Handling revisions and versions seamlessly so content remains up to date.
  • Using markup, notes, and electronic signatures for effective collaboration, streamlining content management processes.
  • Storing an audit history of actions taken on critical content for compliance and tracking.
  • Automating business processes through integrations with multiple enterprise applications.

Challenges of implementing a content services platform

One of the main challenges associated with deploying a content services platform is dealing with the vast amounts of documents and other content that many organizations, particularly large organizations, already have, according to IDC’s Muscolino. “It’s not trivial to migrate to a new solution,” she said. “They would need to either ensure that they could still access their content in place — that may be in large on-premises repositories — or that there’s adequate support for migration from the vendor.”

In addition, companies must ensure that they can access content across multiple repositories, not only existing content that they might have stored in various locations within their organizations, but potentially new content that’s being generated, such as emails or social streams. This includes not just documents but also rich media, such as audio and video, Muscolino said.

Migrating data from legacy source systems to new a content services platform can increase the implementation time as well as the cost of the implementation if not done correctly. It’s not easy to transfer unstructured data, as it has to be cleaned and reviewed before it can be processed. “Anything that’s unstructured content needs to be managed. You want to look for solutions that have the capability to look across multiple locations and apply those services to different types of content,” Muscolino said.

Organizations also run the risk of not properly organizing and describing documents, said Forrester’s McKinnon. “If you’re just throwing documents into a big bin in the sky, it can be a little bit of a headache when people try to find those documents later,” she said. “So you have to think about how to use metadata to organize things, because that’s going to deliver a much better experience down the road in terms of finding the right things quickly.”

Organizations should also understand that implementing a content services platform is not a magic bullet, said Marko Sillanpaa, a Gartner analyst. “That’s the biggest challenge I see with most organizations — they think that they’re going to suddenly bring one of these systems in and it’s going to bring everything under control,” he said. “Individuals have to realize that it’s a different way of working and that they have to put all their documents in this repository and they have to set metadata, [for example].”

Key capabilities to look for in a content services platform

There are a number of features organizations should look for when they’re selecting a content services platform. Key capabilities include:

Content capture: The first step in automating business processes is the ability to capture required and relevant data from paper and electronic sources, including documents, emails, enterprise applications, and social media.

Content transformation: The ability to transform certain content types to other formats — for example, transforming a Word document into a PDF.

Search: Organizations work with massive numbers of complex documents and assets every day, and searching for content in these files is extremely time consuming. A content services platform enables users to perform metadata or full text searches for text that might appear anywhere in content that’s stored in the system. Many CSPs also enable users to set additional filters based on metadata to further reduce the number of results that are returned.

Document management: Not every employee in an organization should be able to access every document. CSPs enable companies to control access to documents and files based on the needs or clearance levels of the users. Enterprises that control access based on document types, user roles, and other system-level characteristics allow teams to more easily and securely share documents.

Records management: Records management enables companies to create, identify, store, retrieve, and dispose of their digital and hard copy documents. It also allows organizations to efficiently control their critical information and makes it easier for business leaders to define their companies’ goals and objectives. This is all accomplished with regulatory compliance in mind to reduce the costs and risks of handling sensitive corporate data. Modern CSPs automate most of companies’ record management capabilities to make the process more effective.

Secure collaboration: The ability to integrate with other applications, processes, and data sources and to offer secure internal and external file-sharing functionalities so employees can collaborate with co-workers inside their organizations, as well as with customers and partners.

Workflow/process management and automation: Modern CSPs offer capabilities for case management and workflow management. They also provide the tools that enable companies to automate content processing using business rules and trigger events.

Artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, and reporting: Today’s CSPs enable companies to use AI, machine learning, and analytics to analyze different content types to extract relevant insights, improving productivity and helping business leaders make better business decisions.

Open application programming interfaces (APIs): Most content services platforms offer organizations REST-based APIs that give them access to most of the main features of the product. At the very least, content services platforms should offer APIs that allow companies to write, delete, or retrieve metadata and content objects. Additionally, custom APIs enable content services to seamlessly integrate with other enterprise applications.

Mobile apps: Mobility shouldn’t be an afterthought. Rather, CSPs should allow core content functions, including creating, accessing, processing, and sharing files to happen naturally on a mobile device. CSPs should provide access to document management, such as read, search, and index, on Android and iOS platforms.

Security: CSPs must encrypt content in transit as well as at rest. And they must include such functionality as access control, data loss prevention, electronic digital rights management, encryption, and authentication. Depending on their requirements, organizations may opt for CSPs that offer advanced security capabilities, including content redaction, digital signatures, and watermarking.

7 leading CSPs

There are numerous content services platforms on the market. To help you begin your research, we’ve highlighted the following products based on discussions with analysts and independent research.

AODocs: Offers functionality for collaboration, compliance tracking, electronic signatures, file recovery and conversion, optical character recognition, process automation, and version control. Offers document management functionality, including indexing, archiving, and retention. Analyzes content using artificial intelligence to ensure users are accessing the correct versions of documents. Part of the Google Cloud Marketplace, AODocs has pre-built integrations with DocuSign, Salesforce, DocuSign, and Google Drive. Offers a low-code environment to enable companies to develop content-rich business applications and workflows. (See AODocs security info.)

Box: Provides a single platform to enable organizations to manage the entire content lifecycle from creating and sharing files to co-editing, signature, classification, and retention. Secures content with device security controls, identity and access management controls, and built-in content protection. Connects seamlessly to Microsoft 365. Provides email attachment support for Gmail and Outlook as well as native support for Google Workspace’s productivity apps (Sheets, Slides, and Docs). Box Canvas, the vendor’s virtual whiteboarding tool, allows teams to collaborate via sticky notes, chat, voting, and more. (See Box security info.)

Hyland OnBase: Manages the total content lifecycle from capture to disposal. Offers editing and collaboration tools, advanced workflows, process automation, and configurable applications to help boost user productivity and enhance customer satisfaction. Manages documents and other content related to internal business processes. Provides a central repository aimed at specific vertical industries, including insurance, healthcare, financial services, government, retail, and manufacturing. Automates content lifecycle management, helping companies decrease risk by simplifying compliance with industry/regulatory requirements. (See Hyland security info.)

IBM Content Services: Pre-configured set of content management capabilities delivered as a software-as-a-service solution on AWS. Provides one location where users can search, browse, view, and collaborate on content. Includes document classification, intelligent document processing, and metadata management. Also offers built-in governance capabilities, developer tools, and robotic process automation. Allows companies to customize the user interface, enabling each line of business to meet department requirements. (See IBM security info.)

Laserfiche: Provides functionality for content management, business process automation, and data analytics. Manages the content lifecycle. Includes search features, document scanning and data capture, metadata modification, workflow automation tools, and secure content management. Users can collaborate through simultaneous editing, annotations, and more. Offers pre-built integrations to other applications, including Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Microsoft 365, and DocuSign. (See Laserfiche security info.)

Microsoft 365: Microsoft’s primary CSP is SharePoint, which manages the entire content lifecycle including document creation, sharing, consumption, records management, and archiving. Enables content collaboration across Microsoft 365. Integrates with other Microsoft products, including Viva Topics and OneDrive for Business. Lets multiple users work on documents simultaneously, making it easier to collaborate without the need to email files back and forth. Teams can share files, data, news, and resources and collaborate with team members inside and outside their organizations, across PCs, Macs, and mobile devices. (See Microsoft security info.)

OpenText Content Services Platforms: This provider’s content services platforms comprise OpenText Extended ECM, which embeds content across enterprise processes; OpenText Documentum, which offers secure, high-volume content management for regulated industries; and OpenText Core, which combines both in a public cloud offering. These platforms enable organizations to create business workspaces that streamline video collaboration and integrate with enterprise applications, such as Microsoft 365, SAP Salesforce, and Oracle. Workspaces organize content, tasks, and teams with digitized workflows, making content easily accessible to team members when and where they need it. (Contact OpenText for security info.)

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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