SwiftSHRED ECM Series, Part I

What Is Enterprise Content Management (ECM)?


We are in a very interesting time in human history, a time marked by great convenience and comfort for large swaths of the world’s population. We’ve seen rapid technological changes over the last decade and seem to be on the cusp of even greater and more radical technological breakthroughs in terms of connectivity, processing power and mobility. For the first time ever, we are not held back from a lack of information, but instead must deal with the challenge of an information surplus. We have so much data at our fingertips yet there is still consistent confusion, uncertainty and disorder.

It’s important to keep in mind that every piece of data has a lifecycle and because things are changing so rapidly in the modern world, a piece of data can outlive its usefulness very quickly. Once a piece of information becomes outdated, it becomes an unwanted and unnecessary burden. This is something that all organizations and institutions are coming to realize. Whether they are large operations with multi-variable blockchain systems in place or small mom & pop firms that are still running on paper-based systems, it doesn’t change the fact that they need to have some form of an information governance program established or they will be inundated with data.

…So, what’s ECM?

ECM stands for Enterprise Content Management and is the evolved form of Document Management. The term “Document Management” has become outdated because there are so many other forms of media where a piece of information can live, beyond just a physical document.


When we’re considering what ECM is, we should first consider the nature of information today. Information in 2018 can be categorized into three groups: Unstructured Information, Semi-Structured Information and Structured Information (AIIM). These three groups are known as the data continuum . This may seem highly semantic, but it is helpful in understanding the usefulness of ECM.

Unstructured Information

“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
-Bill Clinton

Human communication is extremely contextual, which is why it is so hard to define the exact meaning of a word. One way to think about unstructured information is to think of it as human communication. It is content that is produced by humans for a human audience. Anything that’s done in a word processor or presentation application is unstructured information. It can be formatted in many different ways but it is usually text heavy data (Expert Systems). Documents, emails, news streams and web pages are all vehicles for unstructured information . You may remember the theory of Dramatic Structure from high school English (Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Conclusion), but as far as ECM is concerned even a great work of literature is unstructured information. What you’re reading right now is unstructured information too.

Semi-Structured Information

“Get it? Got it. Good.”
The Court Jester

This is where these semantic differences of the data continuum can become confusing. There is some debate in the IT world over whether or not unstructured information should even be used as a viable data classification because almost all data with any commercial value has some structure (Computer Weekly). However, there is still a reason for the distinction for our ECM purposes. Invoices, receipts, purchase orders all need to be processed by computers and inserted into relational databases but their data is still usually classified by humans (for now) . This is why semi-structured information exists. Part of it is automated and part of it needs human verification. Another example is an X-Ray. The raw X-Ray image is an example of unstructured information even when digitized – it’s captured by people and meant to be viewed by people – but once meta data is added to the document for classification, indexing, archiving and retrieval purposes, it becomes semi-structured .

Structured Information

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
-Hal 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Structured Information is very precise. It is usually table based and lives in relational databases and spreadsheets. With every form field you fill out, you’re placing data into related databases. Changes to the data fields in one categorized database will affect the others in a relational database system. This is accomplished by utilizing functions that recognize the primary keys of one table and the foreign keys that reference other tables. Think back to a purchase you’ve made online – you may have a filled out a customer profile (first name, last name, address, date of birth, payment information, etc.) and then been given a customer ID which you typed into the form along with an item number, quantity, etc. All of that information you filled in is structured information. It’s is being put into a relational database and is making changes and manipulating data to any number of tables. Simply put, all structured information is exact and quantifiable because it has to be that way in order to maintain the integrity of the relational database. In a spreadsheet if the information is not structured, it will break the function and you’ll receive an error. Structured information is the best data for being stored, processed, queried and accessed. It is often managed using Structure Query Language (SQL) which was first developed in the 1970’s by IBM for its internal use and then commercially by what’s now Oracle. The fundamental composition of the SQL really hasn’t changed very much in the past 40 to 50 years, which is very unusual for programming languages, and it is the foundation of relational database systems.

Why is ECM important?

Enterprise Content Management is how any venture governs the information it produces. Effective ECM will help to minimize risk, maintain adherence to regulatory and corporate compliance, improve efficiency, maximize office real estate, speed up information retrieval times and minimize outside threats.

In the next few blog posts we will focus on the Four Key Areas of ECM: Imaging, Workflow, Records Management and Enterprise Relationship Management. After that we will look to the future of ECM and speculate a bit about Intelligent Information Management (IIM).