Is SharePoint Online really cloud content management?



Some people love it, some hate it and some deny it is even real enterprise content management (ECM). It really is the proverbial elephant in the room for all ECM conversations, and with the move to the cloud provided by SharePoint Online (or Office 365 as it is sometimes known) the conversation has become even more pointed.

So, can SharePoint deliver full ECM in the cloud? Let’s answer that scientifically, via the empirical and historical evidence route.

The history of SharePoint

SharePoint has had a long and colorful history since its launch in 2001. People regularly refer to it as the Swiss Army Knife of IT teams, as you can deploy it as a file-share replacement, simple collaboration platform, departmental ECM solution, intranet, corporate portal and much more.

The good thing about SharePoint is that it is quick and easy to deploy.

But the bad thing about SharePoint is that it is quick and easy to deploy. The ease of deployment works fine for many, but in the land of ECM – a land where control, management, and compliance oversee all – fluidity is not always welcome.

As a result, what tends to happen is that organizations generate data silos.

For example, individual project teams use SharePoint for specific projects, but forget to consolidate the content they generate with any records management requirements once the projects are complete. This has led, according to AIIM research, to SharePoint being an ECM component within most organizations – but not the main one.

So the information stored in these one-off projects sits alone in a silo. And it’s hard to find this information if you don’t know the silo exists. That’s not good if you have a customer or important vendor on the phone and she needs an answer right now.

The building blocks of ECM

Look at ECM as a discipline. There are the common aspects of scan, store and retrieve – the backbone of many simple ECM solutions that gives users access to the information and documents they need.

But increasingly, there are other important elements to consider:

  • Manage – combining the ability to manage processes, documents and data in one system so information seamlessly flows throughout your organization
  • Process – Using ECM workflow software for process automation, increasing speed and accuracy
  • Measurement – Gaining real-time insight into processes to increase performance while easing audits and compliance issues
  • Integration – an extremely important topic we’ll touch on momentarily
  • Retain – in addition to robust security, the right ECM solution will minimize risk by automatically protecting or destroying information in accordance with applicable regulations

SharePoint does some of these to a degree – but in the same way that you would not use a Swiss Army Knife to carve a joint of beef, most would not use SharePoint to perform, for example, an enterprise-grade workflow.

This is almost a design point within SharePoint, as Microsoft expects its arsenal of systems integrators and software partners will build add-on products to fill these gaps and supplement the functional inadequacies. Do a google search for “SharePoint extension” and you’ll see.

So theoretically, you can extend SharePoint to become a true ECM solution – but out of the box it most certainly is not. And we all know how some software promises easy integrations, but can’t deliver.

If your content strategy is forward-thinking, you’ll find an ECM solution that integrates easily with virtually any other system or application, so uses stay in their preferred systems while instantly finding the information they need.

ECM in the cloud

The cloud really drives the nail into the coffin.

On-premises SharePoint (or even a privately hosted SharePoint instance) allows organizations to make use of these third-party add-ons which, as discussed above, they desperately need to allow SharePoint to play at the enterprise party.

The problem, however, with SharePoint Online is that Microsoft has locked down its hosting environment, only allowing you to install Microsoft-approved add-ons. This has effectively stopped a huge number of SharePoint users from ever moving to SharePoint Online, simply because they have custom code or non-Microsoft approved add-ons running on their sites.

This is one of the key factors that has made leading industry analysts such as Gartner and AIIM question the ability of SharePoint Online to properly deliver ECM in the cloud. Given the limited feature set of SharePoint Online compared to true ECM in the cloud solutions, and the fact that add-on vendors seem slow or unwilling to get their add-ons approved for SharePoint Online, this seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Which way forward?

So is SharePoint Online true ECM in the cloud? Not really.

Looking to the leading analysts for advice, your best way forward is to find a robust ECM solution that will keep up with evolving technology.

David Jones

Dave brings over 20 years’ experience of working across the globe on projects ranging from enterprise content management (ECM) to Big Data, and for clients ranging from the BBC to... read more about: David Jones