COMMENTARY

Enterprise content management and the system-is-the-solution fallacy

When it comes to enterprise content management systems, many agencies buy technology before they have strategies in place

 “The system is the solution.” Do you have a problem? No matter the problem, our new IT system will solve it.

Wrong! This fallacy, now almost half-a-century old, has reappeared like a hyperactive virus in agencies throughout the federal government. It is again leading to expensive and disastrous results.

In the early 1960s, the Government Accountability Office, the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget began warning agencies that “the system is the solution” is wrong-headed thinking. Information technology is a tool for solving problems. Any agency that acquires a set of IT tools before it has defined its problems and the path to their solution is putting the cart before the horse.

And yet agencies are once again pursuing this fallacy headlong. The context today is enterprise content management (ECM). An agency decides it must integrate the ways in which it manages correspondence, documents, case files, records, Web content, databases, workflow and any number of other things.

So what does the agency do to achieve integrated information management? It conceptualizes the solution as one of standardizing on a single ECM system toolset. Then the agency goes out and acquires an off-the-shelf ECM product suite, believing this course will answer its information content management needs.

The problem is that the agency has not analyzed what its information management problems are and how to solve them. It has not devised a strategy that sets forth in detail what information the agency needs to manage, how to manage that information and what outcomes the agency must achieve. The agency lacks an information management strategy, a framework that sets forth how the agency will manage its information to meet its mission goals. Only when an agency has a clear information management strategy can it ask what IT tools it needs to implement the strategy.

What agencies are doing today is acquiring technology first and then shoehorning information management problems into the tools it has already bought. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the tools provide inadequate solutions to information management problems. The system-is-the-solution fallacy is the age old error of asking how to solve the problem before understanding what the problem is.

The Air Force is one agency that has avoided the system-is-the-solution fallacy. The Air Force enunciated an information management strategy called Information Asset Management. Following its strategy, the agency invested substantially in metadata and in automated metadata extraction. IAM yielded an enterprise-wide information management infrastructure that operates at the server level and applies the same strategic principles to all Air Force information.

The Air Force IAM infrastructure is scalable to and compatible with any commercial ECM system that an Air Force component chooses to acquire. In fact, IAM makes any commercial system more efficient and effective in practice. In the Air Force case, the information management strategy is the solution and the IT systems are tools for implementing the strategy.

It is too early to say whether the Air Force IAM will prove fully successful in implementation. Yet as an exemplar of how to go about integrating enterprise information management functions the Air Force approach is equal or superior to anything now happening in the federal government.

About the Author

Tim Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington.

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