Content Integration Services – Connecting ERP to ECM

Hot Air Ballons

This was originally posted at e-Wave Solutions.

Several AIIM Conferences ago, one of the top tier Enterprise Content Management (ECM) vendors made a point of delivering a session based on the premise that no one actually wants to see an ECM platform doing its stuff. What they meant was that clients wanted the benefits without really seeing how the ECM platform works. Like we all like hot dogs but don’t really want to know how they’re made.

Note: Earlier this year someone claimed that ECM is dead (it’s not) and is being replaced by Content Services (wrong again, they’re the same thing). So, if you see something called “Content Services Platforms (CSP)” or similar, it’s the same as ECM platforms.

In an ideal world, ECM works with your other enterprise and business applications to provide the content in holistic, end-to-end processes and workflows. However, that is rarely the case. Despite the fact that it’s easier than ever to make applications interoperate, most content is still stuck in silos and not available to people and applications that need it. And the content that is available to everyone that needs it is made available by sending copies around as email attachments, insecurely stored and completely ungoverned. The result is a chaotic mess of multiple copies of documents that no one knows where they are until they’re produced as evidence against you in some court proceeding or other when you’d actually thought you’d (legally) disposed of them ages ago. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

We’re going to present a couple of use cases to highlight why content needs to be freed by using Content Integration Services (CIS) to connect ERP applications with ECM platforms. They’re not really complicated, but they are the type of use cases that many organizations waste many, many hours dealing with.

Contractor Timesheets

Timesheets are a pain for many companies and contractors. In addition to having the correct information on timesheets (e.g.: project codes, PO #’s, dates, etc.), there are additional challenges related to printing, scanning, routing, and signing them. By building a solution from components that include ECM, digital signatures, ERP, and CIS, timesheets time becomes a joy. Okay, maybe not really a joy, but certainly less cumbersome and onerous than before.

Timesheet Process

By leveraging ECM, digital signatures, and ERP, and then gluing it all together with content integration services, organizations end up with a timesheet process that is nimble, complete, quick, error free, and auditable. The basic steps in the process are:

  1. Within an ECM platform, a contractor fills in their timesheet with all relevant information and digitally signs it;
  2. Using collaboration capabilities of the ECM platform, the contractor submits their timesheet for approval;
  3. Using digital signature integration in the ECM platform, the approver approves the contractor’s timesheet (or not);
    1. If not approved the timesheet is routed back to the contractor for corrections.
  4. Content integration service “strips” relevant data from the approved timesheet and passes it to the ERP application;
  5. ERP application processes the timesheet for payment;
  6. ERP application generates a payment slip;
  7. Content integration service takes the payment slip and stores it in the ECM platform;
  8. ECM platform presents the payment slip to the contractor.

Field Manuals

While not applicable to every industry, many industries need to service equipment in the field. Providing field personnel with the appropriate environmental standards, health & safety manuals, repair & maintenance procedures, and technical / engineering procedures & standards is critical. This documentation helps to save time and money, and also helps to keep field personnel from harm.

The following diagram illustrates how work order details are passed from an ERP application to an ECM platform, to provide field personnel with the right documentation to do their work safely and cost effectively.

Workorder Process

  1. ERP application issues a work order;
  2. ERP application assigns field personnel to the work order;
  3. Content integration service passes work order details (personnel, location, job type, asset id, etc.) to the ECM platform;
  4. ECM platform uses work order details to find the relevant documents;
  5. ECM platform delivers documents to field personnel;
  6. Field personnel execute the work order.

Connective Tissue

Above are only two examples of use cases that can be made better by using CIS to connect ERP with ECM. The fact is, any process that relies on both ERP and ECM can be helped by content integration services.

Assuming that an organization has an ECM platform and an ERP application, it’s the content integration piece that allows the full automation of the entire process. Content integration is the connective tissue that allows ECM platforms and ERP applications to work together holistically and harmoniously.

BPM vs Workflow – Which to Choose

Workflow is the steak, BPM is the whole frickin’ cow (or some such silly comparison).

FYI – I work at OpenText and I used to work at Oracle. This post is neither endorsement nor condemnation of either company. Actually, I’m not endorsing or condemning anything or anyone. Except hot dogs, I really like hot dogs. I fully endorse hot dogs. Oh, I condemn sweet potatoes, beets, and Justin Bieber.

At the end of October I was in Vancouver at an Enterprise Information Management (EIM) 101 breakfast thingy being put on by OpenText. Part of the seminar dealt with OpenText’s Business Process Management (BPM) solutions (yes, there’s more than one). After the BPM spiel some guy asked if he needed workflow or BPM, or words to that effect. His question is one I’ve heard often over the years in seminars, on projects, during sales pitches, in training, etc. Many people that I’ve spoken to & overheard are thoroughly baffled by what the differences are between workflow products and BPM products, never mind trying to figure out which they need.

In part, this bafflement is caused by people not understanding the differences between processes, workflows, and activities (tasks), from a non-technology perspective. The bafflement is also caused because we (vendors) have done a crappy job in articulating the differences between BPM tools and workflow tools, and that BPM tools can execute workflows, but workflow tools pretty much suck at BPM but can execute a business process.

Before I provide an answer and my take on it, here are some definitions that I’ve been using (I didn’t make them up) for many years:

  • (Business) Process – a series of related workflows that produce value for an organization. Typically involves multiple roles & multiple business units
  • Workflow – a series of related tasks required to complete a portion of a process. May involve multiple roles & multiple business units
  • Activity – a single piece of work that must be completed in order to allow a workflow to progress. Involves single role & single business unit

Within the context of ECM a workflow takes place wholly within the ECM toolset. A workflow is used to route content through some path, usually for some sort of approval, review, editing, and so on. Typical scenarios include routing contracts, approving and editing press releases, updating policy documents, etc. These flows may cross departmental boundaries, but they don’t cross application boundaries (i.e.: they are executed entirely within the ECM toolset.). Don’t think that just because they stay within the confines of an ECM tool that workflows are by default simple. I’ve designed SOX compliant contract approval workflows for a Canada based biotech firm that were freaking complicated, but could easily have been contained within ECM workflow from most of the Gartner ECM MQ upper right quadrant residents.

BPM is more involved than workflow. If done correctly, BPM takes an holistic approach to defining, analyzing, simulating, executing, and monitoring an organization’s business processes (yes, multiple processes because a BPMS can manage inter-process interactions) from end to end. A Business Process Management System (BPMS) contains multiple pieces, in addition to the simple ability to define and execute business processes. In my opinion, the most important pieces of a BPMS are the enterprise service bus (ESB – allows communication between various applications), the rules engine, and the ability to constantly monitor and improve.

So, back to the Vancouver dude’s question … You need both BPM and workflow if yours is an organization of a size and complexity just a little above any mom and pop pizza shop & herb outlet. You already know (‘cause I just told you) that your ECM workflow engine can’t do BPM for you. What you need to ask is if your BPMS can do workflow that leverages the content in your ECM system.

Point to Ponder: Why do you think ECM vendors have acquired BPM companies? I’m not answering for you; I just want you to think about it a bit.

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