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Chapter 3: Choosing the Right ECM System for You

how to pick good ecm systemWhen I was in college, I worked at a truck stop. One night in the middle of a winter storm, we got the strangest phone call. We were asked to tow three semi-trucks that were in a ditch in the same location.

When we arrived on the scene, the drivers were arguing. Two of the drivers were really angry at the third and were claiming that it was his fault that they were in the ditch.

As the story began to unfold, we learned that the terrible winter driving conditions had made it difficult to see the road. Two of the drivers decided to simply follow the tail lights of the driver in front of them instead of looking for themselves where the road was leading.

Everything was going just fine until the first driver, blinded by blowing snow, missed a turn on the freeway and drove over a hundred feet into a field. The drivers that were following his tail lights inevitably followed him straight into the ditch.

The worst part about this story is that this is the method that many organizations are using when picking an ECM system.

For example, many years ago, one of the cities in our area purchased an ECM system that was developed by an office products manufacturer. The system was filled with proprietary technology (which crippled its usability) and had a user interface that was very difficult to learn.

But, one by one, other cities purchased the same system. Why? Not because of the ECM system itself, but because of the reputation of the first city that had purchased it.

These cities assumed that the first city had done their research and had chosen a good product. It wasn’t long before they all began to realize that they were in the “ditch,” and needed help getting out.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “That was a long time ago. Buyers are more sophisticated now.” However, in spite of the increased availability of good information, companies continue to make this very same mistake.

Recently, I talked to an employee at one organization about a product they’d purchased. I asked what features he thought made that product a good choice for them. He could not tell me a single feature. Instead, he named three organizations that had purchased the product.

“Okay,” I said. “When you talked to these other organizations, what did they say when you asked them why they chose the product?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t really talk to them. I just know they purchased the product.”

The truth is, the two truck drivers that blindly followed the truck in front of them are not all that out of the ordinary…at least not in the world of business.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the products and information out there. Maybe you feel like you’re in the middle of a blizzard, and you’re not sure which way to go.

But don’t make the same mistake the truck drivers did. Do your research. Figure out what’s right for your company. I’ve compiled some guidelines to help you find the ECM that’s best suited to your needs. We’ll talk about the basic functions of a good ECM, how to find the best vendor, and the legal ramifications of moving to an ECM.

Hopefully these things will guide you through the winter storm of information and toward a better future for your company.

Functions of a Good ECM

When looking at an ECM, the list of features and functionalities can be dizzying. But really, there are just a few basic things that you need. Make sure that whatever ECM you choose has the following capabilities:


First of all, make sure that you choose a system that can store the following types of files:

You’ll also want to make sure that you can scan and save files directly into the system.

The ECM you choose should allow you to store documents in their native format, but it should also use compressed TIFF files as its native format (rather than PDFs). (For more information on the problem with PDFs, see the Determining File Formats section of the Getting Started with Your New ECM chapter.)


A good ECM will allow you to organize your data in a way that is intuitive and that closely aligns with your current organizational structure.

Make sure you choose a system with a multi-tiered folder structure with at least ten levels. It should also have the ability to apply indexing/metadata information to any record or document and to make those fields mandatory. It’s also important to be able to define the format of index fields.

Finally, ensure that it has full text search capability.

Security and Revision Control

Revision and access controls are an essential part of a good ECM. Make sure areas like workflow, audit trail, check in/check out capability and revision control are accounted for within the ECM. There should be retention control for both paper and electronic documents.

In a good ECM, multiple users will be able to access a document at any given time, and you should be able to assign rights and restrictions to both individuals and groups. You should also be able to assign users “Read Only” access.

Make sure that the ECM uses Active Directory Synchronization to provide security, as it is well-known and trusted across the industry.

Ease of Use

You’ll want to be able to access your information wherever you are, so take this into consideration and choose an ECM that is able to integrate with multifunctional devices, and that you can access remotely.

To ensure that it’s easy to work with your information once you get it into the system, choose an ECM that allows you to view multiple file types, email files, and “print” an archived copy of an electronic document directly into the system.

A Few Other Features You Might Find Helpful

While I’ve listed the absolutely essential features of a good ECM above, the following features will also make your life easier.

In an ECM provider, it’s very helpful to choose someone who provides local support and training. You can also minimize risk by choosing a company that has been in the business for at least ten years (more about this in the next section).

In addition to the requirements listed above, you might want to consider a system that has the ability to:

You might also consider choosing an ECM system that uses cloud computing. A cloud computing ECM solution is delivered to you as a service rather than a product. It’s sometimes called software as a service (SAAS).

When you use ECM as a service you pay a monthly fee, just like your electric bill. You don’t have to worry about many of the details of owning an ECM, such as maintenance, backup or capacity planning. You also don’t have to add a server to your network, which makes it easier to deploy and maintain.

Here are some other benefits of using a cloud computing ECM:

There are many choices when it comes to cloud computing ECM solutions. Some take a standard ECM product and set it up on their servers in a data center. Others use software specifically written to be sold as a service (and cannot, therefore, be sold as a product and installed on your own server down the road.)

If you decide to go the cloud computing route, I’d recommend finding a standard ECM product that is sold as a service. That way, if you ever decide you want to have your own ECM, you won’t have to convert. It also gives you more choices: you can look for a product that has a complete set of features.

Take some time before you buy to think about what’s important to you in an ECM system. Looking for a system that incorporates these features will make the integration of your system and the rollout to your employees intuitive and easy.


Putting ECM Vendors under a Microscope

Choosing a long-term ECM vendor is one of the major ingredients in a successful ECM project. So how do you do that?

I wish that picking the best ECM package was as simple as finding out which developer had been in business the longest. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy.

It is definitely important to find a vendor that has supported the product they developed for a long time (this shows that the vendor is committed to their product, their customer base, and ECM technology in general). However, it’s not the only factor. You have to dive in deeper to get a better understanding before you can make a good evaluation.

I recently talked to my friend, Jim, another value-added reseller, about this topic. Jim and I had been competitors for over ten years. We went to a lot of the same trade shows and sold paperless technology to some of the same target markets.

One day, Jim got a letter saying that the main product that he’d sold for nearly ten years was being discontinued in one year. He was shocked. The vendor that he worked for was one of the early pioneers in the paperless technology field! They were well known! He couldn’t understand how this could have happened.

Jim wasn’t looking forward to telling his customers that their system was being phased out. Because of this, they would have to go through the process of purchasing a new product again and endure the expensive process of migrating data to a new system.

As Jim and I talked about what had happened, we learned a few things. First of all, the software vendor that Jim worked for had been in business for about 15 years. They had grown to about 75 employees and idled at that size for about five years. The same people who started the company still formed its management team; they’d neglected to bring on anyone new or to invest in younger employees.

For many years, this company produced a new version of their ECM each year, while also rolling out several patch-level updates. But then, something changed.

The number of patches and new versions of the product decreased. And when a new version did come out, it lacked any new and exciting features or functionality. Management stopped reporting the number of installations, which we suspected was due to less new clients and the attrition of older customers who had converted to other products.

The product itself was suited to an organization with 50 users or less and could not grow with clients. As the volume of data and number of users increased, customers’ desire for more sophisticated features grew…but there was nothing new or interesting being offered by Jim’s company.

The nail in the coffin, Jim concluded, was that the company was acquired by a software giant. The strategy of the new company was to simply migrate the user-base from Jim’s company to their core ECM product. It was a great strategy for them, but not so great for Jim’s customers.

The good news is that we can learn from scenarios like this one. The moral? The experience of a company is not necessarily the best indicator of whether or not they’re the best choice. It’s important to ask the right questions to get a thorough understanding of the company, it’s position in the market, and the state of its product.

Not sure where to start? No problem! I’ve compiled a Worksheet for Choosing an ECM Consultant or Vendor. You can find it at the end of this book, in Appendix B.

You can use this worksheet to guide your own search so that the vendor you choose really is the best one for you.

Determining Legalities

As document imaging becomes more commonplace, laws have emerged regarding the legality of imaged paper and electronic files.

Many government agencies now accept imaged documents as legal records, meaning that the paper originals can be stored off-site, or, in some cases, destroyed.

Here are some general guidelines shared by many jurisdictions for document imaging systems:

The legality of imaged documents varies depending upon the federal agency, state, county, municipality and department involved. Therefore, before you get started, you should consult with an attorney on the specific statutes governing your industry and geographical area.

The guidelines for the State of Minnesota can be found at: http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/records/electronicrecords/erdigitalimaging.html


7 Ingredients for a Successful ECM Project

Ingredients for a Successful ECM ProjectMy journey with electronic document management began over ten years ago, when I volunteered for an assignment that I had no idea how to start.

It was like in high school algebra, when the teacher scribbled a long, complicated equation on the blackboard. As she turned to face the class, you knew she was looking for a victim, and you knew it was probably going to be you.

In this case, I volunteered to help a client select an ECM, which felt like a complicated algebraic equation all its own.

I began this task by talking to vendors of these products and to their references. I learned very little. It felt like I kept hitting a wall.

One day I had an insight. I remembered that, in life, we learn the most from our failures. I began searching for “failed” ECM projects, and that’s when I really started to learn some things.

What I’ve learned from the failures of other peoples’ ECM projects is that an implementation needs seven basic ingredients in order to succeed.

Some of the ingredients are actually features that must be present in whatever ECM you choose. Others relate to how you implement it. Combined, they’ll become a set of guiding lights that will make the process clear and simple.

Ingredient 1: The ECM is Easy to Learn and Use

If the ECM that you choose is not easy to learn and use, your project will fail.

The reality is that people tend to take the path of least resistance, especially when they’re busy. If a new program or product is complicated, most people either revert to what they know or they rely on the one person who took the time to learn it.

If the ECM proves to be simple and effective, however, people will find it much easier to get behind it. A great barometer for ease-of-use is the search capability. Your ECM should have a good search engine that allows index searches, as well as full-text searches. If users can quickly find the documents they need, no matter what information they know (or don’t know) about them, they’ll be hooked.

In the past several years, I’ve actually been asked to replace existing document management systems because they weren’t working for the company. An ECM can be full of robust functionality, but if users aren’t actually using it, it’s completely worthless.

Ingredient 2: The ECM is Non-Proprietary

Proprietary technology is technology that is owned exclusively by a single company. An example of this is the popular PDF format, which is owned by Adobe and requires their Reader.

Many of the early ECM products were loaded with proprietary technology – they had unique hard drives, hardware, databases, and image files. Today, it’s a little harder to spot, but it’s still happening. Some ECM products only use a modified TIFF file format or rely on the PDF format, which requires the Adobe Reader.

Additionally, many vendors offer an add-on imaging module to their product, such as a CRM or ERP system. These imaging modules, for the most part, have very limited capability and are only useful for documents related to the vendor’s product.

Often, companies use proprietary formats or methods of attaching documents to their systems. Having these proprietary items may make it difficult to upgrade the system, integrate it to another system, use it for other documents in the organization, or migrate to a new ECM system.

Ingredient 3: The ECM is Scalable

Any product you select should be able to grow as your needs grow. Many of the early systems came in certain user sizes, such as 10, 25, 50 or 100. This meant that if you were at 24 users and wanted to add just one more, you would have a huge expense.

Equally problematic are systems that can only handle a certain number of users and pages.

The system that you select should be able to expand from one user to any number of users. You should also be able to add features such as batch processing or workflow, if and when you need them.

Ingredient 4: The ECM is Adaptable to Your Current Working Environment

The product you select and the way you implement it must be able to adapt to the way people are accustomed to working.

This means that the way you store things on paper should be similar to the way you will now store them electronically.

For example, if you filed accounts payable documents by company name, then the imaging system you choose should be able to list electronic accounts payable documents in folders filed alphabetically by company name.

Bottom line: you should not have to change the way you do business to fit the software.

Ingredient 5: The ECM Has Open Architecture

Electronic document imaging systems are very powerful and useful to an organization as a standalone unit. But value grows exponentially when you are able to integrate it with other existing systems, such as accounting or contact management.

For example, one city I worked with integrated their ECM with their graphical information system (GIS), their permit program, and their online credit card processing system. The result is that they can now go to a map of the city, click on a parcel (lot), and see all the documents associated with that parcel of land, including permits, correspondence, payments and building prints.

To make sure you can take advantage of integration, pick a system that runs on an open platform, such as Microsoft SQL. It should include a programmer’s tool kit and other utilities that allow it to link to other databases.

Ingredient 6: The Vendor Has a Long-Term Commitment to their ECM Product

One of the leading causes in ECM project failure is when organizations choose a product that is eventually phased out by its vendor.

This is not a problem that is specific to small, entrepreneurial companies. In fact, it occurs just as often in large, solid companies if those companies are focused on some other major product area (such as copier equipment or computer hardware).

Problems occur when large vendors like these view ECM as a small addition to their large corporate portfolio. Meanwhile, their users are viewing the ECM product as a key part of their strategy and using it to house vital company documents. When this happens, users end up feeling betrayed. They’re left hanging with no recourse but to find a way to migrate their data and documents to a new system.

Avoid this problem by choosing an ECM vendor whose main focus is document imaging and who has been in the business for more than ten years. Use the list of questions in Appendix B to help you choose a reliable, committed vendor.

Ingredient 7: The ECM is Implemented in Phases

In my experience, I’ve found that organizations that try to implement everything at once are more likely to fail than those who break the project into several phases and systematically move through the organization.

One reason that these all-or-nothing projects fail is that nothing actually gets completed. Time is divided among all the departments, resulting in lots of starting, but not a lot of follow-through.

Another reason for failure is that people really don’t like change. The default position for most people is resistance, and when a change is fast and sweeping, they tend to push back.

You’ll have much better results if you implement document management slowly over time. Give your employees a chance to see how easy it is. Create realistic goals, and stagger them.

ECM projects do best when they are implemented by evolution rather than by revolution.


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