I recently had the opportunity to go to NYC and speak on architecting systems for digital transformation. It was a terrific day with our customers and prospects, as well as the extended Alfresco crew and many of our outstanding partners. This was the first time I’ve delivered this particular talk so I probably stumbled over my words a few times as I was watching the audience reaction as much as the speaker notes. One of the things I always note when speaking is which slides prompt people to whip out their phones and take a picture. That’s an obvious signal that you are hitting on something that matters to them in a way that caught their attention, so they want to capture it. In my last talk, one of the slides that got the most attention and set the cameras snapping pictures was this one:
Digitization of content is the whole reason ECM as a discipline exists in the first place. In the early days of ECM a lot of use cases centered around scanning paper as images and attaching metadata so it could be easily found later. The drivers for this are obvious. Paper is expensive, it takes up space (also expensive), it is hard to search, deliver and copy and you can’t analyze it en masse to extract insights. As ECM matured, we started handling more advanced digital content such as PDFs and Office documents, videos, audio and other data, and we started to manipulate them in new ways. Transforming between formats, for example, or using form fields and field extraction. OCR also played a role, taking those old document image files and breathing into them a new life as first class digital citizens. We layered search and analytics on top of this digital content to make sense of it all and find what we needed as the size of repositories grew ever larger. Digitization accelerated with the adoption of the web. That paper form that your business relied on was replaced by a web form or app, infinitely malleable. That legacy physical media library was transformed into a searchable, streamable platform.
What all of these things have in common is that they are centered around content.
Simply digitizing content confers huge advantages on an organization. It drives down costs, makes information easier to find and allows aggregation and analysis in ways that legacy analog formats never could. While all of those things are important, they only begin to unlock the potential of digital technologies. Digitized content allows us to take the next step: Digitalization. When the cost of storing and moving content drops to near zero, processes can evolve free from many of the previous constraints. BPM and process management systems can leverage the digitized content and allow us to build more efficient and friendlier ways to interact with our customers and colleagues. We can surface the right content to the right people at the right time, as they do their job. Just as importantly, content that falls out of a process can be captured with context, managed as a record if needed. Now instead of just having digitized content, we have digitalized processes that were not possible in the past. We can see, via our process platform, exactly what is happening across our business processes. Processes become searchable and can be analyzed in depth. Processes can have their state automatically affected by signals in the business, and can signal others. Our business state is now represented in a digital form, just like our content.
If digitization is about content, digitalization is about process.
The union of digitized content and digital processes is a powerful combination, and that helps create the conditions for digital transformation. How?
In my opinion (and many others) the single most important thing to happen to technology in recent memory is the rise of the open standards web API. APIs have been around on the web for decades. In fact, my first company was founded to build out solutions on top of the public XML based API provided by DHL to generate shipments and track packages. That was all the way back in the very early 2000s, a lifetime ago by tech standards. Even then though, people were thinking about how to expose parts of their business as an API.
One of the watershed moments in the story of the API happened way back in the early 2000s as well, at Amazon. By this point everybody has read about Amazon’s “Big Mandate”. If you haven’t read about it yet, go read it now. I’ll wait. Ok, ready? Great. So now we know that the seeds for Amazon’s dominance in the cloud were planted over a decade and a half ago by the realization that everything needs to be a service, that the collection of services that you use to run your business can effectively become a platform, and that platform (made accessible) changes the rules. By treating every area of their business as part of the platform, all the way down to the infrastructure that ran them, Amazon changed the rules for everybody.
How does this tie into the first two paragraphs? What about content and process? I’m glad you asked. Content and process management systems take two critical parts of a business (the content it generates and the processes that it executes) and surface them as an API. Want to find a signed copy of an insurance policy document? API. Want to see how many customers are in your sign up pipeline and at what stage? API. Want to see all of the compliance related records from that last round of lab testing? API. Want to release an order to ship? API. Want to add completed training to somebody’s personnel record? API. You get the idea. By applying best practices around content and process management systems, you can quickly expose large chunks of your business as a service, and begin to think of your company as a platform.
This is transformative. When your business is a platform, you can do things you couldn’t do before. You can build out new and better user experiences much more quickly by creating thin UI layers on top of your services. Your internal teams or vendors that are responsible for software that provides the services can innovate independently (within the bounds of the API contract) which immediately makes them more agile. You can selectively expose those services to your customer or partners, enabling them to innovate on top of the services you provide them. You can apply monitoring and analytics at the service layer to see how the services are being used, and by whom (This is one, in fact, I would argue that you MUST do if you plan to orient yourselves toward services in any meaningful way, but that’s a separate article) which adds a new dimension to BI. This is the promise of digital transformation.
There’s certainly more to come on this in the near future as my team continues our own journey toward digital transformation. We are already well down the path and will share our insights and challenges as we go.