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Enterprise Content: The Other Big Data

by Joshua Greenbaum | insiderPROFILES

July 1, 2013

Companies continuously try to figure out what to do with new data that is flooding in from websites, sensors, and consumer devices. In his latest column, Joshua Greenbaum discusses how the other aspect of big data — structured and unstructured enterprise content from classic business documents such as invoices, purchase orders, procurement documents, etc. — is as important to the innovation of business processes as new forms of big data.
 

The conversation around big data often starts and stops with a discussion about what to do with the petabytes of new data flooding the enterprise from websites, sensors, and consumer devices. But there’s another aspect to big data that’s as old as SAP R/3 itself — and that, in most companies, dates back to the first day the IT department turned on the switch to its first SAP ERP instance. That other side of big data is enterprise content: classic business documents like invoices, purchase orders, regulatory filings, service and maintenance records, procurement documents, and other structured and unstructured data elements that SAP R/3 and its successors generate by the gigabyte — and that are now overrunning company databases.

This mountain of content has been growing for decades, and for most SAP customers, the main goal has been to devise a good archiving strategy for a collection of data that has largely been considered non-strategic. A small but growing number of SAP users have realized that these older structured and unstructured pieces of content are as important to the innovation of their business processes as anything that comes from their consumer websites, sensors, or customer and employee mobile devices.

Roadblocks to a Successful Enterprise Content Strategy

Even though businesses are realizing that old-line content has strategic value in this era of big data, they are still running into major barriers. A lack of technology is one. Most companies’ content management solutions date to the previous century, and SAP’s homegrown content management functionality is not its strongest asset.

More important, however, is a lack of enterprise-wide vision. While there is no shortage of sponsors willing to invest in the latest buzz-factor issues — such as mobility, collaboration, SAP HANA, and cloud technology, for example — content doesn’t have the same cachet or appeal.

The idea of enterprise content-centric projects is not popular; too many companies still approach content as a problem to be solved by individual departments and their content creators, as opposed to looking at the role of content in a much more strategic, broader light.

And by looking at the role that content plays in innovation as an afterthought rather than as content’s raison-d’etre, SAP customers are leaving out an important driver of innovation — one that can actually give buzz-factor issues the very justification for major investments that the proponents of these capabilities have been struggling to find.

The reason for this lack of comprehensive vision is due in part to the chimeric nature of content: It’s hard to have a comprehensive vision about a set of data elements that can have vastly different functions and behaviors as they are shunted from one business process to the next, and from the domain of one business process owner to another. And while the usefulness of any individual piece of content has typically grown in the last decade, having an enterprise perspective on its changing role has been difficult.

Today, Enterprise Content Spans Business Processes

Take, for example, the ordinary invoice. At the dawn of most companies’ SAP ERP journeys, the invoice was the exclusive domain of the financial management part of an ERP process, and its main user was a finance clerk. Today, this same invoice has a potential role to play in optimizing key business processes in procurement and supply chain management. It can be part of a supplier review process, play a critical role in an audit, and of course, customer service wants the call center representatives to have customer invoices on their screens to help resolve payment or shipping problems as quickly and accurately as possible.

It’s easy to step back and see how many ways a single piece of content can impact multiple processes. But the fact that these different uses span vastly different functional domains means that there is rarely, if ever, any individual in the organization who is responsible for overseeing the role of content in this way. Individual process owners know how the content fits into their process, but they have neither the vision nor the responsibility to understand how that piece of content can be used across the enterprise.

It is precisely this broad, cross-process purpose to enterprise content that makes it important for SAP customers to take the enterprise view of content, particularly when it comes to innovation. Silos of content management functionality are also silos of inefficiency, and by ignoring the opportunities afforded by an enterprise-wide view of content, companies condemn their business processes to excessive complexity and limit their innovation.

Indeed, one of the best ways to optimize a set of business processes is to study the flow of documents as they are used by the different stakeholders. All too often, such analysis reveals wasted steps and handoffs, and a lot of excessive printing and distribution of paper-based versions of the document. In many cases, the waste is a direct result of the different handoffs that take place between processes as individuals use a given document. Each process needs a copy of the document, often in a slightly different format, and on whatever device makes sense for the particular process step.

A document should live in a centralized repository that understands the various formats needed by different processes. Instead, this document becomes a piece of enterprise spam, bouncing in and out of different applications and data stores, with its usability compromised by not having the correct format or structure for the job.

This is all too often the status quo in many SAP shops, and with this problem as the starting point, the usability of content becomes a major barrier to the extension of core business processes into new innovative areas. Trying to implement an enterprise-wide innovation strategy around new processes or new capabilities like mobile, cloud, and SAP HANA are doomed to mediocrity if an enterprise-wide view of content isn’t part of the innovation strategy.

Be Aware: Old Content Is as Important as New Big Data

Creating a successful enterprise-wide content strategy doesn’t require hiring a chief content officer, though in many companies that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea. All that is required is an awareness that old-style content is as essential to innovation as new-fangled big data, as well as an equally strong awareness that content optimization requires an understanding of how content travels from one process to another.

Add in a cost-benefit analysis of what happens when field service technicians can’t find the documents needed to fix an immediate problem — a customer is kept on hold while the wrong invoice loads on the call center rep’s desktop, or an auditor is kept waiting while someone looks for a proof of certification. The need for an enterprise content strategy is usually the inevitable result.  

       
       
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Joshua Greenbaum has more than 25 years of experience as a computer programmer, systems and industry analyst, author, and consultant. He spent three years in Europe as an industry analyst and a correspondent for Information Week and other industry publications.

Joshua regularly consults with leading public and private enterprise software, database, and infrastructure companies, and advises end users on infrastructure and application selection, development, and implementation issues. You can reach Joshua at editor@insiderPROFILES.wispubs.com.

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