Managing electronic documents isn’t just a “big organization” problem. Small and mid-sized organizations need to be able to protect, organize and share electronic content just as much but they don’t have a $1 million+ budget to deal with the problem. Convinced that “making do” with file shares is not enough, a budget conscious buyer is likely to look in one of two directions, SharePoint or Open Source. While both options have plenty to offer, neither is a magic bullet.

SharePoint is attractive, especially in organizations looking for a collaboration tool. For an group of even 500 people the infrastructure and licensing costs are affordable, but getting people to use SharePoint effectively can take a long time. Often, IT leads the implementation as a technology initiative with a vision of how useful and versatile SharePoint could be. If that is tied to solving a visible, mainstream business problem people are quick to embrace it.

Too often, however, SharePoint implementations follow a “build it and they will come” pathway. SharePoint has much to offer as a technology platform but mainstream business users often don’t understand what it is or how to use it. There’s no immediate, obvious use, and the prospect of spending time and energy learning about it seems like too much trouble so people don’t come to the game. Uptake becomes limited to the few who are willing to tinker and who are forgiving about software that doesn’t do what they want right away.

An alternative that has been gaining momentum is open source ECM. Admittedly, “open source” is a not a term that inspires comfort in everyone; images of something half-built by well-meaning people in their spare time come to mind just a bit too easily. There was a time when that may have been a fair perception, but not any more. As Cheryl McKinnon outlines in a recent post, community supported software has come of age in in the ECM marketplace. There are very credible open source products available from vendors who make their living from ongoing development and support services. They offer the opportunity to get started quickly with a a ready-to-use business solution at a low entry cost, and they provide the kind of back-up that customers expect. Increasingly, both small and large organizations are choosing open source solutions to manage their electronic content.

Open source is not an instant solution. Anyone thinking of implementing a content management solution should understand that these are not simple problems and the same planning work is required no matter what solution they choose. Among other things, organizations need to understand how people will be adding material to the system, how to organize it and how to provide for search and retrieval needs. Is version control part of the picture? What about work flow, or records management? The list goes on.

Not all ECM products are the same. Depending on requirements, one solution may be a good fit right out of the box while another may need development work. Part of the selection process should include a period of downloading and trying out a few candidate products in order to gain insight into what a full scale roll-out would look like. Open Source vendors make that easy to do, and the exercise provides a chance for some hands-on learning, usually at zero expense.

 My own business problem is developing a knowledge base from a collection of a few thousand articles, presentations, research papers and assorted other documents accumulated over the past 20 years or so. Despite my best efforts to keep the collection organized it’s getting harder to find things. Over the next few months I will be downloading, installing and testing a few different open source content management products as I work through the problem of migrating the material into a more managed home.

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