Archeologists lament the destruction of the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, and the loss of so much information.
That's because even if the shelves contained only ancient romance novels, self-help books and celebrity bios, it would have given us an integrated view of a bygone era.
This kind of understanding prompts enthusiasm for enterprise content management (ECM) systems.
Imagine being able to pluck information from an SAP AG application, marry it with data in a legacy finance application and then connect it to customer data lodged in an e-commerce server database.
For business managers who believe that more information equals better customer service, healthier profits and more efficient use of resources, the benefits of rapidly and coherently gluing information together seem obvious.
How to get to this enlightened state is the function of ECM systems.
But first it's worth recognizing that information comes in two flavors for content management systems: structured and unstructured. And the real test of an ECM system is its content integration capabilities. Structured data comes in a format, such as rows, columns and specific templates easily recognizable to businesses as invoices, sales reports and time sheets.
Unstructured data is more fluid and more associative, often residing in e-mail programs and audio and video files. This poses a challenge to clean organization and presentation.
"Enterprise content management is about integrating unstructured and structured data and ultimately reusing it via the Web or some type of extranet," says Nick Wilkoff, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.
There are three approaches to ECM and one that contributes to ECM but is in essence enterprise application integration (EAI) technology.
One approach involves software from companies such as Day Management AG in which an application's data is viewed via a Java servlet permitting real-time access to data in the native location.
A second, championed by Vignette Corp. and Documentum Inc., aggregates data in a single repository. Sophisticated publishing and content management tools are then applied without risk to the native data environments.
A third approach, demonstrated by companies such as Interwoven, compiles data in an object-based repository, exerting maximum control over the information. The challenge here is to transfer content to this object-based repository.
In each case, ECM vendors offer connectors or adapters to bridge structured and unstructured data. But this is the traditional territory of EAI vendors such as Tibco Software Inc., webMethods Inc., SeeBeyond Technology Corp., Vitria Technology Inc. and IBM (with its CrossWorld's acquisition) that also perform some ECM functions.
With an integrated ECM system, even the mundane can provide insight.