SharePoint and Documentum, The Need for Therapy

A while back, I talked about how Patience is a Virtue while waiting for the proper integration of SharePoint and Documentum.  Andrew Chapman and the team at EMC have been working hard, and we will have what we need, at least the first step, before too much longer.  In the meantime, we have choices to make, and consequences to deal with, on a daily basis.

The biggest problem right now isn’t that EMC’s solution is behind the curve.  The current solution from EMC is comparable to their competitor’s offerings.  The problem is that the solution is inherently inadequate.  EMC knows this (which is a good thing), but until they, or anyone, gives us a better option, what do we do?

Therapy for the Masses

I’ve been percolating these thoughts for a while, but Alan Pelz-Sharpe’s post over at CMS Watch kicked me into action.  He relates the story of a rough Records Management implementation using Documentum and the later attempt to implement everything with SharePoint as the front-end.  The main problem, one of the many problems (for there are several), is that the pilot didn’t have the two products fully integrated before the “pilot” become production.

I laughed, but I could have easily cried.  I have clients, past and present, that have been, or are, in this situation.  Pilot systems growing into production systems before they are ready is an all too common reality.  More relevant to this discussion is the challenge that they are having getting the two to work together.

Those with SharePoint can’t really implement the current solutions without the users noticing a big difference.  The integration of an ECM system into SharePoint isn’t seamless.  If the user start with SharePoint, they tend to be happy.  When you throw in the ECM system behind the scenes, they might still be happy, but things are now different.  Users don’t like different.  Users might not be using the Document Libraries anymore, but Web Parts that surface migrated content in the Documentum repository.  Documents might now be represented as “shortcuts”.  As Andrew points out, when you work with shortcuts, SharePoint processes, and links to, the shortcut itself and not the actual document.

SharePoint is a simple application for users to comprehend.  It integrates with their MS Office tools and there are no pesky plug-ins or downloads.  There are no java libraries to configure or validate and the users don’t need special permissions on their desktop to install anything.  IT JUST WORKS!

Documentum is a power-user tool.  The user interface is powerful, and intimidating at times.  Will CenterStage arrive in time?  No bets here.

I think I need a drink.

How It Should Work

Let’s say I am a user of SharePoint, which is actually true.  I’m a good little user and I load all sorts of useful content into SharePoint to help everyone do their job better, mostly true.  Behind the scenes, the poor database is starting to limp because of all the content that I, and my dutiful colleagues, are loading.  The solution is simple, put a more robust ECM system behind it.

The problem is that things change when that happens.  I now have shortcuts and/or I have my content in Web Parts and not Document Libraries.  Things have moved on me and I have to tell everyone how to access things now, AFTER I find them myself.

In theory the problem should be resolved simply.  I plug my ECM system of choice into the back of SharePoint and *POOF*, no more problems.  The users have no clue as to what happened.  They just know that they can just do their work without having technology limitations impact their business needs.

Where is this solution?  Well, it is just becoming possible.  Andrew outlines the two real options, EBS and RBS, as well as the pros and cons of each.  He doesn’t go into too much detail regarding product direction, but Robin East spills some details while talking about a Product Advisory Forum from Momentum Europe 2008.  Some of the information is under NDA , and some may have changed, so I’ll let you read his gleanings from the session.  At the time, it appears that EBS was the leader between the two.

[Edit: Mine and Andrew’s discussions are under NDA and I hesitate on what specifics that I can share. Robin’s post is free and clear due to the avenue that he acquired his information. I don’t like to talk about it purely from a CYA perspective.]

There are a lot of open issues on how to make this work.  Identity Management and channeling changes initiated by Documentum back up to SharePoint are two of the ones that are being addressed, but the answers aren’t here…yet.

What To Do Now

Here is the basic problem, what do people do between now and the time that Microsoft, EMC, or some other vendor can make SharePoint do everything it needs to do without impacting the user experience?  I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford that much therapy.  The answer revolves around applying common sense.

Move ahead.  Just think twice before you begin the integration process.  This isn’t to say that the options are poor or to be avoided, at least not all of them.  It is simply that if you do integrate now, then you are probably going to have to change the user experience down the road (and/or now if SharePoint is already deployed).  The users may not like it.  If you are really unlucky, the transition/migration won’t work at all.

These are the steps I would be looking at if I had both right now:

  • SharePoint is easy for the users, so use it.  User acceptance is one of the largest challenges regarding the adoption of Content Management systems.  Solve that problem.  Just deploy SharePoint in moderation.
  • Get some governance in place to control the growth of SharePoint.  Control, Control, You MUST learn Control! The controlled growth will make it easier to transition things later and keep things from getting too close to the precipice before you are ready to take the next step.
  • Build your Documentum environment, and solutions, for your power-users.  use it for those business applications that need more ECM focus and muscle, like publishing, Imaging, and Digital Asset Management.
  • When the time is right, slip Documentum behind SharePoint to strengthen SharePoint and allow for growth at a more natural rate.
  • Expose the Documentum-based solutions through SharePoint so that those that aren’t power-users can leverage the new ECM muscle that has been placed behind SharePoint.

This may look like a lot of work, but compared to the alternatives (pushing SharePoint past its limits or repeatedly changing the user experience), it is a walk in the park.  I know some people that have been burned by SharePoint, but their organization didn’t always exercise restraint, or patience.

This is a problem that can be solved, now.  It just takes a little bit of group therapy to get to the light at the end of the tunnel.

I think I’ll get that drink now…