The ECM Innovator’s Dilemma

So I promised an ECM specific follow-up to my book review on Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma.  There is a lot to talk about, so I’m not going to blather on with a long intro (though this sentence seems to be compounding the issue) and get right to it.

Or not…I have some disclaimers/notes:

  • Going to try and use as much of Chistensen’s terminlogy as possible.  This isn’t to say that he has a perfect model, or even 80% model, of what is happening.  It just helps to keep the terminology consistent during this particular post.
  • Every Content Management company is different and the observations will not apply universally.  Every company reacts differently.  That said, if I didn’t think that this applied to a large number of vendors, I would have targeted this post at particular vendors.

NOW we can get started.

Why Disruption Now?

There are several trains of thought out there that this dilemma doesn’t really apply to the Internet age because we are in a constant state of disruption.  This an important observation, so let me address this first.

The initial disruption was the Internet.  Since then, everything has mostly been a continuation of that disruption.  Much of the chaos has been sustaining technology for the original disruption.

Everyone agrees that the web impacted the Content Management industry strongly.  Stellant (now Oracle), Interwoven (now part of Open Text), and Vignette (now consumed by Autonomy)all came from the WCM space.  When you look at it though, it was just a new content problem.  Sustaining innovative technologies.  Unique needs, but no more so than Records Management, Imaging, or Digital Asset Management.

So what is qualifying as disruptive to Content Management these days?  Content Management itself has been disrupting the offsite paper record storage and microfiche industry, but what is actually disrupting the disruptor?  The Internet and the browser didn’t do it directly, but it became a sustaining technology for ECM.  The browser interfaces enhanced adoption over time for the existing vendors.  Definitely not disruptive.

Well, Content Management is being disrupted from a couple of directions:

  • SharePoint: It isn’t SharePoint, but what it represents, basic Content Management for the masses.  It may not be the most functional, or scale to handle any situation, but it is easy to buy, install, and integrate into the most used productivity application suite, Office.
  • The Cloud: Many SaaS Content Management offering cannot currently compete on functionality with the established ECM bigwigs, but that is just a matter of time.  They are established, have found a starting market, and are adding functionality.  As SharePoint demonstrated, they don’t need to match the established solutions to eat into the market share, they just need to hit the minimum requirement level, document sharing.

Open Source isn’t on the list because that is a model for solving problems, but not truly disruptive.   It is a just a different business model and not a sustaining technology.  For many, it boils down to appealing to people’s inner nature and a different pricing structure.  This is a gross over-generalization, but so is this entire post.

The Cloud could be called just a different pricing structure, but it is also a different delivery model. It is disruptive because no matter what the established vendors say, their software has not been architected for that environment, so it is not plug-and-play.

Those are the disruptions.  They are fundamental shifts in how Content Management is delivered.  They are shifts towards Content Management becoming more of a commodity (though we aren’t there yet).

Microsoft’s Attack

Okay, you can argue that they are disruptive at all or that they will just become a “sustaining technology” down the road.  If the latter is the case, most of the established vendors will survive. (Acquisitions and consolidation aside, we are talking about the actual software offerings).

When SharePoint arrived in the 2003 timeframe, it was nice, quaint, and not nearly functional enough to really have a significant impact on the Content Management market.  It wasn’t until the advent of the 2007 edition that it became an issue.

The initial response was pretty consistent, “Yeah, it does that, but it will fall apart under any real work.”  Well, the market didn’t care.  A large number of people didn’t, and still don’t, need the complicated solutions offered by the established vendors.

Over time, as SharePoint started to erode sales, the vendor strategy shifted to enhancing SharePoint.  This was fine and it started to drive sales, but SharePoint hasn’t stopped evolving.  In 2010 is has the ability to store content outside of the database, manages data better, scales better, and has better Records Management.  The need for SharePoint additional Content Management style capabilities is shifting towards archiving and governance.

When you look at this even more closely, it isn’t that SharePoint is a disruptive technology as much as it is a disruptive new vendor in the existing landscape.  So while SharePoint is very disruptive in its nature, it isn’t a “disruptive technology” as discussed by Christensen.

Still, ignore at your own risk.

The All-Encompassing Fog of the Cloud

Meanwhile, in the bushes, the cloud-based SaaS offering are lurking, ready to pounce.  They have realized a few important things:

  • Not only do many people not need all of the functionality provided by the Content Management vendors, they don’t want to manage the data center either.
  • Users are getting used to a rapid pace of innovation from their increased exposure to the ever-evolving Internet.  The three year “big release” has become a detriment  from an user expectation perspective, not to mention the nightmare for the IT and Change Management personnel.  Lots of incremental changes are easier to deal with than huge massive changes.
  • The ability to share content outside of an organization is becoming more important, and not easier.  If I still have to email that 10 MB presentation to business partners (copying my colleagues), that really cuts into some of the important selling points of ECM.

The SaaS vendors don’t have all the answers, yet.  They are still working on security and many of the CYA features that your average CIO wants.  The thing is, those requirements are well defined, so it is just a matter of addressing them.  Research is only needed to prioritize, not define.

When those gaps are addressed by the SaaS solutions, who will win the market?  Those that are ready from day one, or those that try and create/market their solution after the questions are answered?  There is more to being a solid cloud offering than fancy marketing and a feature list.  The processes and the business value that they support is different than from a traditional software vendor.  Running a successful, secure, reliable, scalable online service is not the same as writing a COTS software package.

The Reaction

Some of the established vendors may tell you that their clients aren’t asking for the Cloud at this time.  They are asking for better business solutions, like Case Management.  Existing clients are asking for Case Management.  I’ve heard it.  The thing is that people that I talk to who are looking for new Content Management solutions are seriously considering cloud-based solutions.

How consistently are they asking? Well, in 2009 I was helping a large, 50K+ user, organization look at vendors, and they invited a SaaS provider to present their solution.  I knew going in that the vendors didn’t meet all the critical requirements, and I even told the client as much.  Didn’t matter.  They want to move in that direction as part of an overall strategy, so they were going to talk to the vendor about what the vendor offered and tell that vendor what was lacking for them to make a purchase.

Did the lack of a cloud-based solution get mentioned to the other Content Management vendors?  No.  The closest was when someone asked about external hosting and they mentioned that they had partners that can offer that service.  A savvy market research person would be able to see that question that as a potential need for cloud-based solutions, but a sales person, even if they are smart, don’t have the same channels.

But I digress and this post is already pretty long.

So the Content Management vendors, looking for double-digit growth, are pushing Case Management so they can land the multi-million dollar deals required for that growth.  Smaller cloud-based vendors don’t need to close deals of that magnitude to have double-digit growth in a quarter, much less a year.  The ECM vendors are chasing the large deals while the smaller deals get left to SaaS and SharePoint.

Christensen talks about this as companies moving up-market while the new vendors, based upon the disruptive technologies, tackle the lower market.  As the the firms innovate faster than the needs of the average customer, they can move up-market and take revenue from the established vendors.

So right now, SaaS vendors are doing this in the Content Management space.  They aren’t able to compete on functionality yet, but they are adding it faster than the market is demanding new features.  It is only a matter of time before they hit the minimum level needed for them to be a player.

There is Not Plenty of Time

As I discussed in the review, there are a ton of examples focused on the hard drive industry.  I think a more relevant example is the excavator industry.

In the first half of the 20th century, cable-actuated excavators ruled the construction world.  Each new model could scoop more thanks to larger buckets and deposit it further away.  The market drivers were bucket size and reach.

Then came the hydraulic excavators.  Made by new companies, these had smaller buckets and a smaller reach.  They couldn’t compete against the established cable-actuated vendors, but they worked well for people needing to dig precise trenches and other smaller tasks.

Over time, years and years, the bucket size and reach grew to the point that the larger construction project started to buy them.  While they could not in any way out-perform the cable-actuated excavators, they were more reliable, cost less per unit (though not less per cubic ft. bucket size), and were generally cheaper to operate.

By the end of the transition, which took decades, of the over 40 cable-actuated excavator vendors, only FOUR successfully transitioned to survive in the new market.  That is less than 10%.  Let me repeat a key fact here…


The technology was there and it was obvious.  Many established vendors entered the market once it was a viable solution for their clients, but by then it was too late.

Why didn’t they enter sooner?  Like many victims of disruptive technology, the margins were less on the new technology, which led to different processes within the makers of the disruptive tech.

Let me put it this way.  Let’s assume that I have historically made a 20% margin on my products.  I get two proposals.  One is for an innovative enhancement on an existing product that will increase sales 10-20% at the current margin.  The other is for a newly engineered solution that will increase sales around 5% at a 10% margin.  With finite resources hich do I approve?

It doesn’t matter if in 5-10 years that the second option will over-take the market, stockholders want results this year, and CEOs want their job next year.  The new markets for the disruptive tech are always fuzzy and ill defined.

This is why startups are the “source” of truly disruptive technology.  They can start with new business structures, values, and processes, that can take advantage of the different margins.  They also get more excited about that $50K deal.

Do you think EMC, Oracle, IBM, or Open Text get exited about $50K deals?

Where Does that Leave Implementers?

In reality, waiting for another post.  Let’s just say life can be good and move on to the wrap-up…

Is Pie Nuts?

While an in-depth study would be required to answer that question, not to mention my forced participation, I’m really talking about selling out to the concept.

Did I read the book, proclaim it as genius, and then seek to fit the world into the model proposed by Christensen?  Not at all.

I’ve been seeing this for a while.  Then this past Spring, I was talking about my observations about what I was seeing in the industry with some others and I was asked if I had read a couple of books.  One was Christensen’s book.  A month later, we were talking again and the book came up a second time, so I went and bought it to read.

What the book did was make me realize that what was happening was actually normal.  This happens in lots of different industries.  It is just harder to determine what qualifies as a disruptive technology in the IT field.  As computers disrupted microfiche in Content Management, the Internet is giving birth to the cloud, which is beginning to disrupt traditional data-center-based enterprise apps, like Content Management.

The best thing is that I realized that this isn’t happening because there are bad executives or managers at the established Content Management vendors, but because of the opposite.  Back to that hypothetical investment question.  What good manager would pick the investment that will increase sales by double digits?

In many ways, the established vendors are trapped by their own success.  There are ways out, but there is no set formula, I may not have the right answers, and I’ve rambled enough for now.  More later.

Flame on….

8 thoughts on “The ECM Innovator’s Dilemma

  1. Chris Campbell says:

    There is a collorary to your statement, which I corrected, “A large number of people didn’t, and still don’t, need solutions to complicated problems offered by the established vendors” that apply to a few people.

    There are some people who need a solution to a complicated problem, but the install base is too small to justify the large cost of the solution. Quick example off the top of my head is how EMC’s Process Services is packaged. IMHO, it should go back to the way it used to be and be bundled with Content Server. To develop a decent workflow to solve my complicated issues, I need to make a significant investment in purchasing three different SKUs. (Content Server, Process Engine, Process Integrator.) It’s the best product, but I can’t achieve a ROI fast enough to justify the cost.

    Sadly, I think most large CMS vendors ignored SharePoint for far too long, which in turn caused a large install base to be created. I believe that this is the true disruption. It’s not because it’s such a great product. It’s because Microsoft basically gave it away for free and made sweetheart deals. It didn’t get quite as bad as giving away a jillion CDs a month with AOL on it, but it was just as effective.


  2. Microsoft made a brilliant strategic move in SharePoint. They realized that the core capability that all Content Management vendors provided was version control. By pushing hard to create a ubiquitous version control platform with good integration with the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem, they could easily grab the lion’s share of the market.

    While certain organizations need more than basic version control, most can make do with the basics Microsoft provides. The rest of the players in the Content Management arena have no choice but to move upmarket or retreat into vertical niches.

    Moving applications into the cloud seems more of a sustaining innovation than a disruptive one. After all, ECM systems are server-based. Where that server resides will simply become a matter of customer choice. The only thing preventing most ECM companies from going the hosted route is loyalty to their existing partner channels and fear of “getting dirty” with the implementation details.


    • Ah, while the concepts are the same, the business model, and the underlying architecture, for cloud solutions are different. This gives you dramatically different margins and price points. After all, you now charge for a service, not a license cost. The SaaS vendors also tend to charge for what you use, not a predetermined amount.


  3. fsoellig says:

    Everyone seems to agree with the analysis of certain industry cases where incumbents were unseated by upstarts, that it was, in hindsight, due to disruptive technology. The discussion above makes it clear that disruptive technology is not so simple to pin point going forward.

    It’s easy to analyze something later and make the facts fit the mold of the model, it’s harder to do that moving forward. Hence the disagreement of whether cloud based computing or SharePoint are disruptive technologies or merely sustaining innovations.

    Unless I’m mistaken, cloud based computing is a platform, while SharePoint is an application. So both can be disruptive innovations without violating the model. Given the definition of disruptive innovations as being cheaper, more convenient and serving the fringe markets, at least to begin with, then both technologies apply.

    If cloud based computing has a different architecture, conceptual structure, or uses different concepts than server based computing, then it can be seen as a possible disruptive innovation. The reason is that in order to run an application in the cloud, the software engineering required will be different than for server applications. Meaning you can’t simply take your product from one instance to the other without re-engineering the processes. If this is the case, then cloud computing is a disruptive technology for software creators.

    Does that make cloud computing a disruptive technology for others? Sure it does. Hardware suppliers, system vendors, IT professionals, and others will all be affected should cloud computing become more widely accepted.

    But just because something is a disruptive technology doesn’t necessarily mean it will disrupt the incumbents. For that to happen, as pointed out in the book, the proponents of the technology must have sufficient resources, the right strategy and the right timing to continue to build market share. And hopefully nothing comes along with a steeper market acceptance curve.

    When you’re small, what you need to do, is place your bet, then work like hell to make your vision of the future come true. When you’re larger and more established, you need to spread your bets using the arms length externalization model laid out in the book.

    Or you can wait 10 years or so on the sidelines, keeping track of the score, then fit all of it into the model and say . . . “There, that was the disruptive technology!”


    • Thanks for the insight, very solid. For me, SP is a new, successful, competitor in the existing Content Management industry. Not unlike the Japanese car industry invading the US. Cloud is more than tech, it also a big difference in the financial model that makes it challenging for the established vendors to introduce the tech.

      Of course, you are correct. We’ll know in 10 years or so.


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