Business Leader Interview - John Newton - co-founder of Alfresco & current chairman of AIIM

 

Over the past 3-4 years, the ECM sector has undergone a dramatic evolution, both in respect of technology innovation and the buying behaviour of end users. However, the necessity for organisations to harness, manage and exploit their information assets has remained fundamentally the same.
 
Developments, such as the explosion of content, spawned by the Internet and the move away from licence/server software applications to SaaS, Cloud based and Open Source alternatives, combined with the quest for dynamic, multi-channel customer communications and improved business process efficiencies, have all had a major impact on this sector.
 
The rise of new Cloud based document & content management solutions from providers such as Dropbox, Box and Google, as well as “Big Data” hosted service providers such as Amazon, Rack Space and many others, combined with the rapid adoption of mobile and social media communications, has generated a new "wild west" frontier for the ECM sector in an increasingly “post-pc” era
 
Document Boss speaks with John Newton, one of the architects & founders of Documentum, co-founder of Alfresco & current chairman of AIIM, for an update on his company, his perspectives on the impact of some of these changes and his outlook for the future of the “ECM” sector.
 
Q.  Welcome to Document Boss, John. Can we start with some background on you?
A. My entire career has been devoted to content. In the 90s I co-founded and designed Documentum, which was later acquired by EMC. I then took what I had learned, to turn around and innovate the ECM space by co-founding Alfresco, the open source enterprise content management platform. Today, with content as our currency, Alfresco powers greater global secure collaboration throughout the lifecycle of an organization’s data. My passion for content also led me to join the board of AIIM, an organization that embodies the ECM industry, and in 2012, became its chairman.
 
Q. What was the vision that prompted you to found Alfresco and what is the core offering of the company?

A. I was surprised at how little the ECM industry had changed from the early 2000s. Most of the “innovation” was acquisition and consolidation. Content and the management of content is essential to enterprise productivity and deserves to evolve and improve. I, along with my Alfresco colleagues, felt that open source would provide the new model to innovate processes and introduce dramatic development that open source had already delivered to the infrastructure.
 
At its heart, Alfresco’s content platform allows organizations to fully manage any type of content - from simple office documents, to scanned images, photographs, engineering drawings and large video files.  Alfresco's built-in workflow helps companies automate document intensive business processes, saving both time and money.  Our native collaboration features also provide secure collaboration, inside and outside the firewall, along with cloud-based access anywhere. All this is powered by an open source, open standards platform, bringing the latest in content technology at a significantly reduced cost of operations.
 
Q. What market drivers have contributed to the success of Alfresco and how do you differentiate between the other well-known ECM players in the market?

A. We are at an ECM crossroads. Although the concept has been around for a couple of decades, due to the rise of the extended enterprise and the widespread use of mobile devices, how one manages all this content has become less, rather than more clear. Evolving from localized DM and paper-imaging systems to a much wider role across all types of content, the goal of ECM still remains the same. According to AIIM, ECM’s purpose is to manage, share and process electronic content across the organization. We are now experiencing a market shift, requiring access to content and collaboration on it to take place outside of the firewall with easy-to-use content solutions - to remote staff, to mobile devices and to third parties.
 
Meanwhile, most organizations have accumulated multiple ECM or DM systems as a result of mergers, legacy and localized solutions. At the same time, ERP, CRM and other Systems of Record have been steadily collecting documents and reports that need to be shared much more widely. ECM is also likely to be the gateway to compliance and records management (RM) archives, so we need to extend retention management and e-discovery to these multiple repositories and figure out how to manage the new content and record types popping up every day.
 
Alfresco continues to differentiate itself by remaining diligent in providing a flexible solution while, at the same time, remaining focused on finding new ways to manage, share and process electronic content across the organization to scale business demand.  We have invested heavily to provide solutions that sync inside the enterprise and outside, providing our own cloud service for easy, on-demand access.
 
Q. What has been the impact of M/S SharePoint on the market and your business?
A. When the massive growth of SharePoint first hit the market it had customers seeking an open alternative to deliver benefits with a platform of choice. So it has helped increase Alfresco’s popularity among developers and the larger, open source community, seeking freedom of choice in their hardware, database, operating system, application server and portal products. In fact, we were the first to release a SharePoint protocol based upon Microsoft’s disclosure of the protocol mandated by the European Commission and Sharepoint has taught us a lot about what users don’t want.
 
Q. With respect to SaaS & Cloud based offerings, security and control are still seen as major barriers to adoption.  How are you addressing such concerns and how do you see such solutions further evolving?
A. Alfresco in the cloud provides a secure collaboration network for your organization that allows you to share and manage content securely in the cloud, in any location and on any device. It also allows your users to work securely with third-party organizations with an easy invite and security model that gives enterprises controlled access as well as maintaining compliance when appropriate.
 
Many people think cloud is an either/or option, but the future is a hybrid ECM solution. It addresses the often-conflicting requirements of both users and IT, while at the same time, giving enterprises the strategic platform they need to manage enterprise content in the hybrid cloud/on-premise environments that will characterize enterprise IT for years to come.
 
Q. With the rapid rise of Mobile and Social media communications how do you see this changing the ECM landscape over the next 2-3 years?
A. As smart phone and tablet sales outstrip PC and laptop sales, mobile access to content is vital and requires documents be available for offline viewing, editing, commenting and approving. Content workflows will begin and end with mobile devices. As the mobile device becomes the basis of awareness of what is happening in the world and in business, it will play an increasingly important and critical role in the next two to three years.
 
Most users I’ve spoken to, seem keen to build their internal, social platform within ECM, but, when it comes to emails, this neat picture of content convergence breaks down. The user base is equally split between manually feeding them into the ECM or RM system, sending them to a dedicated email archive or simply ignoring the growing problem.
 
The biggest issue with meeting vertical industry needs, particularly in areas such as case management and asset management, is whether to continue maintaining in-house customization through successive upgrades or whether to pull in add-on products or even replace the current ECM system with one better matched to these requirements. These are the types of decisions we’ll see being made over the next couple of years. In the future, the lines will be more blurred than ever, meaning that search, tagging and meta data will be more important than ever.
 
Q. We understand, as a technology company, your growth has been organic, with the exception of your recent acquisition of WeWebU?  What drove such an acquisition and do you anticipate further growth via acquisition?
A. Much of Alfresco’s growth has been in providing a content platform with easy-to-use content applications for collaboration, document control and website publishing. We see a shift in the use of content in business processes enabled by solutions. For example, WeWebU (now Alfresco Workdesk) provides an easy to configure application platform that means case-oriented solutions, such as contract management, claims management and incident tracking, could be delivered through configuration rather than development or customization. Therefore, time-to-solution can be dramatically reduced. The application is also adaptable to changing business roles, meaning that these configurations can cut out the noise of information management and get to the meat of the task at hand. This is the basis for ease of use – simplifying the use of content in context, based on your business role.
 
Q. The cultural differences between Documentum and Alfresco appear dramatically different. What are some of the major differences and what do you consider are the three essential ingredients in building a world class software business?
A. Documentum lost its desire for innovation a long time ago and I love innovation. Content management has not even begun to reach its full potential with new analytical technologies and machine learning. Embracing open source, we are constantly learning from our community the unlimited possibilities of innovation, which has been and will continue to be a competitive difference between Alfresco and Documentum.  
 
Q.  What are the next major discontinuities and changes you see impacting the ECM sector over the next 4-5 years and, wearing your AIIM hat, will this acronym still survive in that period?
A. There was once a clear roadmap for ECM to achieve these primary goals, but we are now truly at a crossroads - which of our systems do we use for collaboration, which for document process workflows, which for emails and which for long term records management? Do we consolidate and migrate or connect and federate? Do we hook up to mobile devices through the firewall or do we use the cloud? Should we put all of our content in the cloud or just some of it - or none of it?
 
A recent survey by AIIM revealed that the “ECM ideal” is very patchy, with most organizations having multiple ECM systems with key elements such as capture, records management and process workflow yet to be integrated. It also found that more structured content lives in other enterprise systems outside of ECM than is currently accessible through ECM.
 
Interestingly, the same survey also found that the majority of organizations are still set on the objective of a single ECM system across the business. They look to the ECM system as a collaboration platform, are keen to improve their records management, would like to integrate search capabilities across other enterprise systems and are looking to further invest in capture and process capabilities.
 
The rise of mobile, social and cloud computing is dramatically changing the way people work and this has major implications for the management of enterprise content. Users need to be able to share information easily with collaborators and they need to be able to access their content at any time, anywhere on any device - whether that's a laptop computer, smartphone or tablet. At the same time, organizations must ensure enterprise content is secure and managed in accordance with governance and compliance policies.
 
Hybrid ECM will be the future of ECM. It addresses the frequently conflicting requirements of both users and IT and gives enterprises the strategic platform they need to manage enterprise content in the hybrid cloud/on-premise environments that will characterize enterprise IT for years to come. ECM has been one of the few areas of IT to maintain double-digit growth over the past few years and there seems no reason to doubt that this will continue.
 
Will the name ECM survive? That is a frequent topic of conversation at the board level and we believe the answer is yes. However, the term ECM will come to mean different things as the scope of content and usage expands outside the firewall, into our mobile devices and beyond the typical enterprise application use cases.