Recently, Alan Weintraub of Forrester Research published a paper in which he posed an interesting question: Can Google solve your ECM needs? Let's have a look.

Written with Mathew Brown and Joseph Dang, what it boils down to is an examination of Google Apps, and Docs in particular, and then asks, on the basis of that examination, whether Google can fulfill a company’s enterprise content management needs.

This may seem to be an obvious question, with an even more obvious answer, but the fact that it is being asked at the moment is, in itself, interesting.

However, to answer the simple question with an equally simple answer: No; neither Google Docs, nor even Google Apps can compete with a well planned and well developed enterprise content management system. It just doesn’t have the functionality -- not yet, at least.

We say this because anyone who is familiar with Google Apps and Docs will know that its functionality while extensive is still considerably less than an Enterprise CMS.

Even if Google keeps adding to Apps and Docs on a weekly basis, as it seems to do at the moment, it is still a long way off from providing ECM functionality.

In fairness to Google, it has never claimed to offer that. With Docs, all it has ever claimed is that it can offer a relatively cheap alternative to current productivity suites like Office 2010, or even Zoho.

Google Docs Drivers

So why would this ever have become an issue? There are two answers we think, both of them related.

  1. Lack of a clear understanding about the functionality of Google Docs and what it is for
  2. Lack of clarity over what an enterprise content management should consist of

In both cases, it is not the business users fault either that there should be a lack of clarity.

Rather, it reflects the rapid rate of the expanding functionality of both Google Docs and enterprise content management systems.

Google Docs was created in 2007 as a way for people to share documents easily. Four years later, Weintraub says, 8% of IT departments support Google Docs for productivity, and 9% support Google Apps for business for collaboration needs.

He says that calls to Forrester from enterprises show that the pick up of Google Docs is driven by three different trends:

  1. Consumerization: This is when users learn a new technology at home and bring it into work with them. Here, he cites Gmail as the driver, which would have been brought into the work place and resulted in employees using other Google tools like Docs.
  2. Cloud Hype: Google has actively promoted itself as a cloud purist, and cloud computing has become associated with lean, agile and low-cost IT, and many users expect it to solve all their IT problems.
  3. ECM “backlash”: Google Docs is perceived as a low cost, easy to deploy and easy to use technology. Inquires to Forrester are increasingly concerned with how Google Docs fits within the ECM function.

Google Docs and Document Management

Specifically, Weintraub says, users are looking a number of different functions that are provided by many enterprise content management systems, but for a variety of reasons, including price and ease of use, they are turning to Google Docs.

ECM V Google Docs_Forrester.jpg

Leaving aside obvious functions like email and calendaring, Google Docs also provides a number of functions that normally fall with the scope of document management: These include

  • File sharing: Enables multiple users to share and collaborate on documents, which are automatically backed up by Google’s data centres where document histories are also stored.
  • File storage: Each user is allowed 1GB of storage free, although we have seen recently how that could be extended for a small fee.
  • File synchronization: Google recently released Cloud Connect that enables automatic synchronization of all kinds of office documents.
  • Tagging and archiving: Google Docs supports tagging and archiving and can be run on any browser.

Google Docs v ECM

However, Google Docs is meant for the end-user and for ease of user anywhere and by anyone. The result is that it lacks much of the functionality that current enterprise content management systems offer.

It lacks for example, the security and library features of most ECMs. In fact, security is largely left to the end user, which means it is easy to share documents, but not really possible to control those shares.

Nor does it come with the fundamental content technologies that a full enterprise content management system normally provides.

That is not to say that Google Docs should be written off as an enterprise tool, Weintraub says, particularly in terms of value and access.

Value, he argues, is evaluated by factors like acquisition cost, cost to create, legal and regulatory requirements among others, while access is determined by who, or what groups within an enterprise need to use the content in the course of their work.

Forrester_Content v Access.jpg

Evaluating content by the relationship between value and access will offer enterprises guidelines as to where Google Docs might be used.

Classifying Content

Taking three different kinds of content, it becomes clear where Google Docs fits:

1. Casual

In low value operations in respect of the enterprise and limited access groups, content only really needs informal management and Google Doc is ideal for that.

This kind of content Weintraub describes as “casual content” and can include things like team meeting minutes, public and enterprise-sanctioned information like professional phone numbers, or public facing blogs. In effect, anything that does not need versioning and taxonomy.

2. Controlled

Content that is used at low organizational levels, but may also find itself sifting up through the ranks of the organization. Included in this might be human resources policies or legal contracts. It is clear at this level records management and library records are needed here, neither of which are available with Google Docs.

3. Regulated

Highly governed content that might, for example, be requested in compliance proceedings and that needs to be held in highly formalized processes. This requires all the advanced features of a full, enterprise content management system with archiving, records management and security.

The problem with breaking content into these categories is that the decision of what is casual content and what isn’t, or what content requires to be managed with an ECM and that which can remain in Google Docs.

Content Management?

And that’s where we see the real problem; when is content important and when is it not? How long is a piece of string?

Current thinking -- and we have seen this many times in many different reports -- suggests that all content should be managed; that it should all be tagged and placed in appropriate repositories.

That content chaos is still a major problem is not so much to do with huge quantities of content as to do with huge amounts of content that is not planned, or managed.Content that is thrown into an enterprise content management system without planning is always going to be a problem, regardless of whether it is kept in Google Docs, or in an official Enterprise CMS.

Google Docs was never meant to be a document management system, and all the functionality that has been added over recent months is only meant to facilitate production of content by individuals, or groups. It was never meant to be a cheap replacement for proper enterprise content management.

Comparing ECMs and Google Docs is like comparing cats and dogs, and saying that because they both have four legs they must be the same. There are definitely superficial similarities, but try getting your cat to beg for its dinner.

Google Docs may be nibbling at the ECM market, but that’s all it’s ever going to do without some very major and unlikely changes. Google Docs and ECM are not the same, people!