Is SharePoint Online ‘Full ECM in the Cloud’?

By David Jones posted 03-14-2014 10:11


SharePoint – some people love it, some hate it and some deny it is even real enterprise content management (ECM). It really is the proverbial elephant in the room for all ECM conversations, and with the move to the cloud provided by SharePoint Online (or SharePoint 365 as it is sometimes known) the conversation has become even more pointed.

So, can SharePoint deliver full ECM in the Cloud? I’m going to try to answer that scientifically, via the empirical and historical evidence route.

The history of SharePoint

SharePoint has had a long and colorful history since its launch in 2001. People regularly refer to it as the Swiss Army Knife of IT teams as it can be deployed as a file-share replacement, simple collaboration platform, departmental ECM solution, intranet, corporate portal and much more.

The good thing about SharePoint is that it is quick and easy to deploy. But the bad thing about SharePoint is that it is quick and easy to deploy. The ease of deployment works fine for many, but in the land of ECM – a land where control, management, and compliance oversee all – fluidity is not always welcomed.

As a result, what tends to happen is that organizations generate silos of data. For example, individual project teams use SharePoint for specific projects, but forget to consolidate the content they generate with any records management requirements once the projects are complete. This has led, according to AIIM research to SharePoint being an ECM component within most organizations – but not the main one.

The building blocks of ECM

Look at ECM as a discipline. There are the common aspects of scan, store and retrieve – the backbone of many simple ECM solutions.

But increasingly, there are other important elements to consider such as process (or workflow), measurement (audit, performance and compliance) and integration with other systems. SharePoint does most of these to a degree – but in the same way that you would not use a Swiss Army Knife to carve a joint of beef, most would not use SharePoint to perform, for example, enterprise-grade workflow.

This is almost a design point within SharePoint though, as it is expected that Microsoft’s arsenal of systems integrators and software partners will build add-on products to fill these gaps and supplement the functional inadequacies. Do a google search for “SharePoint extension” and you’ll see what I mean. So theoretically, SharePoint can be extended to become a true ECM solution – but out of the box it most certainly is not.

ECM in the Cloud

This is where the nail really is driven into the coffin, so to speak.

On-premises SharePoint (or even a privately hosted SharePoint instance) allows organizations to make use of these third-party add-ons which, as discussed above, are desperately needed to allow SharePoint to play at the enterprise party. The problem, however, with SharePoint Online is that Microsoft has locked down its hosting environment, only allowing Microsoft approved add-ons to be installed. This has effectively stopped a huge number of SharePoint users from ever moving to SharePoint 365, simply because they have custom code or non-Microsoft approved add-ons running on their sites.

This is one of the key factors that have led leading industry analysts such as Gartner and AIIM to question the ability of SharePoint Online to properly deliver ECM in the Cloud. Given the limited feature set of SharePoint Online compared to true ECM in the Cloud solutions, and the fact that add-on vendors seem slow or unwilling to get their add-ons approved for SharePoint Online, this seems unlikely to change anytime soon.


So is SharePoint Online true ECM in the Cloud? Not for me.

SharePoint itself will continue to persist on-premises – complete with add-ons to make it usable – but SharePoint Online, certainly for the near future, will not really be challenging the true ECM in the Cloud players.

#cloud #ECM #SharePoint


04-09-2014 16:42

Not so much cost (although that is certainly a motivator) it really is about what they are being sold from the likes of Box. As Box would tell you, SharePoint is their primary competitor, and that is where things get confusing. People have really only recently gotten used to thinking of SharePoint as an ECM solution (opinions aside) and most think of Box as that "Easy to Share" solution. So when Box comes out and says, we're like SharePoint it really creates a ton of confusion... sorta like when Microsoft released MOSS 2007 and said, "ECM for everyone!"
Things get even more confusing when you include Office 365 with which the expectation is that what you get on-prem with SharePoint, you get in the Cloud with Office 365 (sort of the crux of your story).
And I think with Office 365 we're certainly getting there, we aren't there yet, mostly for the reasons you point out that security is the big issue, as is data privacy, the latter of which is likely the biggest concern for large orgs looking at multi-tenant ECM.
I probably should have said all this when I first commented, but I think we had more fun with this because I didn't!
With regards to your comment on Box... it is going to be a heck of an up-hill battle considering the resources Microsoft is putting behind OneDrive for Business. Looks like box will have to spend even more on marketing!

04-09-2014 11:14

OK - if we're talking about SaaS ECM (if we can agree that this means multi-tenant ECM in the Cloud) then there are less players - SpringCM and Alfresco being the leaders in my opinion. However, keep your eyes on Box, especially given their new workflow options.
It's interesting that you are finding lots of users who want a true multi-tenant ECM solution - I guess that is based on cost?? Bearing in mind that the biggest concern about moving to the cloud is security, then a multi-tenant environment does nothing to allay those fears - in fact it does the opposite.
In my opinion, we'll continue to see two camps for the forseeable future - that of "hosted solutions" and SaaS. Over time however, my view is that vendors will develop multiple offerings, allowing users to decide how they want to move to the cloud.

04-08-2014 16:59

David --
Thank you for the insightful article, unfortunately we don't find enough of this information easily. I agree that SharePoint Online has many challenges that the on-premise versions are able to achieve - what do you think Microsoft's future response will be on this?
We are also an ECM SharePoint Player - but only in the on-premise version for our compliance solutions. We wrote about something similar about SharePoint as an ECM solution in our blog post here.

03-28-2014 07:53

I certainly agree with your outline of what Cloud is, but the discussion is True Cloud ECM and whether SharePoint Online can be considered one. When i asked my original question it was with the thought that you would compare apples to apples. SharePoint Online is really a multi-tenant offering and nothing like those other vendors you mention who did "simply" throw a virtualized version of their ECM in the mix which supports only a private Cloud scenario.
I am seeing a ton of enterprises entertain the thought of multi-tenant Cloud ECM, but for now it is just that (a thought) due to the complexities of what it would take to securely do that. Regardless it is happening. BUT to your point not right now.
Everyone i speak with wants a version of their ECM and have been grossly disappointed in what traditional ECM vendors have offered up in the Cloud... This is why we're hearing so much about SharePoint Online and Office 365.
With all that said, my original question really related to what you thought really competed with SharePoint Online in an apples to apples sense. You can't really compare what SharePoint is doing with Cloud ECM to the traditional ECM vendors, because that would be comparing what people want, with what people have. If we were just talking about Cloud I would agree with you, but we're talking about Cloud ECM, and that means the "how" as you put it, is incredibly relevant.

03-26-2014 10:59

Dave M - I think the more interesting point is that you seem to consider that cloud only means multi-tenant??
This seems to me to be a very limiting viewpoint. In fact consider the E in ECM - namely Enterprise. How many enterprises do you know who would consider placing their mission-critical content into a multi-tenant cloud?? Not many I would guess?
In my opinion cloud is about the use of remote, outsourced if you like, computing power - however it is used - and doesn't limit itself to specifics of how it is used.
As a result, to answer your question, there are many true cloud ECM players - some of whom are multi-tenant, some who aren't.
At the enterprise-level I would consider Hyland (obviously!), IBM, EMC and Perceptive to be in the mix. A little further down the chain (the chain being based on size of purchasing organization) you start to see vendors such as SpringCM and Alfresco coming to the party also.
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!
Dave J

03-25-2014 19:54

Out of curiosity, who do you consider true Cloud ECM players? I mean ECM running in a multi-tenant environment, not an ECM platform running in a virtualized environment.