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Enterprise content management vs document management vs knowledge management: what's right for you?

Published July 7th, 2022

Knowledge workers put knowledge to work. They make decisions (rather than physical items) and ideas are their value currency, not objects. However, there’s a conundrum. Until they put the information they have to work, it can’t become knowledge. So, for an organization to productively use its knowledge workers, it must first organize its information. That's why information, document and knowledge management systems exist.

Di Mace

Communications Specialist at Tiny


As the most renowned management thinker of the last century, Peter Drucker’s 39 books (1939-2008) said much and taught many about managing knowledge work. He foretold that information needed to be applied to specific work and outcomes, and observed in his writings how the decades-long shift from manual ‘physical’ work to knowledge ‘thinking’ work, was to be instrumental to greater worldwide economic growth.

The most valuable assets of the 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of the 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.

- Peter Drucker (1999)

“Management Challenges for the 21st Century”

However, it’s not as easy as simply hiring a team of knowledge workers. There’s a fundamentally practical step that first needs to be taken – one that’s intrinsic to getting those productivity gains and ongoing growth. What's that? Productivity only results from the intensional organization of a corporation's information and resources.

For your knowledge workers to accomplish (both collaboratively and independently) those complex tasks you give them, they need access to key information, applications and data, on demand. Enter stage left, three key organizational concepts and practices: Knowledge Management (KM), the Document Management System (DMS) and Enterprise Content Management (ECM). So, what's the difference and which one is right for you?

What is knowledge management?

Knowledge management (KM) is the intentional, ongoing process used by an organization to gather, create, organize, analyze and share its collective knowledge. The process draws on a common knowledge base and takes a far-reaching, multidisciplinary approach that flows from knowledge creation, through knowledge organization to knowledge sharing.

Importantly, the knowledge management process used (and the ensuing knowledge base that’s assembled) should be specifically architected to achieve an organization's objectives and make best use of its knowledge assets.

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What is knowledge management software?

Knowledge management software (KMS) applies and uses knowledge management principles to enable both internal (employees) and external (customers) users to create, share and quickly find relevant information. Functionally it collects, stores, organizes and retrieves knowledge, not only finding sources by also monitoring and mining the knowledge base for hidden information.

KMS automates the entire knowledge management process – creating efficiencies and increases in productivity – while creating a single source of truth.

However, while KMS is a technology solution, and the task of knowledge management is facilitated by technology, oddly neither is considered a technology solution in themselves. Instead, they’re considered a knowledge sharing principle and practice. This distinction is primarily due to timing – knowledge management emerged decades before the internet and computers, from within the management consulting community.

Once the principle of knowledge management developed a corporate following, the first knowledge management software was built in the early 1980s, to privately serve the internal needs of large, complex and dispersed corporations. Since they’d internally acquired the expertise to build dashboards, databases and locators (the precursor to search), several enterprises realized it was a new product they could market to other organizations, and in the late 80s-early 90s knowledge management software went public.

Further growth and extension (into DMS, ECM and the like) was fueled by 90s-00s tech advances and the growing open availability of Content Management Systems (CMSs).

Fundamentally though, knowledge management is the practical expression of Peter Drucker’s philosophy around knowledge and resources – that information needs to be intentionally organized, for knowledge workers to put that information to work and maximize productivity.

Knowledge management systems/software: a definition

According to Wikipedia, KMS is:

Knowledge management software (KM software) is a subset of enterprise content management software, which contains a range of software that specializes in the way information is collected, stored and/or accessed. [...] Software that enables an information practice or range of practices at any part of the processes of information management can be deemed to be called information management software. A subset of information management software that emphasizes an approach to build knowledge out of information that is managed or contained is often called knowledge management software.”

What is a document management system?

A document management system (DMS) is a software solution that enables an organization to automate the creation, storage, tracking and retrieval of its electronic documents within a single database platform. It’s designed to maximize the efficient modification, digitization, filing and accessing of documents and images. A DMS is the prerequisite precursor to a paperless office.

A DMS solution fast-tracks document digitization – effectively ending out-dated processes and ensuring legal compliance – and is often associated with electronic signatures or certifications.

Along with other software solutions, a DMS forms one part of an overall enterprise content management (ECM) system and is considered a subordinate, partial solution within an ECMs more comprehensive concept and implementation.

Document management system: a definition

Again from Wikipedia, a DMS is defined as:

“A document management system (DMS) is a system used to receive, track, manage and store documents and reduce paper. Most are capable of keeping a record of the various versions created and modified by different users (history tracking). In the case of the management of digital documents such systems are based on computer programs. The term has some overlap with the concepts of content management systems. It is often viewed as a component of enterprise content management (ECM) systems and related to digital asset management, document imaging, workflow systems and records management systems.”

What is enterprise content management?

Enterprise Content Management (ECM), part of Enterprise Content Services (ECS) or Enterprise Content Management System (ECMS), is a far-reaching concept that enables the uniform and systematic management, organization, processing, search and archiving of all corporate information. It’s never referred to as just one piece of software, or a tool, methodology or business process – and always has the capability to manage all of an enterprise's content (across internal, web and transactional content).

An ECM is a suite of software that formalizes and centralizes the storage and management of an organization's operational content.

The term has evolved over time, reflective of changes in technology and the era-based objectives set by ECM strategies. Initially called Document Imaging, then Document Management followed by Content Management, its name and capabilities continue to transform.

Crucially for the future, an ECM enables cross-enterprise searches within both structured and unstructured data, according to the business rules established at the capture stage. This functionality is vital for the continued expansion of digital workplaces, as organizational data (structured and unstructured) continues to explode.

Enterprise content management: a definition

While Wikipedia defines ECM as:

Enterprise content management (ECM) extends the concept of content management by adding a timeline for each content item and, possibly, enforcing processes for its creation, approval and distribution. Systems using ECM generally provide a secure repository for managed items, analog or digital. They also include one (or more) methods for importing content to manage new items, and several presentation methods to make items available for use. [...] ECM is distinguished from general content management by its cognizance of the processes and procedures of the enterprise for which it is created.”

ECM vs DMS vs KMS: what’s the key difference?

At first glance, it appears that knowledge management software, document management systems and enterprise content management are all the same thing:

  • They all support an organization's need to manage its information assets
  • They all champion the open accessibility of knowledge
  • They all facilitate the increased productivity of a company’s knowledge workers.

But what (if any) is the fundamental difference between the three?

Knowledge Management Software (KMS)

A subset of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) software. Is an approach to building knowledge out of the collective information that’s managed or contained within an organization.

Knowledge sharing principle

Document Management System (DMS)

Viewed as a component of an ECM system, DMS is an implementation process designed to efficiently manage and secure electronic documents.

Electronic document process

Enterprise Content Management (ECM)

ECM combines a range of software solutions into a holistic strategy and concept that defines and manages the way information is collected, stored and/or accessed across an enterprise.

Cross-enterprise discipline

With the clarification that knowledge management is more of an approach to or principle around knowledge sharing, it separates itself from DMS and ECM.

Any comparisons from here (+ and -), narrow down to the concrete similarities and differences between an enterprise content management system and a document management system.

ECM and DMS similarities

The terms ECM and DMS are not interchangeable. There are numerous differences (see below) as well as similarities (read on) that clearly differentiate the suitable scenarios, business sizes, use cases and industries for each one.

Both ECM and DMS are designed to streamline workflows, enhance document processes, improve content security and help companies handle an array of data. They can also assist in sustainability initiatives (going paperless), open greater access to information (while still retaining control), help facilitate remote workplaces and reduce operating expenses.

Both perform the following functions:

  • Centralize storage for content
  • Simplify access and ability to search information
  • Manage digital assets (content and/or documents)
  • Provide security and control of content
  • Help arrange and structure unorganized data
  • Create, retain and distribute information
  • Support version control and manage review trails
  • Improve efficiency of any paper-intensive business process
  • Provide data recovery
  • Automate workflows

Both DMSs and ECMs can be either self-hosted (on or off premises) or cloud-based SaaS subscriptions.

DMS and ECM differences

ECM vs DMS: key difference

The key difference between an ECM and a DMS is the type of information each system handles.

Enterprise Content Management

The ECMS workflow is:

Capture (any type of digital asset) → Index → Archive → Retrieve/Search → Automate (AI, no-code etc)

Document Management System

The DMS process flows is:

Capture (documents) → Index → Archive → Retrieve/Search → Automate (coming trend)

ECM vs DMS: functionality differences

There are six other distinctions that point to the best situational uses for an ECM or DMS:

1. Purpose and scope


ECM:

A large-scale suite of multipurpose software and processes, with a cross-company focus. It’s used to manage digital assets, store, retrieve and publish content. An ECM is a much broader technology solution than a DMS.

DMS:

One piece of software primarily used to manage files and control access to information. It focuses on workflow management, regulatory compliance and is often used to digitize and actively grow out of paper-based systems.

2. Uniformity


ECM:

Differs from general content management (ie. CMS) due to the uniform processes implemented and procedures set, to centralize the digital preservation of corporate information.

DMS:

Is invaluable where users need to maintain regulatory compliance, track document versions or modifications, and ensure the work of one user isn’t accidentally overwritten by another.

3. Types of information and data


ECM:

Is a software suite that’s used where an organization’s content goes beyond documents. It handles a broader range of electronic information – both structured and unstructured. An ECM also manages rich media such as audio, video, flash and web content, but typically does not always include imaging and scanning.

DMS:

Works best with structured data and documents – Word documents, pdfs and powerpoint presentations. Has advanced content-capturing features such as imaging and scanning, optical character recognition (OCR), handprint character recognition (HCR), optical mark recognition (OMR) and employs other forms of advanced automation technology.

4. Document lifecycle


ECM:

Configures and organizes a high volume and variety of information and content formats.

DMS:

Only tracks documents throughout their lifecycle.

5. Size of business


ECM:

More beneficial to bigger companies with a higher volume of data, and internal development resources to maintain the system software and components.

DMS:

Works well for small companies, and is a comparatively simpler system requiring lesser expertise and maintenance.

6. Scalability


ECM:

The scalability and adaptability of an ECM allows an organization to embrace new types of content as (and when) they prove useful to both internal and external users/customers. Functionally, it can do everything a DMS can, plus include no-code automation features and some AI capabilities to better handle unstructured content and automate repetitive tasks.

DMS:

The inability of a DMS to handle unstructured content and data means its adaptability to business change and growth is limited. It’s at this point that companies usually step up into an ECM and their DMS becomes a portion of their overall ECM.

ECM and DMS rich text editor advantage

The distinctions between an ECM and DMS are clear. What else affects the implementation or upgrade to an ECM or DMS within an organization? The rich text editor that’s embedded in the software solution.

Thanks again to Peter Drucker, we know quite a bit about productivity improvement. We know that in part, it’s due to innovation and shifting resources from old work habits and processes to new, more productive ones. The best technology can increase your knowledge workers’ productivity and in many cases increase the quality of their output.

That’s especially true when you use state-of-the-art content authoring components:

WYSIWYG HTML text editor features for ECM and DMS

A WYSIWYG text editor transforms large time-consuming projects into easy manageable tasks and gives you total control over your rich text editing environment and outputs.

Whether you’re building or upgrading your rich text editor, ensure that your developers have:

Many knowledge workers now need anywhere, any time access to information, so your text editing environment needs to be that's optimized for mobile devices:

  • Automatically adjusts to different size screens and devices
  • Works across multiple popular web browsers without breaking the HTML
  • Outputs HTML that’s consistent, despite the different ways users type and format text inside the editor.

A WYSIWYG editor includes easy to use, feature-rich options that enhance users efficiency and productivity:

  • Clean, modern interface: a sleek intuitive UI that speeds work
  • Clean, accurate copy-paste: content from Word, Excel, or GDocs that replicates its source, without breaking the underlying code or needing developer bug-fixes
  • Ability to limit toolbar options: able to hide or disable options like HTML editing, font formatting, and font sizes to prevent straying from the default style formats defined
  • Compliance checking: if accessibility is imperative for compliance, ensure your editor automatically spots and suggests fixes for issues before the document’s published
  • Multi-language spell checking compatibility: the ability to add your product and brand terms to ensure all content creators spell and capitalize them correctly
  • Templates: reusable, predesigned templates with your brand styles so that users can easily insert, edit and publish documents
  • Easily pull styling and formatting: take formatting from another paragraph, document, or page and apply it to your selected text.

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ECM vs DMS: what's right for your company?

For companies using varied content types, a DMS is no longer enough. And for those evolving their workforce to either hybrid or fully remote basis, ECM is the next step from a DMS.

ECM

An ECM offers the majority of functionalities in a DMS, but targeted for a much larger scale – it's a high capacity DMS with much more features.

An ECM is a better fit for bigger companies that regularly process high volumes of data.

Acquiring an ECM is more expensive and requires training before use.

ECM software handles content that goes beyond documents. Governments, universities, large medical facilities, large law firms, and financial institutions benefit from this sophistication because their data often doesn’t neatly fit into the confines of a simpler DMS.

DMS

If just starting digitization, a DMS may be suitable and then plan to integrate it into a larger ECM as you grow.

A DMS is definitely tailored for smaller companies and has a simpler user interface (UI).

Being simpler, a DMS requires less expertise or maintenance.

A DMS is perfect for maintaining regulatory compliance and managing the lifecycle of documents. Many smaller tertiary education institutions, doctors, lawyers, and some financial institutions find that a DMS is perfectly suitable for this smaller-scale (but no less feature) needs.

Both enterprise content management systems and document management systems increase efficiency and productivity, reduce processing time, streamline processes and speed the retrieval of information.

The ensuing benefits of using either system are clearly apparent, so both are a wise decision. The trick is to choose a solution that works for you now and is also adaptable to your organization’s future state.

Knowledge has become the main product of many advanced economies and global companies, while it’s the livelihood of the largest segment of the population in developed countries. It’s now crucial to leverage your knowledge workers’ skills by providing easy access to the information they need to be successful.

Because if your systems aren’t empowering them to thrive, then you’re limiting your own possibilities.

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