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Why should the ECM software industry change? – Part 4: The gap with actual operations

Next, I list which situations or common practices in the ECM software industry can and should change to improve our customers' experience.
¿Por qué la industria del software ECM debe cambiar? - Parte 4 La distancia con la operativa real / ECM software industry
Picture of Veronica Meza

Veronica Meza

Following with the series of articles on the need for change in the ECM industry, this time I analyze a rather specific situation within our industry.

(If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous articles, you’ll find the link at the end of this article).

In the ECM software industry, the manufacturer-user gap is pronounced

This industry operates as an oligopoly, with a few companies dominating the market. Recent developments underscore this trend, where a $77 billion market is largely controlled by a handful of players. Since 2020, Hyland has notably acquired the two leading Open Source ECM platforms. With these additions, this industry giant now boasts ownership of three of the most widely used ECM solutions: OnBase, Alfresco, and Nuxeo.

The concentration of market power among a select few inevitably transforms them into massive multinational entities. For example, OpenText reported nearly $6 billion in revenue in 2023 and employs over 14,000 individuals. Hyland, with an annual revenue of nearly $500 million, maintains a global workforce exceeding 3,500 employees.

In such large enterprises, hierarchical structures are common. Moreover, it’s customary in our industry for direct customer interactions to be managed not by the manufacturer themselves, but by integrators.

From my perspective, the inherent outcomes of a market dominated by a few major players pose a less obvious yet critical issue in product design: decision-makers often operate far removed from actual end-users.

I would like to quote a design product luminary, Don Norman:

‘When you design, you must understand the abilities of the people for whom you are designing.’

— Don Norman

When creating a product, you must ensure that the people facing the problems you aim to solve are involved in the design, testing, and iterative improvement processes. It’s challenging to maintain this closeness when you have 14K employees and thousands of companies implementing and customizing the product on your behalf.

The vision and calling behind companies

Of all the points I’ve covered in this series of entries, perhaps this is where it’s difficult to establish negligence or ill intent in the practices of the ECM software industry. I believe it’s simply a matter of cause and effect.

I also think that many of these companies genuinely strive to innovate, conduct research—often through acquiring other companies—spend money on market research, consultants, and analysts. However, the circumstances of their structure and business network make it challenging to offer this closeness to the end-users of their products.

But it also has a lot to do with the vision and calling of the company. At Athento, the focus is always on maintaining an agile and as horizontal a structure as possible so that our team has direct contact with clients and end-users. Naturally, some team members interact more with users, but in our company structure, the mobility and cooperation among teams allow this information to flow more dynamically. You can take me as an example; you’ll see me involved in projects, conducting demos, designing functionalities, meeting with clients to hear their feedback, or proposing technical and economic solutions. Our CEO actively participates in designing customizations and client projects, organizing systems, providing support, attending commercial meetings, and frequently programming functionalities himself. He is always available to meet with users, something he genuinely enjoys.

Another significant point in Athento’s developmentthe intelligent digital content platformhas been our approach of including functionality based on the needs identified in the projects our Delivery team implements. Our CEO’s direction has always been: first, offer this parameterization solution to the user, gather feedback, and if the feedback is positive, integrate the functionality into the out-of-the-box product.

The improvements made to our software in the last 5-7 years originate from platform users who have been involved in the design and often act as beta testers for new features. To them, we express our recognition and gratitude, as we know that Agility and Continuous Delivery can be challenging to assimilate at times, requiring patience and understanding from our users.

At the project level, we also have a fundamental principle:

“End-users must be involved in the project from day zero.”

If this doesn’t happen, we raise project management risks. You can find more details about our Project Management Methodology here.

The support team serves as another critical point of contact for the Product team to gather essential information on how end-users are using our product. Our CEO actively participates in support efforts daily. They meet with users and provide evidence and information about the difficulties or challenges they experience. Not everything reaches the Product team, of course, but everything the Support team suspects could be a product issue is reported and reviewed every morning without fail by a rotating member of the Product team, our CTO – Víctor Sánchez, and myself personally.

In addition to direct conversations and interactions with users, we’ve had to establish more formal communication channels to channel all end-user feedback: a Portal for feature requests, the Athento Community, exclusive demos for clients, etc.

But beyond explicit feedback, we also analyze product usage with tools like Hotjar and conduct surveys to investigate where users and clients want the product to evolve (we explain how we’ve applied the KANO methodology in this article).

In projects with partners, we try as much as possible to have direct contact with the end-user so that we can listen to and gather opinions firsthand. Partners also contribute to product development by conveying the needs of their users and sometimes participating in platform development themselves.

Being close to the user is not easy. Those of us who develop software become biased, fall in love with our products, and so on. The user provides the reality check that isn’t always easy to hear. But there’s no other way. Being close to the user is the only path. Today, we can confidently and calmly say that our clients and users actively contribute to the development of our product. Although we may not always like what they tell us, interacting with users remains one of the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of our work. Users never let us get bored 🙂