No discussion on content management product selection is complete before the topic of “suites” versus “best of breed” comes up. Almost everyone wants to know which route they should take. Unfortunately, it is seldom as simple as choosing one route over the other. It’s one of those questions that unfortunately requires the far less satisfying response: “It depends …”

For example, EMC Documentum (no matter how good the company is) can never really hope to be the best (despite what Gartner, Inc. might have you believe) in record management, digital asset management, imaging, workflow, web content management, collaboration, etc. It can be “good” at all those things, and may even be “exceptional” in a couple of areas, but that is the logical limit. The same thing goes for other large vendors such as IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft; it is just not possible to excel at everything.

Then again, not every buyer requires exceptional product sets and tools. Within reason, tools and products that are functional, affordable, and fit for the purpose will sometimes do the job just fine. That, in essence, is what a “suite” offering is-a collection of functions, within a single product purchase, that does a reasonably good job. And this is the appeal of a suite, one vendor, one product, one installation, one throat to strangle, yet a multitude of functionality to use. The alternative is a range of outstanding best-of-breed products, coming from multiple suppliers, running multiple installations, and, in theory at least, adding a great deal of complexity to the equation.

However, it is a good idea to try to define what a suite is, exactly: Is it really a single homogenous product organically developed over the years? In fact, most suites are the result of multiple product acquisitions. Far from being homogenous in nature, the only thing holding them together is a shared brand. OK, that’s a little harsh. Vendors do work hard to integrate elements into a single product stack, but even so most content suites are the result of multiple product acquisitions. These are products developed in different environments, using different techniques by different people.

The acquisition history of Documentum-in which it has built up its suite with products from Captiva, Bulldog, eRoom, Legato, Kazeon, Authentica, and many, many more-is Byzantine in complexity. The same can be said, however, of the suites constructed through acquisition by other large companies such as Open Text, Oracle, or IBM, which have equally shown crowded family histories, as almost any broad content management offering does.

But just to be clear, I am not saying that content management suites are a bad idea. Rather, I am saying that you need to invest in these suites with your eyes open to the product’s heritage. Frankly, taking the alternative approach and buying a huge collection of best-of-breed vendors in one organization simply doesn’t make economic or technical sense anymore. (Hence the rush to consolidation via suites.) However, there are limits to this consolidation that need to be recognized. For example, some particular business needs may have critical and difficult-to-cope-with needs that are best-suited to a best-of-breed vendor-with the underlying knowledge that “most” things can be managed and consolidated within a suite, with attendant cost savings and efficiency gains.

In fact, a hybrid approach to the problem may work best for most organizations. A hybrid approach will state that, for 70%-80% of your needs, you should go to a single vendor. Buy suite functionality that is preintegrated and relatively simple to maintain and operate. Yet it is important to recognize particular critical needs within your organization (such as heavy-duty web content management or imaging and case management) and to buy best of breed accordingly to meet those areas’ highly specific needs.

Again to be clear, I believe in the 80% rule: I think it makes sense in today’s technology market to tie your ship to one of the leading platform approaches such as IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, or open source, and for your remaining 20% buy best of breed. In doing so, you lower your integration costs considerably, reduce the number of skill sets you need to support, lessen your concern for future incompatibility due to upgrades, and enhance your ability to outsource tasks and processes. Just be sure to do your homework first and figure out what you are really buying when you purchase a content management suite.