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Nov 21, 2003: Let's Have a Content Management Party!

What if we threw a party for content management community, but didn't invite the CMS vendors? Who would show up? And what would they talk about while tucking into the crudites, Doritos, and cheese balls?

I've been a fly on the wall for many conversations about content management. Invariably, people are vexed by Vignette, irked by Interwoven, dissed by Documentum. Although these are gripe sessions, the griping is all about products. CMS vendors have been so successful at setting the agenda for the content management world that they dominate practitioners' discussions, and even though perceptions of CMS are often negative, all publicity is ultimately good publicity.

But there's clearly more to content management than CMS technologies. Content managers have to figure out all sorts of non-technical stuff, like:

  • Adapting to and modifying content workflow and publishing processes
  • Metadata development
  • Content modeling
  • Content integration
  • Marketing and acceptance
  • Staff training and documentation
  • Cultural and political issues
  • Relationships to other areas such as authoring, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, usability, change management, business modeling...

These issues generally can't be addressed by CMS technologies. They require human expertise and a high degree of local customization. Some CMS vendors offer some professional services in some of these areas. But these services are expensive and simply can't scale to meet the needs of the many organizations implementing CMSs. So the responsibility falls to some poor in-house souls who try their darnedest to tackle the dirty work of solving internal content management problems.

If you're one of the unfortunate, where do you find the expertise you need? There are some wonderful books on the market from folks like Boiko, Rockley, and Hackos. There are a few great sites like CMSWatch, not to mention a smattering of content management-related conferences. But there seems to be no communal venue for sharing expertise, war stories, techniques, and good ideas. That's because content management is not a community or a field, it's an industry. And it's an industry because vendors dominate the agenda, and unintentionally squash the wisdom that only a community can accumulate.

So a modest proposal: what if everyone involved in content management--the publications, the web sites, the meetings and conferences--banned CMS vendors for, say, one quarter? No vendor exhibitions at meetings, no product mentions on discussion lists, no CMS purchases, no nothing. Just discussion about all there is to content management besides the technologies.

At the end of this very exclusive three-month long party, I'll bet dollars to donuts that many of the nastier content management issues will be a little less nasty, if not solved altogether. And practitioners will be a lot better at selecting and deriving value from their CMSs. Which wouldn't exactly be so terrible for the vendors in the long run, would it?

Hey CMS vendors, are you listening? How about taking a vacation for a few months? Really, it's ok; we'll be fine on our own for a little while. Cancun is nice this time of year, and you can get special deals on long-term stays, so don't worry about us; we'll be just fine.

Ah, well, wishing is free...

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Comment: vanderwal (Nov 21, 2003)

This would be a great idea. There are many issues I still have not seen the big CMS deal with well (the smaller ones are not hitting it well either, but are usually niche focussed). But, in the six implementations (mostly rolling my own CMS or leading a team building its own) I have been insanely impressed with the Bioko CMS Bible and Rockly Enterprise CM. I have been impressed because they hit the nails on the head in the points where I and other have run into walls and earned our lessons learned. I have also been impressed with Tony Burne of CMS Watch as he has a kick behind approach to the initial interviews (I was able to sit in on one for a client and I kept nodding and smiling to myself as nearly every pothole was raised and hazard pointed out in a little over one hour interview.

Many of the CMS decision makers on the customer side are still interested in CMS as a quick panacea for their content problems, be they sales, readership, knowledge sharing, etc. Many times a CMS is considered to solve a couple of these big problems, but the systems are not used to solve the broad problems of the users. Users are most interested in finding the information, finding other related information, and being able to reuse that information they found (a huge failure of FlashPaper - not reusable information).

One of the reasons I really like conferences like the ASIS&T IA Summit and the AIfIA Leadership Conference are the lack of vendors selling their *solutions*. The conferences are filled with people sharing ways to solve problems, or better outlining of the problems so that others can frame means to work through the problems to a happy end point. Conferences like these are about people sharing and solving not people selling.

Comment: James Robertson (Nov 22, 2003)

Hi Lou,

I definitely agree that there is a huge need for a vendor-neutral discussion of the content management issues beyond the technical deployment of products.

This is an issue I have tried to progress through the articles that I've written (published on my site), and in the presentations that I give. My workshops on CMS (such as "Choosing the Right CMS") are all strictly vendor-neutral.

The good news is that forums for discussing these issues are currently springing up, at least in Australia.

For example, in the Government-space, there is now a community of practice devoted to exploring content management:


This is also something that is discussed in the Australian "Intranet Peers in Government" community of practice:


I would certainly love to see more of these types of discussions, though.

I'm constantly looking for ways of enhancing this environment of information sharing, so any suggestions you might have would be great...

Comment: Deb Seys (Nov 24, 2003)

Yes, I can see how this would be wonderful for us CMIAs. As one of the 'unfortunates' I spend a lot of my time dealing with the non-technical issues that you describe above. I'd love to connect w/others and discuss all of this in the abstract. It would give me a foundation for the decisions that I then have to make within the context of the technology that we use.

I'd like to make one additional point that I think you miss in your 'free us from the technology' point of view. Note that most organizations consider that a major benefit of implementing CM is the embedding of business content governance and process flow into an application that can then enforce rules.

I think it's just beginning to be realized (I know that this is true in our case) that an additional benefit is the embedding of enterprise IA standards governance into an application that can then enforce the rules. This requires the associated, acknowledged *ownership* and development at the enterprise-level of these standards as well as the consistent delivery of a CM solution across multiple organizations within the enterprise (not an easy feat in a large company).

The IA standards get shaped by the technology that is being used because as it is embedded into the application, it gets tweaked and shaped to fit the solution. (For example, our solution at this time can't handle labels for controlled vocabulary terms - what the CV admin enters is what end-user authors see and what gets embedded in the metadata tag. In our case, I'd like more usable labels for our content authors than are necessary to be embedded in our metadata tags. The technology forces me to choose one term for both uses.)

I'm not sure I've made my point very well - but my gut tells me that it's not going to be simple to separate IA from the CM system at hand except in an abstract, conceptual way. But maybe that's what you meant after all?

Comment: Mike Jaixen (Nov 24, 2003)

Lou, Content Management systems are just a big fancy hammer, and I think your list can be broken into two parts:
1. Things that need a better hammer.
2. Things that need a better way to swing that hammer.

Under "Things that need a better hammer" would be:
* Adapting to and modifying content workflow and publishing processes
* Metadata development
* Content modeling
* Content integration

Under things that need a better way to swing that hammer:
* Marketing and acceptance
* Staff training and documentation
* Cultural and political issues
* Relationships to other areas such as authoring, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, usability, change management, business modeling...

I agree, Lou, we haven't seen nearly enough discussion as to what the "desired state" of "content management nirvana" should be, and until we find that point, all we can do is keep taking stabs and guess at tactical problems, and unfortunately, we never get around to looking at the stategic problem of what we need these tools and processes to do.

Comment: Lou (Nov 25, 2003)

Obviously, interesting parallels here with the IA world. As I've mentioned before, we have no vendors but lots of community. I continue to wonder would happen if these two worlds happened to collide. As they're so complementary in so many senses, could they combine?

Comment: Tony Byrne (Dec 2, 2003)

I don't think IA and CM can nor should combine. CM deals with a lot of business process issues that are at best peripheral to IA. IA deals with a lot of problems that never play out in a content management system. *However,* it is increasingly clear that solid IA is a precondition to successful CM.

So, two wishes. My wish for CM specialists is to recognize the importance of good IA to their work and not brush over it so lightly -- this is an especially acute problem with CMS vendor professional services teams who are under great pressure to just get their product "stood up" at a client site. My wish for IA specialists is to recognize that their classification systems and content models must ultimately live, breathe, and work in some sort of (necessarily imperfect) software system. In short, a content architecture must be managable...

Had a few other comments about your party idea...


Comment: Lou (Dec 2, 2003)

Do I sense a revolution?

Hey, screw a moratorium; let's just dump all the CMS into Boston Harbor...

Comment: ML (Dec 3, 2003)

I think it would be an interesting combo, however IA is only one piece of CM and CM is only one venue for doing IA. If your goal is better utilization of IA for a CM project that's one thing but if you think IA is the solution for better CM...that's another thing.

Comment: Stephanie (Feb 18, 2004)

There is a mailing list for CMS discussion:

It's not terribly useful, as the vendors are all over it and the listmoms are AWOL.

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