Content Management: A Survival Guide

By CIO Update Staff

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By Barry Schaeffer

As the Internet moves from presentation medium to dynamic content provider, content issues are moving to the forefront of many IT managers' thinking.

Among the most difficult of these issues is what has been long referred to as "content management" or CM, the rock on which many an IT budget or project schedule has foundered. To escape a similar fate, IT managers must be armed with a clearer picture of CM than is often the case. What follows is a brief survival guide that may prove useful.

What is Content Management?

At times, it seems that CM is whatever the software salesman says it is. More than one otherwise capable organization has bought CM snake oil based on a slick presentation and canned demo in which the salesman directs the agenda toward his strengths, obscuring the prospect's needs in the bargain. Actually, the most salient fact about CM is that it is not a noun as the term is so often used. Instead, CM is a verb and while often characterized as something you can buy, it is actually a list of things that you must do.More than idle factoids, the CM function list is an organization's roadmap to navigating the often-troubled waters of CM software acquisition.

This definition doesn't include content kept in relational databases.This class of content has, by definition, been brought under the content management approach of the DBMS, and extracting it into your web environment must follow those rules.It also assumes that the target for structuring content is XML, the rapidly growing foundation for most non-database-resident content.

Why is this important?

CM requires software and this type of software can be complex and expensive, in its acquisition and life-cycle costs and in its long-term impact on the organization.Indeed, buying the wrong CM software can be worse than buying nothing at all. Given the absence of a generally accepted definition of CM in the software industry, it's quite possible to inadvertently buy software that:

  • Doesn't do what you need, forcing you to pay for expensive after-sale modifications and their life-cycle support
  • Does things you don't need but for which you must pay anyway
  • Consumes so much of your budget that other critical items must go unsupported
  • Fails completely, forcing you to acquire replacement software with no recourse against the original vendor because you failed to articulate a detailed set of functions against which his product could be measured

    How to avoid these pitfalls.

    If you clearly understand what must be done to your content while you are creating, storing and delivering it, you will be able to develop a comprehensive list of the functions that must be part of your CM environment.In the process, you may even learn things about your needs that would have otherwise been missed. You will also learn what you don't need and shouldn't find yourself paying for. You should plan for the process to take some time; time for you to communicate your needs; time for vendors to develop an approach; and time for you to evaluate what you get back from them. This list is your working definition of CM and a roadmap for action. Ignore it and you are fair game for the software sharks.

    Content vs. Delivery Management:

    Much of what passes for content management today is actually Delivery Management, dealing with content already prepared and available for access, either for bulk information products (such as books or CDs) or in support of interactive queries. The key difference between this and true content management is its assumption that content is complete, properly structured and ready for delivery. Most web server software firms offer a brand of CM that is really delivery management.

    Content management, on the other hand, supports the functions required to create and finalize content not yet ready for delivery.Sometimes called "work in process management," CM includes functions that relate to authors, editors, collaborators and other personnel involved in the preparation of content, always assuming that the content it supports is not yet ready for use in final information products. The difference could be likened to that between managing a factory and managing a retail outlet.

    If you are responsible for the acquisition, creation and finalization of content for hand-off to delivery management, you need CM that goes well beyond what most delivery management systems offer (or do well.)

    Building your Content Management List:

    If you're responsible for content creation and finalization, you likely face some or all of the challenges listed below (and maybe more.) Determining which ones and understanding what it will take to meet them in your environment is the critical first step in solving the CM riddle:

    1. Enable authors to create richly tagged XML content as a part of their original editorial process.Using a word processor to capture content and then putting in the XML tagging later means you end up with a smart version of a not-so-smart source; guaranteed to be no more useful than its parent. This means that you will want your authors to use an XML editor. The editor must be highly configurable to give the authors an environment they understand and can work with. People and software systems are what they eat and you can't deliver content your authors can't or won't capture. In the end, (though the details are another story) the value calculation of your entire endeavor is based on how much of what your authors know you can effectively capture for delivery.
    2. Allow authors to locate, create and manage associations and links among parts of content. On the web, links, tags that point elsewhere in the content, are everything. Rich content must contain rich links if it is to fulfill its intended delivery mission.Without support, links can be a nightmare to author and are notorious for breaking somewhere between creation and delivery. A major publisher found that when authors are forced to break their train of thought to create a link, fewer links result despite their best efforts to find and create them.
    3. Allow authors to create content suitable for multiple audiences. In a multimedia world, content must be delivered in slightly different form to each segment of the total audience. Whether different delivery media, user interest or skill levels, product variations or what have you, every content provider faces a layered audience that wants even common content tuned to its unique needs. Your ability to support this kind of targeting is closely linked to the way you decide to manage your content and must be a consideration in selecting the CM software you will use.
    4. Facilitate collaboration and communication among knowledge providers. Rich content passes through many hands on its way to delivery. Add the pressure of deadlines and the situation can degenerate into chaos. Any CM system must support collaboration among actors within and outside the primary content site.Many vendors address this challenge with classical workflow software designed to support claims processing or other highly structured applications.This is usually too restrictive for professional knowledge workers and can be expensive out of proportion to its value. The answer is a CM environment based on individual decisions by each actor as to what the next step in content preparation should be. While a system might set certain limits on whom could do what under what circumstances, laying out rigid workflow paths ahead of time almost always degrades the productivity of the intellectual process.
    5. Record and track revisions to content at a granular level. As information moves ever faster, knowing how it got to its current state becomes a growing factor in satisfying your audience. One approach to this has been to keep each version of a document in work, comparing each version to the previous to determine what has changed. This approach leaves much to be desired, like not being able to find the changes without running the compare program. Moreover, the comparison method doesn't collect information about who made changes and for what reason. A better approach is to make content revision a specific transaction and support it with tools and tagging. Revision tracking can add much to the content management process. Some publishers, for example, tie revisions to specific projects, turning them on selectively as events merit.
    6. If possible, keep content in its original state. If you're creating XML content, the best approach is to keep the XML in its originally authored format until time for delivery. Some CM approaches translate the content into a proprietary (often database) format, and then retrace the process to extract the XML. This can be made to work somewhat but suffers from the fact that rich content structures tend to have problems when theyre mangled and glued back together again. Moreover, the transformation is based on complex computer processing so these systems become resource hogs as soon as the volume and complexity of the content grows.
    7. Reuse portions of content in multiple places but keep the ownership centralized. Frankly, beyond sharing inherently common content like warnings and boilerplate, the entire concept of "reuse" is somewhat overblown. You may find that content authored for one place in your collection is difficult to lift and use elsewhere without at least some modification. Change even one character in order to reuse content and you aren't really reusing but paraphrasing. Some vendors suggest that you deal with this by breaking your content down into ever-smaller pieces so you can collect them in different ways for reuse. Beware; the complexity and risk grows in direct proportion to your usage.
    8. Keep the content safe and under control. I list this last because everyone knows that controlling access and data integrity is part of CM. Vendors, especially those from the database world, often lead with this function and construct their demonstrations around it (given that authors spend, on average, only 5 percent of their time in the CM system, one might wonder what this adds.) In truth, most do the basics well, making it less of a differentiator than a ticket punch. The important variable in this area is the extent to which a system must "decompose" rich content in order to manage it. Content richly tagged in XML (or SGML) often contains structures simply not capable of being snipped and laid end to end. Systems that require this kind of content fragmentation limit the richness of content they can fully support and are likely to encounter technical problems.

    Dealing with the Vendors:

    Asking a software vendor if he supports CM is like asking a user car salesman if he has any cars for $5,000. Of course he does. Instead, send your function list and a description of your overall environment to candidate vendors, with the question, "Can your product/s properly support these functions and, if so, tell me how in detail." Because reputable vendors will opt out if they can't comply, this will help to weed out the fellows who might sell you "CM" but can't solve your problems. Any who try to sneak through will stand out like a sore thumb.

    Issue your document as a "request for information" rather than a "request for proposal." This will allow vendors to respond in a flexible way, telling their stories without the pressure of submitting a formal proposal with final pricing, etc. (although you should ask for budgetary costs in your RFI.) It will also allow them to submit responses to only those portions of your needs they can address directly without the fear of being disqualified. You should encourage partial responses in your solicitation because you may end up integrating pieces from different vendors. When you receive responses from vendors who believe they can meet your needs, cull them and schedule the survivors for sessions that include two things:

    1. A detailed and frank discussion of the vendor's approach to each of your functional requirements. This will probably require the vendor's technical staff. Salesmen won't like it but your future is at stake so persevere.

    2. A demonstration of at least some of the functions, with your data if possible. If a vendor can't tune his demo to your needs given reasonable time, he probably can't tune his product to them in operation. This is listed second because the demo should never be the major criterion for a selection. Instead, it should merely validate the vendor's descriptions of how he plans to address your needs. Demos tend to be like carnival side shows; what you think you see isn't always what's really there.

    At this point, you will be in a position to go ahead with a formal RFP or just select a vendor and start negotiations. You will also be in a position to ask the winning vendor to write a contract that commits him to meeting your needs as described in your function list, giving you some recourse if things don't work out. It will also let the vendor know the bar he must reach. If you don't feel comfortable with the processes described above, don't be afraid to hire a consultant; someone with the experience to help you ask the right questions and fully profit from the answers.

    While there's no silver bullet in matters like these, if you follow the suggestions above, take your time and keep your wits about you, you have a significantly increased chance of success in your quest for effective CM.

    Barry Schaeffer is President of X.Systems, Inc., a consulting and system development firm specializing in the conception and design of text-based information systems, with industrial, legal/judicial and publishing clients among the Fortune 500, non-profit organizations and government agencies. E-mail him at barry@www.xsystemsinc.com.

    Editor's note: This article first appeared on IntranetJournal, an internet.com site.