Content Management: A Survival Guide - Page 1

Dec 20, 2001

CIO Update Staff

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.
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