Is Content King?
In I3 UPDATE No. 57, we said we would look deeper into several KM topics that are attracting significant attention at the moment. One of these is Content Management.
Few content-rich websites these days are built without the help of a content management
solution. In essence they separate the organization of content from its presentation. The content may originate in databases or from document files, and particular pieces of content are 'played' into 'placeholders' on a web page. A single page may include elements of content from several places. The main advantage of using a CM approach is the reduction of effort to create and maintain a site. For example if an address or telephone number changes, it has to be changed only once in the content database, even though it may appear on many different web pages. Most CM systems are dynamic in that the actual content that is played depends on the action a user has taken. Appropriate content is selected according to rules and played in real-time.
The term content management first appeared on the scene a few years ago, mostly in the context of building e-commerce systems. The content management system could for example, extract product information, including a picture, from a product catalogue database and insert the required content into the relevant part of a template. Like any bandwagon gaining momentum, CM quickly attracted vendors supplying a wide variety of KM-related products, who rebranded their wares as CM solutions, plugging any obvious gaps while doing so. If you look at today's CM providers you see that they come from a range of backgrounds:
- Document management - companies like Documentum and OpenText have adapted their document systems into systems that will deliver web content. The difference is that the unit of information is not a complete document, but a content "chunk"
- E-commerce suppliers - Boradvison and Divine (which incorporated Open Markets) are examples of companies whose offerings personalize content and are closely linked to e-commerce suites
- CMS specialists - some companies like Vignette and Interwoven started with CM as their core product.
- Specialist niches - some focus on specific aspects of content management, such as XML inter-operability, while others provide solutions for smaller businesses (e.g. Ektron)
- Evolution continues - as it does for many IT-related products - in both product differentiation and product aggregation / integration. Thus, on the one hand you will find modules aimed at specific sectors or applications e.g. newspaper publishing, while on the other a fully blown CM solution does not look a lot different to the 'publishing' part of an enterprise portal. Just as KM suites have all but disappeared, we might expect that in many situations CM as a separate product will also disappear and be just one part - the 'publishing' functions - of an enterprise portal.
The core components found in most CM systems include the following:
- content creation / conversion - some basic tools allowing many authors throughout an organization to contribute content; this is usually done through some standard input templates e.g. a news item may have particular fields which have to be completed before an item can successfully be submitted to the workflow; it may also be linked to the output of Word documents
- content databases - content is held in a variety of formats as records or blocks in a database; many systems take advantage of existing content databases, though they do need to add extra information or convert it for use by a web server
- metadata - content is 'tagged' with various attributes. These may include the basic attributes such as author and keywords (such as the elements of the Dublin core, which itself can be viewed as a specific case of the more generic RDF - Resource Description Framework); but also attributes that relate to types of user and user profiles e.g. individual, enterprise, small business; another type of metadata is management data used by other parts of the CM systems - examples may include review date, approval level etc.
- workflow - a flexible system that defines the authoring and approval process for different kinds of user / content. It can include logical rules such as "items tagged enterprise must also be sent to marketing for approval; approval is deemed given if no reply within 48 hours"
- staging / publishing - once content has been approved, the content is ready for publishihg, though since this will not be directly to a web server, since a web page will include several items of content, what are pulled from the published content database when needed (most systems allow scheduling of publish and expiry dates). In order to synchronize several interdependent updates or new pieces of content, it is common to publish to a staging server which then passes content in batches to the web server databases.
- presentation and alternative renditions - the final part of the publishing process is to take an HTML output template and insert the relevant content into the allocated places, usually indicated by special tags understood by the page creation module or by functional calls within a scripting language. The same content may be published in different formats for different 'channels'. For example, as well as web pages in HTML, the same content may be output in WML (Wireless Markup Language) for a portable wireless device.
- personalization - this is more closely related to presentation layer and customizes pages according to users profiles and behaviours.
- audit trails, version control and 'roll-back' - more sophisticated CM systems keep each update of an item of content as a separate version. This make it possible to recreate your website as it was at a particular point in time. Audit trails identify which content was approved by whom and when.
As you can see from the above, a content management engine can be quite complex, which is one reason why for most enterprise implementation you get little change back out of $500,000. (There are other reasons - see the article "What Price Enterprise Systems" in the last I3 UPDATE). On the other hand, it is quite possible to create a highly usable CM system that is customized to your needs from more readily available software and some basic programming, e.g. MySQL and PHP scripting, Lotus Domino/Notes, VBScript modules etc.
The Potential Benefits
Apart from making it easier to maintain a website or (more typically) a set of websites throughout an organization, the use of CM can also confer these advantages:
- consistency of styles and formats for each type of information - this helps users find specific information quicker through familiarity with a particular template format
- major contributor to integration and cohesion - many companies have struggled to maintain hundreds of individual websites, often with overlapping content; as they move towards fewer 'portals', a CM system can act as the common bridge between them all
- removing the complexities of web page programming from content providers - any knowledge worker who has content to contribute can do so through templates and forms without knowing the intricacies of web page design or HTML mark-up; it also means that if a minor change needs to be made it can be done and published almost immediately without waiting for specialist to change web pages.
- multiple uses of the same information - since the same content can be inserted into different web pages, it is easy to maintain brand or site identity without duplicating effort to create content
- automatically change content according to certain rules - for example the BBC's Garden World website plays different content from its database at different seasons
- better management information on the status of content - for example, it is possible to identify process bottlenecks or consider the implications of forthcoming content by its position in the workflow e.g. "due for publication on 1st May"
- more precise retrieval - particularly if content is appropriately tagged; the personalization function 'knows' the interests and profiles of the user; hence search results or browsing can filter out (prevent the display of) content of low relevance
- integration with other applications - CM systems make it easier to retrieve information from databases (the 'hidden web' not indexed by search engines); the use of XML will make it easier in the future (once schemas and metadata elements are agreed within a community) for inter-operability between different systems.
But these benefits do not come without some sweat and toil! On the technical side there are problems of integration - using a CM system from multiple networks and users with different security levels, moving data from one subsystem to another (when there are different vendors involved), plus the usual ones of functional and performance reality not matching vendor hype. Some commonly heard wisdom (see for example, the excellent case studies that appear in each edition of Content Management http://www.cmfocus.com) indicates what CM managers would do differently next time:
- see before you buy: visit relevant reference sites of products being considered, and don't be afraid to ask difficult questions
- involve stakeholders early in the process: after all, once the system is installed, they are the main users
- don't underestimate implementation difficulties and costs: typically it costs 3-4 times the software licence fees to tailor and integrate a solution into an organization
- get to know the people in your supplier who really know how their software works.
And Even If The Technology Works Well...
An examination of what a CM offers means that for the full benefits to be realized, then it involves changes in the way that people work and think about content. It also needs some cohesiveness across an organization (and beyond) of how its content is classified and shared. It may require content originators to think more clearly about the intended use and audience and to spend time 'tagging' content accordingly. It may require imposing more discipline and consistency e.g. through the use of style guides, which knowledge workers may feel an affront to their independence. These are non-trivial matters and require clear thinking and planning in areas such as:
- customer needs - who are the different users? What problems are they trying to solve?
How do they want to access information?
- information architecture - for different groups of users, what is the natural way they group and think of topics? What is the most appropriate navigation hierarchy?
- content sourcing - if a needs analysis (or knowledge/information audit) reveals shortfalls of key information, can these be readily sourced from content providers, either within the organization or from external suppliers?
- metadata standards - what content should be tagged to aid personalization? Are there relevant taxonomies and thesauri that can be used?
- content publishing processes - who can publish what, with or without authorization? How can time to publish be kept short while avoiding publishing content that can cause problems?
- publishing rights - Who can access different classes of content? Who owns the intellectual property?
The underlying challenge behind all these information management issues, as ever, is the organizational and cultural challenge of getting commitment from people throughout the organization to publish their content and to do it in a particular way. Too often, those seeing the opportunities afforded by CM, underestimate the time and skills needed to get people on board and to instigate the internal processes and to embed creating and publishing. Also, there are new skills that may need to be boosted quickly. These include content editors (knowledge refiners), information architects and librarians (taxonomy, classification specialists). Too often, I've seen organizations wheel in a consulting team or a team of 10 editors after they thought they had a CM system. They had simply not paid enough attention to the organizational parts of the system.
So, Is Content King?
And once you have all the content your stakeholders need on your internet, extranet and intranet - is that it? Unfortunately not. A few years ago many people thought that content was king (the term has stuck though for many people the notion of 'king' seems inappropriate in today's environment). Those involved with websites are now touting the overall 'customer experience' (content plus design plus ease of navigation plus interactive and other features).
Even this is insufficient. As any knowledge manager knows, explicit knowledge in the form of web accessible content plus its bells and whistles is only the tip of the iceberg. This overlooks all the tacit knowledge that resides in communities. But that's another - and ongoing - challenge.
In the meantime, do get your content management approach (software, systems, processes and organization) on a sound footing. Content may not be king, but making relevant and up to date content easy to find and use throughout your organization and by your customers / stakeholders is surely an important source of power behind the throne.
Email: David J. Skyrme
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