Redefining Content Management

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We live in a time where people have an amazing amount of power when it comes to publishing. Blogging, podcasts, vidcasts (or whatever you call ‘em) and more have been put into the hands of millions and it’s changing the way we live and work.

Despite all of that, content management for the web remains a huge pain point for many individuals and businesses. The amount of time, effort and money that’s involved (and often wasted) to do things that are seemingly rather straightforward is astronomical. I mean, how hard does it have to be?

Content publishing and management can be extremely complex, and therefore not surprisingly hard to do. Having said that, the biggest problems with content management lie not in that complexity, but in how we approach our solutions.

How’s that for a paradox? Welcome to the world of content management.

So, where do we start looking for a better way to “do” content management? Let’s take a hard look at the issues; starting with how most of us perceive content management.

Content Management vs. CMS

Without wishing to state the obvious, content management needs to be all about the content. However, when most of us think (or talk, or read) about content management we are quick to associate it with a specific technology – the CMS.

That, my friends, is our first, and probably our biggest, mistake. “CMS” should in no way define content management. If you’re currently in content management = CMS mode you should really take the time to step back and look at what you’re doing. You may find out that you’re wasting time, money and effort on something that’s not providing much, if any, value.

There are four important pieces to the content management puzzle: content, people, process and technology. Let’s look at those individually.

Content Management is About Content

Well, now that we’ve pulled the “system” out, let’s look at defining “content.” Here’s where it gets tricky. Content can mean a lot of things. You could be publishing all sorts of content; pages, articles, mp3s, events, and so on. You could have a variety of different mediums (html, images, movies) all of which have a different way of being created, maintained, and published.

And that doesn’t even take into account semantic issues. What’s the difference between a “page” and an “article?” What about an article and a blog entry? A blog entry and a news item. Sometimes these may seem obvious, other times it’s not as clear.

There is no one clear definition for content – it’s different for every situation and it’s important to keep this in mind. Don’t let the content be defined by the technology, for example, that’s something that most content management systems will do for you (or to you!).

Content Management is About People

You need to have people in order to properly manage content. Content can’t be created by a system and it doesn’t manage itself. Pretty clear, right? I think so, yet I’m constantly amazed at how often the people aspect is left out of the solution.

I could write a book on how to create, manage and maintain content and it would begin with something about hiring the right people.

In order to do content right you’ve got to make sure there are people in place and that they’re set up to use the systems you have. Find out if you even need a CMS, for example. Sometimes you’ll find that by having people with the right skills in place eliminates the need for a “CMS” altogether. Instead you may want to deploy technology that helps with the process itself, or nothing at all, in effect using people instead of technology to manage your content.

I think many folks would be surprised at how much time, effort and money can be saved simply by putting people before technology when it comes to resources.

Content Management is A Process

I think this defines the term “content management” the best. It’s a process. Take a look at why people want to manage content. What are they trying to express? What are their goals? What are the real problems they’re having? How do they interact with technology? These questions should be answered before any sort of system or technical solution is applied.

I think we can safely assume that most people who actually have to work with content management don’t care too much about the technology, aside from whether or not it works well. They just want to correct an error, publish their thoughts, share their knowledge. In order to provide the best solution, we need to understand those goals first. Then we need to establish a solid process.

If the process is flawed everything that follows will also be flawed. Unfortunately what normally happens is the process is created around the technology, which is usually hard to use, and everything falls apart.

But enough of that, as my pal Sean said recently, “consulting on process could be an industry unto itself.” Let’s talk tech.

Content Management is About Technology

When it comes to content management, technology should be a means to an end. It should be a way to help people accomplish their goals. This can be done in many different ways and should not be limited to what we traditionally think of as a CMS.

I realize that the promise of a CMS as a suite of technologies to help people with content management is a good one. However, good intentions don’t always come with good results. When it comes to CMSs, this is usually a bit of an understatement.

The usual problem with that is most CMSs aren’t really built to address the specific needs and problems of the people and processes you’ll have in place. Even when geared to a specific type of content or industry they often miss the mark.

This can be the result of a few problems common to many “out-of-the-box” solutions:

  • They’ve got an overly complicated feature-set. With most systems you’ve got a bunch of advanced features that don’t often get used. If they do it’s usually after someone’s spent tons of time learning the system. Heck, I don’t know how many times I’ve thought to myself, “I could teach the content contributors how to access static files and write XHTML quicker.” Regardless, if people don’t use the features, they’re not really useful.
  • They’re too inflexible. They don’t allow for easy customization (in more ways than one) and require significant resources (time, effort and money) to mold them to what you want. Sometimes that can be as simple as getting the content to display correctly or getting the CSS to render as it should.
  • They’re not tailored to the specific content you want to publish. Jeff Croft recently wrote a nice piece on personal content management that illustrates this well. He points out that, “the single biggest problem with content management is that personal CMS tools don’t facilitate structured data as well as they should. Instead, they give you a few fields and let you figure out how to best fit your content into them.” Very true, and this causes all sorts of problems.
  • They’re too hard to use. A CMS can be hard to learn, or simply too cumbersome for your teams to learn and use. This goes back again to people. There is a commonly held and horribly wrong belief that technology will make things so easy that the need for human involvement goes away. CMSs don’t run themselves, and if the people won’t use it, you’ve got a problem.

For a technological solution (CMS or otherwise) to work it needs to be tailored to the specific content management problems you’re facing. Simply picking and adding a CMS will not usually do it and can end up in lots of wasted time, effort and money. Sorry, folks, it’s more complicated than that.

Some Solutions

So we’ve got a solid, holistic definition of content management and we’ve talked a bit about the problems therein. But what about solutions? Well, I think we’ve already taken the biggest step in reframing the problem, but I’ve got some specific ideas as well.

Get Some People

To manage content properly you have to have people involved. That’s the first step. Put a person (or better, persons) in charge of your content. Give that person the empowerment to make decisions that relate to content.

If nothing else, do this before you do anything with technology. I mean it!

Define Your Content and Establish a Process

Next you need to clarify goals, define roles, and so on. A big part of that is to make sure everyone involved has a clear understanding of the content you’ll be managing. It’s not rocket science and should be fairly easy to pin down, but make sure and eliminate any semantic problems here.

It’s probably a good idea to be specific. For example; determine the that you’re publishing news articles vs. features, etc. Don’t limit yourself to something generic like words vs. photos.

Once you’ve got the people in place and your content defined, you’ll want to establish a solid process. Take some time and set up an editorial calendar and work on learning how the people involved will work together and with the technologies you’ve got in place.

Help Technology Help You

And now we get to the tricky part. The idea here is to discover a technical solution (not a system) that will enable the people to manage the process.

Let’s look at that again. Enable the people to manage the process. So, the “solution” needs to provide tools (publishing and otherwise) to help the people create, publish and maintain content.

There are a lot of canned solutions out there and I could give you a laundry list of this CMS and that CMS, but until you’ve solved the problems above you’d be wasting your time (and likely lots of money) exploring them. The enabling technology could be a CMS or it could extend beyond that, depending on the process and needs of your people.

One of the biggest problems with most CMSs is that they aren’t flexible enough to handle a wide variety of work styles and publishing problems. In many cases, somewhat surprisingly, they’re not tailored enough to the specific content they’re managing. They require hacking and lots of it.

In truth most CMSs end up being custom, regardless of how they start out. From those that bill themselves as one-size fits all to the highly specialized systems which deal with specific industries or types of content. It’s just a matter of how much hacking you’ll need to do to get to what works for your people.

Keeping that in mind, the case could be made for always building a custom solution (not necessarily a CMS) to suit the needs of the particular content, people and processes your working with.

It sounds daunting, but this is where I think the true promise of a technical content management solution lies. With frameworks like Django, CakePHP, Ruby on Rails and the like we can create custom solutions and construct custom systems that are extendable and much more flexible than most of what’s available today.

I don’t want to trivialize the development of these solutions. Building a custom CMS from scratch, for example, would be very difficult. However, it’s important to note the current costs and effort involved with most pre-built CMSs out there. They’re usually really expensive and already requires tons of work to implement in most cases. It’s going to cost you regardless. Doesn’t it make sense to put that money, time and effort into a true custom solution?

I think so. I mean, yes, you’d need specialized resources for development, but it seems as if you need those most times anyway. I know I’d rather offer my clients resources working toward a custom solution than learning yet another proprietary system.

So you could look at a development framework, as opposed to a canned system. That way instead of “hacking” you could “develop.”

Also with a framework, you can extend beyond Web publishing and build specific tools to help the process. An interactive editorial calendar comes to mind, or brainstorming tools. Of course, if you avoid the “one CMS as as a product” mentality, you could probably find lots of smaller, more specific, products that when pulled together are much more enabling than any bloated, proprietary CMS full of features your people will never actually use.

Confused yet?

I promise, the goal of this piece wasn’t to confuse you, and I know that it’s a whole lot to take in.

Here’s the bottom-line: content management can’t be trivialized. And it can’t be perceived as technology first; as a canned product or silver-bullet that’ll eliminate the need for people or processes.

If you’re serious about your content, and you should be, then take the time to do it right. Get the right people in place, clearly define your content, establish a solid process and then work on getting a custom technology solution that brings everything together and truly enables your people and processes.

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0 comments on “Redefining Content Management

  1. I think your point on adding clarity to the goal is important. Content without a clear goal in mind is distracting.

  2. Here’s the bottom-line: content management can’t be trivialized. And it can’t be perceived as technology first; as a canned product or silver-bullet that’ll eliminate the need for people or processes.

  3. Excellent Keith!

    WordPress is my favorite CMS of them all, it has nearly everything you need in a silo structure.


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