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Published on September 12th, 2006 | by Rahel Bailie


Going My Way? Don’t Get Taken for a Ride

Under the right circumstances, a ride in a content management system (CMS) is a beautiful thing. Much as buying a vehicle solves a transportation problem, buying a CMS solves a content transportation problem – the idea is to create content once and have a system that moves the content into the right places, at the right times, for the right users. To talk about a content management system, it makes sense to use the metaphor of a vehicle because content management is, essentially, a vehicle to transport content around a system and make the content appear in wonderful and useful ways.

But that’s where the similarities veer down different forks in the road. In a conversation with James Robertson, internationally-known consultant and managing director of Australia’s Step Two Designs, he marveled at how corporate decision-makers would put less thought into buying a CMS than they would into buying a car. He mused that when buying a family vehicle, a couple at least reads the consumer reports and kick the tires.

To extend this metaphor, let’s look at typical pre-purchase exercises. A couple setting out to buy a car responsibly will discuss, first and foremost, what they need the car to do. Ferry three kids to multiple lessons? A mini-van. Lots of camping trips? Four-wheel drive. Taking a boat to the lake? Eight cylinders, big engine, and a tow bar. They’ll talk to the sales rep about their needs and see if their preliminary set of requirements can be refined: is there a better model that would suit them? They’ll pile the children into the back seat and check whether the seats will work for the family road trips: can the kids see out the windows, or will they spend their time tormenting each other; is there room for kids to store keep-busy activities, and then reach them without taking off their seat belts? They’ll check the safety rating and the average annual maintenance cost. They’ll definitely take the vehicle for a test drive.

What happens in an organization is often done with considerably less understanding of what should be expected of the CMS. It’s not unusual that purchases are made based on requirements guessed at by a decision-maker based on conversations with some unit managers (but not with the actual users). Sometimes, the decision is made based on the prominence of a system in the marketplace – a prominence which, by the way, may have been bought rather than earned. Another common purchasing technique is to ask what system other companies are happy with, and assume that all needs are created equal.

The result is often a mismatch between the system and what the organization needs. Organizations that need a high-performance sports car are saddled with a battle ship – a vehicle with way more power than a sports car, but that works only in water, is considerably slower to turn around, and incurs way more cost to operate. In the spring of 2005, over half of an audience of decision-makers at a prominent content management conference admitted they were shopping for replacement content management systems. In that room alone, I calculated that their intent represented many millions of dollars of unfunctional software and undoubtedly lost productivity, staff, and opportunities for business or efficiencies.

The industry insider’s joke about the “predatory software vendor” business model is truly unkind, and actually too specific. The requests for “a new site in two months” or “software to create documentation in time for our upcoming release” are generally recognized as coming from planning-challenged or reactive organizations with unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, it also signals that those organization are vulnerable to vendors, consultants, agencies, and development houses who extol the features of their specialty software, service, design, or latest cool technology without determining whether it will even serve the needs of the organization. It’s like one of those moments that you just know were part of the hype to sell Edsels to unsuspecting consumers.

So how does an organization keep from getting saddled with a battleship instead of the SUV that might ideally serve their needs? Without going into the nitty-gritty of each of the areas, the prudent course of action can be summarized in these three macro steps: (a) do a thorough analysis of your business requirements, (b) understand your content needs inside and out, and (c) get a sound understanding of the technologies and how they can further the management of your content to meet your business requirements. The steps include talking to all the stakeholders – usually with the help of a consultant specializing in content management – and figuring out not just how content is currently used, but how content could be used to increase the value to customers, both internal and external. And yes, a good process includes “taking a test drive” through a proof of concept exercise under the watchful eye of a qualified technical consultant.

Does this slow the process down? Definitely. Methodologies such as Six Sigma (which begins with Define, Measure, and Analyze) and ADDIE (which begins with Analyze and Design) were developed and used by organizations recognizing the need to do things with a little less speed and a lot more thought, to yield better results. It takes time to talk to stakeholders, gather requirements, discuss potential ways to leverage corporate content assets, and examine technologies, but the modest investment in time up front yields a huge savings in real investment dollars in the long run. It’s high time that organizations took the opportunity to kick some tires and take some test drives. At least then, they’re in the driver’s seat.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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