January 21, 2005
Have you made peace with your Content Management System yet? If you’re like most CMS users, the answer is ‘no’ (or a steady stream of expletives that could easily be understood as a ‘no’). For many, CMS has become synonymous with the word ‘failure’.
There seems to be a widely held perception that CMS is a losing proposition. As a result, many corporations and government agencies have hesitated to make a commitment to CMS. A surprising number of corporate and government websites use no CMS at all, or a mixed up assortment of homegrown tools that can only loosely be referred to as a CMS.
Depending on their circumstances these organizations may not be able to resist the lure of a true CMS for much longer. There are hundreds of CMS vendors competing for the available market share. If you are not yet using a CMS it’s only a matter of time before a key decision maker in your organization gets sold on the idea. You know how it is when management latches onto buzzwords.
CMS doesn’t have to be synonymous with failure. There is no doubt that the right CMS, properly implemented, can offer real benefits to organizations of all sizes. The catch seems to be that it’s not always easy to find the right CMS, let alone a qualified team with the skills needed for a proper implementation.
As businesses of all sizes embark on their first CMS project they need to realize that they are venturing into territory that in many ways is unique. A CMS implementation is not quite like any other technology project. If for no other reason because the end result is a system that is used to manage what will essentially become the public face of your organization.
With this in mind I offer a few do’s and don’ts that could help you minimize your chances of joining the ranks of those who are unhappy with their CMS.
- Make sure you actually need a content management system. Not all websites do. Not every business generates enough content to justify the time and investment involved in using a full-blown content management system. Organizations that just need to post infrequent news updates may be able to get by with a simple blogging system. Spend some time up front determining what your real needs are.
- Get to know your content. It may sound self evident, but content is key. That would be why they call it a Content Management System. Start by asking a few basic questions: What is this theoretical content you will be managing? Who is the audience for this content? Where does the content live? Who owns it? How frequently does it change? What is the production process? What is the lifespan of your content? For larger organizations these can be difficult questions. There may be no single person in your organization who has a complete understanding of all of your organization’s content needs. You’ll need to make an effort to answer these questions before you can determine what your true requirements are. Don’t even think about selecting a system until you’re comfortable that you know all there is to know about your content and the process used to create it.
- Understand that when it comes to CMS, one size never fits all (despite what that vendor just told you). There are hundreds of CMS’s targeted at different markets. These systems have huge variations in cost, technology, and complexity. Your goal is to find a system that meets your specific content and organizational needs. The last thing you need is an overly complex system that offers cutting edge features you have no use for. Likewise, there will almost certainly be a variety of must-have features that you can’t live without. In addition to getting to know your content, you’ll want to consider the following: How many contributors do you have? Are your contributors centralized in a few departments, or do you have a deeper organizational hierarchy? What are your workflow, authorization, and publishing requirements? Do you need the ability to maintain a multi-lingual site? Do you need personalization? What about transactional capabilities? Scheduling and content rotation? Version control? Since the chances are that you’ve never developed a CMS requirements document before, you might consider seeking professional assistance before you begin evaluating CMS applications.
- Have a budget — preferably a realistic budget. As you evaluate CMS alternatives you’ll probably experience sticker shock at the price of some CMS systems. Keep in mind that the CMS license is only a fraction of your total cost. You can expect to spend 3x to 5x (or more) the cost of the license during the implementation phase. And don’t think you’re going to get off lightly just because you’ve selected an open source application. Just because the license fee is zero doesn’t mean you won’t need a considerable amount of professional assistance during your implementation.
- Consider usability and accessibility. There’s nothing worse than spending months of your organization’s time and a small fortune building a website that your customers can’t use. While it may be tempting to blame a bad user experience on your CMS, usability and accessibility problems can be minimized if adequate attention is given to these areas during the design and implementation phases. There’s no substitute for understanding your customers needs and building a site to meet those needs. Usability testing can help improve the odds that your users’ needs are met when your new site launches. While it’s tempting to focus on “the system” you should never underestimate the importance of user-centered design.
- Consider trying a low-risk pilot project that explores the potential of CMS and introduces the concept to your organization. Pilot projects can also serve as prototypes for larger projects and may be extremely useful in uncovering system requirements.
- Select your CMS before you have a full understanding of what your needs are. The first time we encountered a potential client who had actually purchased the CMS before interviewing professional service agencies we thought it was an anomaly. They literally had no clue what they had purchased or how they were going to build a site with their new system. Their selection became a limiting factor in everything else that followed. Since then we’ve come to realize that this sort of thing happens all the time. Upper management gets the CMS bug and they dispatch their CIO to ‘go buy one of those content management systems’. Hysteria ensues.
- Leave the CMS implementation to your IT department. Technology is only a small part of the CMS equation. Management should see CMS as a strategic business system that requires the involvement of staff at all levels and from departments across the organization. Building a team with a broad organizational perspective will dramatically increase your chances of success.
- Assume you won’t need to seek professional help. If this is your first CMS implementation you’ll likely underestimate the skill set needed to successfully develop your new website. Professional guidance during the planning phases can save a tremendous amount of time and money throughout the course of your project.
- View your CMS implementation as an isolated project with no impact on your operations. Your goal during the CMS implementation will be not only to launch a new website, but to integrate your new system with your existing business process. At the same time, a CMS project may provide organizations with the opportunity to re-assess existing processes and procedures. I am frequently amazed at the type of organizational issues that are unearthed during a CMS implementation. Outdated documents that are being distributed to clients as “current” information and non-existing procedures for mission critical business functions are typical of the types of issues that arise during the course of a CMS implementation. As these issues surface during the implementation, management should begin to take a more critical look at content and how it is created and maintained throughout the content lifecycle.
- Underestimate the amount of time required to produce quality content. You’ll need to undertake a comprehensive content inventory throughout your organization. Once your inventory is complete you’ll need to make sense of it all and begin building the information architecture for your new site. The processing of all of this content will likely involve a fair amount of document conversion and should also include extensive review and editing. These things all take time.
- Implement unnecessarily complex workflow and publishing processes. Workflow has its place, but you should resist the temptation to build elaborate workflow rules that have the overall impact of slowing down the content process. Your CMS should facilitate the management of content, not act as a barrier preventing the dissemination of new content.
There’s more, of course. But in my experience these seem to be the most common mistakes that hamper the successful implementation of a content management system. Focusing on these key areas should at least set you on the right path and will hopefully allow you to avoid the pitfalls that so many others have fallen into when undertaking a CMS implementation.