Content Management: A Survival Guide

As the Internet moves from presentation medium to dynamic content provider, content issues are moving to the forefront of many IT managers' thinking.
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By Barry Shaeffer

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.

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