While deconstruction is serious business for the curmudgeon, I occasionally like to take a break from the rigours of sowing chaos and discord by presenting some more constructive observations.

In this post I’d like to capture the mental picture I have of how Content Management fits together, neatly putting all of the pieces of the CM puzzle (DM, WCM, RM, AA, etc.) in their rightful place. As a bonus we will also learn how and why various products (including our good friend WordPress) fit into the Content Management menagerie.

I consider AA to be part of CM, as beer consumption appears to be an increasingly important part of the Content Professional’s technical proficiency.

A Hierarchy of CM Problem Domains

In my previous post I introduced the “Reversi Rule” and noted that for CM we came up with the rather broad definition of “the management of content”. To me this generality is a large part of the appeal of the term (particularly when compared to ECM, which is just downright confusing) – it generously includes the diverse array of human endeavours that could conceivably be classified as “Content Management”, it doesn’t say anything about what those specific problem domains look like (beyond requiring that they involve the “management of content”, for some reasonable definition of “management” and “content”) and it doesn’t exclude any of the broad range of actors who face these problems (including, but not limited to, enterprises).

So what specific value, then, does such a broad definition for Content Management provide us?

Perhaps I’m betraying my technologist background, but to me Content Management clearly forms the root of a hierarchy of increasingly specialised problem domains – in graphical format, this hierarchy might start to look something like this:


Note: this diagram does not attempt to capture all possible CM problem domains, although doing so would be an illuminating exercise.

This diagram clearly illustrates a couple of important points:

  1. A vast array of activities can be referred to as “Content Management”.
  2. Many of these use cases have unique and highly specialised requirements, particularly as we get closer to the tips of the tree.
  3. Some of the management activities we think of as being common across the hierarchy actually have quite different semantics depending on the specific problem domain (versioning requirements are very different between Docroot Revision Control and Records Management, for example).
  4. File / folder-centric definitions of content are only part of the content management picture.

A graphical treatment also helps to highlight part of the reason why we’re all having so much trouble agreeing on what “Content Management” really is – we all tend to operate down at different tips of the tree, yet throw around our specific problem domain as The One True Form of Content ManagementTM!

I think this gets to the root of Pie’s earlier loss of composure, yet he is arguably guilty of the same sin, albeit while standing on a different soap box.

What About the Technology?

Typically software products are a trailing indicator of business problems, so it’s no surprise to find that there are systems for almost all of the use cases identified on the diagram. In fact adding the word “System” or “Software” to most of the labels on the diagram will result in an extant product classification. There are a few exceptions (“Docroot Revision Control System” and “Structured Content Production System”, for example), however there are products on the market today that are admirably described by these two terms.

The Bonus Round

Going back to our (by now somewhat fatigued) example of WordPress, it clearly falls into the node labeled “Blogs”, and by adding “System” to the label we get “Blog System”. Sounds fair – I doubt anyone would dispute that WordPress is indeed a Blog System.

Now by looking at the diagram we can see that a Blog System is a specialised form of Presentation Management System, which itself is a specialised form of Web Content Management System, which is finally a specialised form of Content Management System. I can hear some incredulous voices: “are you asserting that WordPress is all of these things?”. Absolutely!

Let’s pick some more examples, to see if we can break this model:

  • Alfresco RM – clearly a Records Management System therefore also a Document Management System, therefore also a Content Management System.
  • Virage MediaBin – this is an easy one: the web site explicitly touts it as Digital Asset Management, so only one step and we arrive at Content Management System. NEXT!
  • Ektron eWebEditPro (here’s a potentially contentious one!) – again the web site tells us it’s HTML Editing Software, therefore a Web Content Management System and a Content Management System.

Interesting eh? All these vastly different systems (we’ve just picked 4 that are completely different from one another), yet all of them provide specialised facilities for the management of content central to various different problem domains. They’re all Content Management Systems!

To paraphrase Drew Carey, next time you’re at a social event without companionship or sustenance, I’d encourage you to play “pin the CMS tail on the product donkey” (allowing yourself the ability to extend the hierarchy above with categories that I left out) – I think you’ll mostly find it a trivial exercise.

In Conclusion

At this point you might still be asking yourself what all this means and whether there is any real value in such a broad definition for Content Management.

My answer to that would be that an inclusive definition such as this one comes closest to the true meanings of the words “Content” and “Management”, without requiring us to open the can of worms that would be involved in trying to define these two words in detail (which is impossible anyway, since their precise definitions depend on the specific problem domain).

More importantly, by not requiring us to come to some global agreement about what “content” and “management” mean, this definition can help us move beyond the historical divides within the profession (notably the divide between the Web Content Management and Document Management camps), by giving us common terminology that is compatible with how these terms are used today by all camps, while also being sufficiently well defined that everyone knows what’s implied (and just as importantly, not implied) when someone make an assertion such as “Microsoft Word is a Content Management System”.

Published in: on 2010-05-07 at 5:58 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fully agree with your inclusion. Gr8t post.

    OpenCore/Microkernel strategies applied to the CM industry would result in a kind of universal set of content services made available throughout all the CM systems and this probably what CMIS/JCR spec are now trying to better define.

    We should however try to better distinct horizontal technical class extensions (System axis) vs vertical application extensions (Application axis).

    As mentioned by Wikipedia (, “Application software is contrasted with system software and middleware, which manage and integrate a computer’s capabilities, but typically do not directly apply them in the performance of tasks that benefit the user. A simple, if imperfect analogy in the world of hardware would be the relationship of an electric light bulb (an application) to an electric power generation plant (a system). The power plant merely generates electricity, not itself of any real use until harnessed to an application like the electric light that performs a service that benefits the user.”

    So IMHO a blog is an application which vertically extend your PMS. RIA could perhaps be considered as an horizontal specialization of your PMS.

    Time to switch your graph in 3D 😉

    • Stephane, I deliberately avoided touching on the topic of whether each of these problem domains are appropriate as a target for a software product, but seeing as you’ve brought it up I can state that I have a pretty clear opinion on that too! 😉

      The CM problem domain hierarchy describes specialisation – breaking up the extraordinarily general notion of “Content Management’ into successively more specific sub-domains.

      Now for a software product to claim that it satisfies one of these problem domains directly (ie. not via “inheritance”), my view is that it needs to satisfy *all* of the sub-domains as well, based on a simple inversion of the relationships in the tree.

      So for example for Vignette/OpenText VCM to claim itself as a “web content management system” rather than the more narrowly defined “structured content production system” means that it would need to handle the presentation management and HTML editing sub-domains (which it clearly doesn’t do – PM in particular is not even touched upon by VCM, although some of OpenText’s other products plug this specific gap to a greater or lesser extent via integration).

      Taking this all the way to the root of the tree, we can see that for a system to claim that it’s a “Content Management System” directly would require that it satisfies *all* of the sub-domains on the diagram (and more – I’ve left off large swathes of the CM problem space) – clearly an untenable proposition.

      So in my opinion there are no products currently on the market that can directly claim to be a “CMS”. Instead, existing systems are things like: DMS (eg. Documentum), CPS (eg. TeamSite), DMS+CPS (eg. Alfresco), PMS (eg. Drupal), Blog System (eg. WordPress), etc. etc.

      All of these perform a specific, opinionated form of “Content Management”, but none of them cover the totality of what “Content Management” is.

      As an aside, for a long time I thought the nirvana of Content Management Systems would be a system that did cover all (or most) of these sub-domains, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that such a strategy would result in a product that is “jack of all trades, master of none” (which is a likely path to commercial failure).

      • You’re right. CM Products tend to be inversely proportional to CM Systems: more specialized the Product is, better you solve a given user problem conversely more generic the CM services are, better you can leverage them throughout all your content-enabled applications.

        What’s sure is that the Ultimate CMS (S as in Solutions) does not and will probably never exist. This is probably what makes this industry so fascinating.

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