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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The Case for Killing “ECM”

I’ve been commenting quite a bit recently on Sir Pie’s noble quest to define “ECM”, but have held back on weighing in in detail until now. I figured it was high time I put my money where my mouth is and attempt to explain the conclusion I’ve arrived it.

To me the discussion about what “ECM” means is fundamentally based on the definition of “Content Management” in general, and more specifically, the definitions of all of those things that are thought of as being part of humanity’s “Content Management” activities (including, but by no means limited to: Web Content Management; Document Management; Records Management; Image Management; Digital Asset Management; Print Management; etc.).

So how might we go about defining all these things?

The Reversi Rule

Now some would argue (persuasively, in many cases!) that I’m just simpleminded, but I’ve always used a nice simple rule for figuring out what a complimicated name such as “Document Management” means – I like to call it the “Reversi Rule” (Reversi is such a nice simple game!):

Approximately reverse the words in the name and then fill in the blanks to construct a grammatically correct sentence.

So using this rule:

  • “Document Management” is “The management of documents”.
  • “Web Content Management” is “The management of web content”.

And most tellingly:

  • “Content Management” is the (rather broad) “management of content”.

A Short Digression…

Now this may seem like little more than childish word play, but it actually enables us to unambiguously answer some rather interesting questions, such as the ever-popular-on-twitter “Is WordPress a CMS?”.

The reasoning goes something like this:

Q. What is a CMS?
A. A system that manages content.  (Reversi Rule)

Q. Is WordPress a system?
A. Yes it is.  (very little ambiguity here!)

Q. Does WordPress provide management features?
A. Yes it does, including the most important features for an author of web content: editing, version control and publication.  (one might argue that “management” is more than this, but these three are amongst the most important activities an author of web content performs on their content, regardless of the system they’re using)

Q. Is what WordPress manages content?
A. Yes it is – content in the form of blog posts and pages.  (again, very little ambiguity here, although no one would dispute that this is a rather limited view of what web content is)

So when measured against our definition of “CMS”, WordPress passes with flying colours – it is unequivocally a system that manages (edits, versions, publishes) content (blog posts, pages).

So what has this go to do with “ECM”?

Well by applying the Reversi Rule to “ECM”, we get:

  • “Enterprise Content Management” is “The management of enterprise content.”

But what is “enterprise content”? Is it web content? Documents? Paper (physical or scanned)? Records? Digital media assets? As I’ve argued before, it could be none, any, or all of the above – it depends on the enterprise in question.

That’s not very promising, so let’s try again:

  • “Enterprise Content Management” is “The management of content in an enterprise.”

Well we still have the problem of deciding what that content is, and we’re now excluding those organisations that aren’t structured as enterprises in the first place! What about the (these days literally!) poor governments of the world that are just as desirous of content management as enterprises are??


The conclusion I’ve drawn is that “ECM” is a chimera of a term that cobbles together two completely unrelated concepts: “content management” (the management of content) and “enterprise” (a company that has been organised for commercial purposes).

For this reason I think “ECM” is a term that provides no value over and above other terms (specifically “Content Management”), and I suspect that’s part of the reason why Pie and others have struggled so long to try to find a workable definition that does more than just confuse the heck out of any unfortunate souls who come into contact with it.

I also suspect that deep down, Pie has at least some subconscious inkling that “CM” is a superior term to “ECM”, as evidenced by a recent brain snap. As demonstrated in the WordPress digression above, the usage of the term “CMS” that Pie finds so objectionable is indeed justified, if perhaps not the full picture. This is something I intend to explore further in a subsequent post.

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Published in: on 2010-05-05 at 9:46 am  Comments (11)  
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