Enabling Information Trade with a Content Management System

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Tuesday 10 December, 2002

This presentation was prepared many years ago now. So some of the language is a bit old fashioned in the digital industry today. However we think the concepts are still sound, and several of the example projects are still online in one form or another too. Please enjoy the article.

An "open" sign hanging in a shop window.


Welcome to everyone, thanks for coming along. My name's Rob Wells.

Just a quick bit of background: I'm the Director of DDSN Interactive. We've been specialising in web development with a particular focus on content management systems for about 5 years. We are currently primary local contractors for CMS and web related design and development work to major organisations including World Vision, KPMG, Hewlett Packard, Telstra, and Hansen Corporation - and we also work in the medium and sometimes small business spaces. We have qualifications for enterprise level CMS solutions including Vignette and Netcat, and we have also developed our own highly scalable CMS (called cm3) which has a creditable install base and prominent clients of its own.

The examples and information I'm going to use come from my experience over the last few years (although I'm sorry I can't provide examples from some of the companies listed above for various reasons). I'll leave some time at the end of this session for questions and discussion, so if you could save up any questions you may have until then that would be great.

Assuming this is a well informed audience, I'm going to use some common industry jargon (such as the term "CMS") and assume a certain level of e-business technology knowledge in this presentation.

Stewart [Ed: Stewart Carter, organiser of the Australian E-Commerce Network] has asked me to put a focus on e-commerce into this talk. Well, the available definitions of e-commerce are as widely varied as the definitions of what a content management system is. So here's how I'm approaching those definitions today:

  • "E-commerce" is the use of electronic tools to complete commercial transactions.
  • A  "content management system" is a particular kind of electronic tool that enables complex information-based transactions.

Those are fairly generic definitions, but they serve the purpose of today's talk. To keep things simple and related to my own experience, I'm going to talk about how these things relate to web presences (Internet, Intranet, Extranet) in particular.

(By the way, for any industry techies we might have here, a discussion of the differences between terms like "digital asset management", "knowledge management", "document management", "digital rights management" and "content management" is outside the scope of today's discussion, but I'll give you some reference material later on if you'd like to learn more about it.)

What I'm hoping for is that everyone will leave this talk with a better understanding of firstly, content management systems, and then how you can - no, not how you can, but why you must - use a content management system to enhance relationships and manage transactions with your clients, suppliers, partners, and employees - let's call them all customers.

Before we begin, I'd like to get a general indication of everyone's personal experience with some of the technology we're going to discuss.

  1. How many people here own or are involved in running a website? [Ed: Three quarters of the audience raised hands.]
  2. Out of those people, how many of you have a CMS? [Ed: Three quarters of the audience raised hands.]
  3. How many people are happy with what you're achieving from your website or CMS? [Ed: About a quarter of the audience raised hands.]
  4. How many people know that their customers (internal and external) are happy with their website? [Ed: Two people raised hands.]
  5. How many people are onto their third or fourth sites? [Ed: Two people raised hands.]

I think that anyone who put their hand up at least once will have experienced a few of the problems I‘m about to describe.

Key Concepts

There are two key concepts that I have picked up in my time working with content management systems:

  1. The implementation of a CMS is almost always about making better communication (information transactions) with customers faster.
  2. Implementation of a CMS should be process driven, in the same way that any communications change in your company should take your business processes into account.

As a way of introducing some of the concepts and language behind my talk today, I'd like to start by telling you a tale about content management.

Case Study: The Furphy Company Disaster

In a land and a time not too dissimilar to ours here, the Furphy Company had a website, which they used to sell a range of electronic gadgets. The website design and programming had been outsourced to Jim at Groov-e Designs. Everything was going great guns until the sales team wanted to add the latest gadget - the Cyberlogic 2010 - to the site. The product was hot, hot, hot and they were receiving hundreds of phone calls a day about it before it even launched.

The sales team didn't know how to put the new product on the site, so they had to take the information to Jim. Groov-e Designs was having a bumper month and Jim had a lot of work on. The day after the official launch date Jim finally had some time to update the site. Back at the Furphy Company the head of sales and marketing smiled for the first time in a week.

The sales went through the roof and everyone was ecstatic until Marie, in fulfilment out at the warehouse, called the sales team and queried the price of the product. This whiz-bang gadget was being sold at $150.00 instead of the correct $650.00. The sales team went into a frenzy. They needed to change the price before any more orders went through but as we already know, they couldn't do it at their end. After hours of desperate phone calls and emails they got onto Jim who changed the price.

Moments after the new price went live, Furphy's customers wanted to know why the price had increased so greatly. They sent emails to the site but received no response as the one person who received all the site contact emails had taken a sick day for stress. Marketing wanted to send out an apology email to all their customers but they didn't have a way to access the website's customer base. Furphy's customers... well they didn't stay their customers for much longer... were left feeling somewhat aggrieved.

This tale of content managements woes helps to highlight some of the problems a CMS should solve. The Furphy Company's main problem is that they did not consider the process involved with transacting online with their customers.

It Affects the Whole Team

Content management is a problem on an individual level for many members of a business team. The problem known as the "webmaster bottleneck" has affected virtually everyone at every point in the trade lifecycle of the Furphy Company.

  • The publishing team, who have no process for adding, editing, or checking information;
  • The marketing reps, who can't announce news or publish important updates;
  • Customer service bears the stress of the problems caused by incorrect information, and can't access historical records of what's going on;
  • The "techies" who are under unbearable load to push data through the bottleneck;
  • The customers, who simply can't communicate with Furphy Company.

Picking a "Good" Solution

A "good" content management system should not only solve those problems, but also be able to deliver the number one customer demand - speed. You've seen from the example how the Furphy Company's inability to deliver on time or communicate with their customers quickly affects how their customers feel about them.

Now you may have noticed I used the adjective "good", a "good content management system". What constitutes a good content management system will vary depending on the individual organisation; however, I think that it's possible to identify a core set of features that need to exist in an off-the shelf system. (I'm not promising that this is the most comprehensive or the most accurate generic list of CMS requirements - it simply contains items that are relevant in my experience.)

Things to look for in an off-the-shelf CMS:

  1. Single, centralised logical repository
  2. Strong, flexible, and relevant workflow
  3. Separation of content and presentation
  4. Modularity
  5. Multi-directional information handlers
  6. Infrastructure matches business
  7. Capacity for evolution
  8. Ease of use
  9. Business specific management features - e.g. versioning, security, reporting, personalisation
  10. Proven system
  11. Good support

Let's look at each of these factors in greater detail and see how they help to give your customers a more pleasant business experience when transacting with you via your Internet, Extranet or Intranet sites. (Don't forget about those internal clients - your staff or business partners who need to get value out of your CMS.)

1. Single, Centralised Logical Repository

This means you can have content contributors all over the world all feeding content into the one centralised system. You can gather the latest information from across the globe or state in one location. The obvious advantages of this are:

  • Ability to share documents, images and other media, business assets, and customer databases
  • Ability to maintain consistent branding and other standards
  • Ability to publish world-wide in many formats and in many languages

Example: Furmanite Engineering

A good real life example of a large company that uses their centralised CMS to their advantage is Furmanite.

Furmanite are a multinational engineering company that has offices across Europe, America and the Asia Pacific region. They have fourteen sites in six different languages all administered through a centralised CMS. Each region can write their own specialised content and then publish it themselves. Customers can come to any of their sites and be greeted by the same consistent look and feel, but they are spoken to in their native language.

The CMS order the information in a uniform manner so that an Administrator or webmaster doesn't have to speak all six of the languages to manage the content.

2. Strong, Flexible and Relevant Workflow

The term "workflow" in CMS circles has a range of definitions - I think of it simply as the process by which information is published on a site. This process could involve a writer, an editor or a person who proofreads the content and then a final person who sends it live.

The aim of managed workflow is to stop mistakes being published. And the best way to stop this happening is:

  1. To ensure content is proofed before it is sent live; and
  2. To ensure that the person who is proofing the content is familiar with it.

Mistakes like the one the Furphy Company made are costly in an obvious way, while spelling errors and incorrect or poorly laid out information will also make your customers doubt your quality of business in a subtler, less quantifiable manner.

Example: City of Port Phillip

Workflow needs to be flexible: it needs to be able to fit large organisations that may already have a publishing chain that can be emulated by the system.

For example a government-owned website has many legal and social responsibilities to uphold - not the least of which is a formal obligation to meet standards for accessibility set by the W3C - so it may have a complex workflow that passes documents not only via a reviewer or proofreader before they are published but also via legal departments and senior officials.

A workflow system needs to be flexible enough to include all of these variables and the response created at each level.

The City of Port Phillip addressed this need by going through a carefully considered review of information flow and business procedures in their business before the CMS was deployed. Then, a CMS offering workflow specific to their organisation's needs was installed to assure clarity of process and ease of use.

Example: Vinyl Solution

On the other hand a workflow needs to be relevant. For example Vinyl Solution is a small business that deals in records of all musical genres. The website is managed solely by Glenn, who is passionate about his subject matter and subsequently knows his stuff. Every time he adds a new record to the site, he doesn't want to have to go through a series of proofreading checkpoints. He needs a system that will give him the ability to publish immediately.

3. Separation of Content and Presentation

Objectifying your content and separating it from the way it will display is the first big step to removing the publishing bottleneck and being able to quickly adapt to customers' changing needs.

If all your writers need to do is place the content in an easy to operate structured storage container, and then it is automatically translated to a beautifully designed HTML page, or a neatly laid out mobile telephone screen, or a well presented email layout, or all of the above, you don't need to visit the designer or your IT department every time you want to add information. Furthermore:

  • The use of presentation templates means all of your information will maintain a consistent look and feel and your content creators won't be able to add flaming logos to their articles.
  • Templates can be created with layouts and features required to meet usability and accessibility standards - e.g. as outlined by the W3C - taking the onerous task of standards compliance away from day to day content contributors.
  • Content can be easily re-purposed for delivery to different channels (web, email, mobile Internet, print) or different audiences (customers, staff, suppliers, or even in different languages).
  • Your business is independent of reliance on the techies and designers.

A good CMS should be capable of delivering content in a range of formats and layouts without the need to re-write it.

Example: Goulburn-Murray Water

The G-MW website contains a large number of text-oriented pages. It's currently going through its fourth re-design since its initial launch over 5 years ago. Thanks to the installation of a flexible template driven CMS a couple of versions ago, content does not need to be re-published each time.

Example: Flora for Fauna

This is a quite amazing website that allows you to plan and actually design a garden using native plants to actually attract specific native animals. The layout of the core garden design application is highly dynamic as it relies on a virtually infinite combination of selections by the user and cross-links with a wide variety of supporting information. Furthermore much of the content was originally sourced from other databases and from the prototype website at www.wildscape.com.au.

It was important to design a highly object driven content management structure so that users could elect to see the content "live" as they were planning their garden, access supporting textual information, download spreadsheet formats for offline reference. Since the back end CMS was capable of completely separating content from design the same system is used for all text pages on the site. This reduced Flora for Fauna's development costs overall and gave them a central technology for ease of use and streamlined future development.

4. Modularity

If you think of how easy it was to construct buildings with Lego because the individual pieces were a standard size and structure that could easily mesh with each other, you'll start to see what I mean by modular. Your CMS should be comprised of sections that are easy to move, add or delete without disrupting the overall structure or requiring an entire overhaul of it.

For example, a client may launch with a brochure ware website. It contains information on the business, some photos of their products and details on how to contact them. Six months down the track, they're receiving so many email requests for products they decide they want to develop an online store.

If their content management system is not modular but heavily interconnected and "hard coded" for a particular purpose, they will have to either redevelop their CMS or add the shop but manage it through a secondary location that may not be attached to their customer database. In this case they have to choose between the devil or the deep blue sea. Yet again this is an issue of speed and being able to respond quickly to your customers' needs.

Example: Royal Australian College of General Practitioners

A huge, content driven website. Nine months after launch the membership database (a separate application that was operated independently of the website) was completely replaced with a new application. Thanks to the fact that the website CMS has been built with that modularity in mind, a simple review of the interaction between the CMS and the member database allowed them to switch processes “on the fly” with virtually no interruption to their business. It's hard to imagine the costs that may have been involved if the CMS had been tied tightly to the member management system.

5. Multi-directional Information Handlers

One of the most important aspects of a CMS is its ability to interact not only with the humans receiving or supplying information in a commercial transaction, but in fact with any other person or technology that may need to be involved at some point.

Take the very simple example of a "contact us" form on a website. Even in the simplest instance that form should send an automated email to the external customer informing them that the transaction request was successful, along with a notification to the business (one or more people) at the other end to address the customer's query.

But it should also go further. In most cases, it should keep a historical record of the contact, it should be intelligent enough to handle the basics of validating the query (e.g. what if the business needs a tracking number to address the question but the customer does not supply one?), and it might need to pass information or trigger events in other systems.

Now turn this into a more complex product order form. The CMS now needs to tell the product database that a product has been ordered and stock levels need to be reduced, it needs to supply a tax invoice, it may need to print a packing slip, and it needs to keep the customer up-to-date with the status of the order at each point.

So, a good CMS enables all aspects of an information transaction. It's not just about allowing a business to push information to a customer.

6. Infrastructure Matches Business

You need to choose a CMS that is easy to integrate with your existing infrastructure. Let's use an example where the infrastructure and the CMS don't match.

Big Red Pencil is an accounting firm that uses Microsoft Windows as their operating platform. Their IT department consists of Mark, a Microsoft certified engineer. Mark is over worked and the powers that be decide to get a content management system so that reports and taxation information can be uploaded to their website without putting further stress on poor Mark.

The head honchos are sold on a good content management system that happens to be written with a technology called PHP - mainly because they had 25 other customers in the local region and it was cheap. The development company come in and implement (albeit for a non-negligible sum and a lot of time) the CMS. The CMS in itself is great, it does everything Big Red Pencil needs and Mark starts eating lunch again.

Four months after the new system is implemented management see how successful it has been and decide to build the new system into their Intranet. Unfortunately in this time the development company have been taken over and no longer deal in PHP CMS. All eyes turn on Mark but he doesn't know how to use PHP. They now have a CMS that can't be updated or expanded, and they're faced with the choice of selecting a new external contractor to perform jobs Mark should have been able to handle, re-building their CMS from the ground up, or patching other systems around the edges of it.

The moral to this tale is to choose a system that matches your infrastructure and you won't be tied to one stream of developers - you will be developer independent.

7. Capacity for Evolution

Remember our story about the Furphy Company? Well the story doesn't end there, because the Furphy Company had a competitor - Fadworld.

After the Furphy Company's disastrous handling of the last product launch, Fadworld picked up the Cyberlogic contract by showing the stakeholders the power of their new CMS and demonstrating their ability to respond to customer demands. And for 12 months they sold and promoted the product online without any major troubles. Their content management system allowed them to edit and proof their content before sent it live, they had an excellent auto-responder system and kept all their customers up-to-date via a CMS-managed electronic mailing list.

However, when it came time to renew the contract, Cyberlogic wanted Fadworld to supply product updates in a new high-tech format called XXML. Their current CMS wasn't able to adapt to this new format, so in the time they spent getting quotes and timeframes for redevelopment, another company with a CMS that had the capacity to evolve and change with technology stole the contract from under them. Yet again it's that need to fulfil your internal or external customers' demands quickly.

The capacity to evolve partly incorporates the modularity I mentioned earlier, but also and underlying ability for the CMS to grow with the needs of all the customers surrounding it. Being aware of movements in technology and developing a medium to long term roadmap for your CMS business requirements is vital. Then select a system that is aligned with your development goals - and capable of achieving them.

8. Ease of Use / Low Impact on Organisation

I hope this one is self explanatory, but it should still be mentioned. For instance, a couple of years ago the issue of What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) content creation and editing was a big topic for CMS software (i.e. avoiding the need for content creators to write HTML or other code) but these days it's pretty much taken for granted in any decent system.

The impact on your business should be considered too. If the system is overly complex it may be difficult for your staff to use or an excessive amount of training and retained knowledge may be needed. This should be considered for both the day to day content editors, and any business or technical staff who may need to adapt or expand the system over time.

9. Business Specific Management Features - E.g. Versioning, Security, Reporting, Personalisation

Specific publishing and management needs should be identified while you're planning your CMS deployment and considered when choosing software or suppliers. I've listed issues such as content versioning (including roll back), security, reporting, and personalisation as specific business requirements.

Different CM solutions have different strengths, so identify what it is that you need and look for the ones that suit your business.

For instance, versioning is critical for government organisations with highly information rich websites due to the legal requirements of knowing what was published where at a certain point in time. However it's not so important for an online product catalogue where products don't tend to change after they've been placed in the database.

10. Proven System

This point and the next one are probably the two most important ones in my opinion.

We've seen that choosing a good CMS is not an easy task. You need to make sure that the system you choose has been successful in the past.

This may mean that lots of similar kinds of companies are already using it (this is always a good test). Or it may mean that you choose a development partner that you can trust to work with you over time. Or it may mean that you hire an in-house information officer who knows CMS processes inside out. Whatever you do, ask for reference sites and a real demonstration.

CMS development is becoming quite advanced in the general marketplace now - both in the large enterprise space and also for medium or smaller businesses. Make sure you're not unnecessarily re-inventing wheels.

11. Good Support

CMS software is complex. And it is rarely deployed in a completely generic form. That means you're going to run into bugs or on-going development issues. Make sure the system you choose has the backing of people you can access and people you can trust.

For instance, software resellers may not be good people to buy complex software from unless they're backed up with a formal support structure - or unless they have the backing of technical and business experts or have that background themselves.

It's worth remembering that CMS implementation should be process driven, and that everyone's business processes are at least slightly different. Even if the CMS you select is flexible enough to handle your needs, deploying it into your business won't be a completely straightforward task. Purpose built systems or customisation are very often necessary or advantageous. Look for evidence of a formal implementation process, upgrades, training, documentation, and on-going support (whether by the organisation you bought it from or others).

The Key Concepts

As a reminder, let's look back at what we spoke about at the beginning of the presentation. There are two key concepts that I have picked up in my time working with content management systems:

  1. The implementation of a CMS is almost always about making better communication (information transactions) with customers faster.
  2. Implementation of a CMS should be process driven, in the same way that any communications change in your company should take your business processes into account.