Content Management: A Survival Guide

  • Allow
    authors to locate, create and manage associations and links among parts of
    On the web, links,
    tags that point elsewhere in the content, are everything. Rich content must contain rich links if
    it is to fulfill its intended delivery mission.Without support, links can be a nightmare to author and are
    notorious for breaking somewhere between creation and delivery. A major publisher found that when
    authors are forced to break their train of thought to create a link, fewer
    links result despite their best efforts to find and create them.
  • Allow
    authors to create content suitable for multiple audiences.
    In a multimedia world, content must
    be delivered in slightly different form to each segment of the total
    audience. Whether different
    delivery media, user interest or skill levels, product variations or what
    have you, every content provider faces a layered audience that wants even
    common content tuned to its unique needs.
    Your ability to support this kind of targeting is closely linked to
    the way you decide to manage your content and must be a consideration in
    selecting the CM software you will use.
  • Facilitate
    collaboration and communication among knowledge providers.
    Rich content passes through many
    hands on its way to delivery. Add
    the pressure of deadlines and the situation can degenerate into
    chaos. Any CM system must support
    collaboration among actors within and outside the primary content
    site.Many vendors address this
    challenge with classical workflow software designed to support
    claims processing or other highly structured applications.This is usually too restrictive for
    professional knowledge workers and can be expensive out of proportion to
    its value. The answer is a CM
    environment based on individual decisions by each actor as to what the
    next step in content preparation should be. While a system might set certain limits on whom could do
    what under what circumstances, laying out rigid workflow paths ahead of
    time almost always degrades the productivity of the intellectual process.
  • Record
    and track revisions to content at a granular level.
    As information moves ever faster,
    knowing how it got to its current state becomes a growing factor in
    satisfying your audience. One
    approach to this has been to keep each version of a document in work, comparing
    each version to the previous to determine what has changed. This approach leaves much to be
    desired, like not being able to find the changes without running the
    compare program. Moreover, the
    comparison method doesn’t collect information about who made changes and
    for what reason. A better approach
    is to make content revision a specific transaction and support it with
    tools and tagging. Revision
    tracking can add much to the content management process. Some publishers, for example, tie
    revisions to specific projects, turning them on selectively as events
  • If
    possible, keep content in its original state.
    If you’re creating XML content, the best approach is to
    keep the XML in its originally authored format until time for
    delivery. Some CM approaches
    translate the content into a proprietary (often database) format, and then
    retrace the process to extract the XML.
    This can be made to work somewhat but suffers from the fact that
    rich content structures tend to have problems when theyre mangled and
    glued back together again.
    Moreover, the transformation is based on complex computer
    processing so these systems become resource hogs as soon as the volume and
    complexity of the content grows.
  • Reuse
    portions of content in multiple places but keep the ownership
    Frankly, beyond
    sharing inherently common content like warnings and boilerplate, the
    entire concept of “reuse” is somewhat overblown. You may find that content authored for one place in your
    collection is difficult to lift and use elsewhere without at least some
    modification. Change even one
    character in order to reuse content and you aren’t really reusing but
    paraphrasing. Some vendors suggest
    that you deal with this by breaking your content down into ever-smaller
    pieces so you can collect them in different ways for reuse. Beware; the
    complexity and risk grows in direct proportion to your usage.
  • Keep
    the content safe and under control.
    I list this last because everyone knows that controlling access
    and data integrity is part of CM.
    Vendors, especially those from the database world, often lead with
    this function and construct their demonstrations around it (given that
    authors spend, on average, only 5 percent of their time in the CM system,
    one might wonder what this adds.)
    In truth, most do the basics well, making it less of a
    differentiator than a ticket punch.
    The important variable in this area is the extent to which a system
    must “decompose” rich content in order to manage it. Content richly tagged in XML (or SGML)
    often contains structures simply not capable of being snipped and laid end
    to end. Systems that require this
    kind of content fragmentation limit the richness of content they can fully
    support and are likely to encounter technical problems.
  • Dealing with the Vendors:

    Asking a software vendor if he supports CM is like asking a
    user car salesman if he has any cars for $5,000. Of course he does.
    Instead, send your function list and a description of your overall
    environment to candidate vendors, with the question, “Can your product/s
    properly support these functions and, if so, tell me how in detail.”
    Because reputable vendors will opt out if
    they can’t comply, this will help to weed out the fellows who might sell you
    “CM” but can’t solve your problems. Any
    who try to sneak through will stand out like a sore thumb.

    Issue your document as a “request for information”
    rather than a “request for proposal.”
    This will allow vendors to respond in a flexible way, telling their
    stories without the pressure of submitting a formal proposal with final
    pricing, etc. (although you should ask for budgetary costs in your RFI.) It will also allow them to submit responses
    to only those portions of your needs they can address directly without the fear
    of being disqualified. You should
    encourage partial responses in your solicitation because you may end up
    integrating pieces from different vendors.
    When you receive responses from vendors who believe they can meet your
    needs, cull them and schedule the survivors for sessions that include two

    1. A detailed and frank discussion of the vendor’s approach to
    each of your functional requirements. This will probably require the vendor’s
    technical staff. Salesmen won’t like it
    but your future is at stake so persevere.

    2. A demonstration of at least some of the functions, with your
    data if possible. If a vendor can’t
    tune his demo to your needs given reasonable time, he probably can’t tune his
    product to them in operation. This is
    listed second because the demo should never be the major criterion for a
    selection. Instead, it should merely
    validate the vendor’s descriptions of how he plans to address your needs. Demos tend to be like carnival side shows;
    what you think you see isn’t always what’s really there.

    At this point, you will be in a position to go ahead with a
    formal RFP or just select a vendor and start negotiations. You will also be in a position to ask the
    winning vendor to write a contract that commits him to meeting your needs as
    described in your function list, giving you some recourse if things don’t work
    out. It will also let the vendor know
    the bar he must reach. If you don’t
    feel comfortable with the processes described above, don’t be afraid to hire a
    consultant; someone with the experience to help you ask the right questions and
    fully profit from the answers.

    While there’s no silver bullet in matters like these, if you
    follow the suggestions above, take your time and keep your wits about you, you
    have a significantly increased chance of success in your quest for effective

    Barry Schaeffer is President of X.Systems, Inc., a consulting and system development firm specializing in the conception and design of text-based information systems, with industrial, legal/judicial and publishing clients among the Fortune 500, non-profit organizations and government agencies. E-mail him at [email protected].

    Editor’s note: This article first appeared on IntranetJournal, an site.