Get Your Content Under Control!
The rise in e-business makes it more important than ever to get a grip on your Web-based information assets. New tools can help you manage your Web content.
- By Clara Parkes
Conducting business over the Web is a content-heavy proposition. Whether you're selling directly to customers or working through resellers, Value Added Resellers (VARs) or b-to-b partners, all your pertinent business and product information needs to be easily available.
Moving huge volumes of paper-based information to the Web, and then keeping this information up to date, is a constant business challenge.
Early on, most companies migrated their content to the Web using homegrown solutions. As businesses grew and the demands on this data grew more complex, maintaining control over this crucial information became impossible, especially at larger companies.
Many organizations established a central group of HTML "jockeys" who developed, converted and maintained the company's Web content. But again, as the organizations grew, these Web groups quickly became overwhelmed by volume. As a result, companies faced a work backlog, stale data and the introduction of errors into important business information.
The other solution was to delegate the Web content tasks among workgroups, giving them each a homegrown tool to maintain Web data. Without any centralized management in place, however, most of these companies soon discovered that their data was inconsistent and that it was impossible to know exactly what was being represented at any specific time. In cases where a consistent site navigation and look-and-feel were central to business success, semi-autonomous workgroups quickly collided.
This problem has impacted corporate intranets for years. But old employee handbooks, dead links and inconsistent workgroup procedural documentation didn't present enough of a business problem to justify any significant financial outlay to fix.
Today, however, these Web content problems pose a threat to successful e-business operations. Companies are investing heavily in systems that will help them gain control over their Web assets, allowing for decentralized content creation, and centralized content management and workflow, as well as tracking and versioning capabilities. These systems make up a rapidly growing market segment called content management.
Content Management in Action: Who's Doing What
Web-based contract management system to streamline e-business transactions
Web-based customer support system
Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
Interwoven TeamSite and IBM WebSphere
PartnerWorld, PartnerWorld for Developers, developerWorks and AlphaWorks Web sites
State of California
BroadVision and Interwoven TeamSite
The Arizona Republic (daily newspaper)
What's Content Management?
The term "content" has been reinvented as a high-level umbrella word that covers all of a company's information assets—not just text but also tables, images, videos, databases and application code itself. Although content management primarily refers to Web-based material, it is quickly expanding to encompass all enterprise content, Web-based and otherwise.
The content management market is already populated with vendors, most of whom came to content management as a logical extension of their existing products. E-commerce technology vendors saw a logical fit and incorporated content management technology into their existing product offerings. The biggest vendors in this market are Open Market Inc., which acquired its content management technology from FutureTense Inc.; and BroadVision Inc., which acquired its content management technology from Interleaf Inc.
Traditional document management vendors have enhanced their core product offerings to provide better support for Web content. Examples include Documentum Inc. and FileNET Corp.
Small niche players provide specific solutions within a larger content management framework. For example, IntraNet Solutions Inc. focuses exclusively on intranet and extranet development.
And finally, entirely new companies have formed with the sole purpose of providing complete Web content management solutions. Such companies include Vignette Corp. and Interwoven Inc.
More mainstream vendors have also given content management their seal of approval. Microsoft Corp. entered the fray in May with its acquisition of Windows-based content management vendor NCompass Labs Inc. And IBM Corp. resells Interwoven TeamSite under the TeamExpress name.
Is Content Management in Your Future?
How do you know if a content management system is appropriate for your business? Here are some questions to ask.
- How important is your Web site to your company's ability to attract and win business?
- Does your Web site contain inaccurate, stale or inconsistent information?
- How much time does it take to get content onto your Web site, and how many people are involved? Make a map of your information flow process from creation to publication.
- How many stops are there along the way from creation to publication? Content management workflows can help track and promote the processes of managing information.
- How many people currently can modify and publish content to your Web site? Where are they located?
No single content management system can do it all. The market is still so new that vendors are quickly trying to fill in the blanks. In an ideal scenario, however, content management systems should let you do the following:
Centralized Management. Strong content management tools support decentralized content creation while allowing for centralized management of this content. They do this through the use of templates, which provide form-like interfaces for non-technical users to enter data. Templates eliminate the need for HTML expertise while helping ensure that data has a consistent look and feel across the entire organization.
Templates also split content into two separate faces: entry templates and presentation templates. This allows your staff to change the look and feel of your Web site without needing to touch any of your actual data.
Automate Workflow. Automating a company's workflow process is one of the biggest promises of content management. But it can also be one of the most challenging aspects of any implementation.
Before programming a workflow, you need to specify the organizational process. And in most organizations, there's a big difference between how things should be done and how they actually are done.
If your processes and procedures are already clearly defined and followed, you'll have no problem. But if procedures are vague and rarely followed, or if workgroups operate on hidden agendas and frequently bypass others in the organization, then you'll face an uphill battle.
Version Control and Tracking. These are important features for companies whose workflows require multiple stages of review and approvals. They make it easy to locate bottlenecks and determine where errors were introduced into the data.
Version control is also a crucial legal tool, enabling companies to re-create their Web information as it was presented at any specific date and time. This snapshot can span from specific files to entire Web sites.
Smart Repository. Content management systems gather data from diverse sources and store it in a central repository. The repository must support multiple data types, not just simple text.
Many new systems try to automate the addition of metadata, which makes it significantly easier to organize, manage and manipulate the data in this repository. With quality metadata, organizations can personalize the face they put on their information without needing to change any of the underlying data.
Easy Distribution. Finally, content management systems enable the easy distribution and tracking of Web-based information assets. This includes publishing by approved parties via simple, user-friendly interfaces. It also includes the ability to distribute data through multiple channels, including wireless devices.
Here's where adherence to standards becomes important. Many content management systems support XML, which makes it easier to exchange content objects among diverse business partners.
Things Aren't Coming Up Roses ... Yet
As with any new technology, few products meet all these requirements. So be willing to prioritize your needs and make sacrifices.
Price is also an issue. Most large-scale content management systems are as costly and difficult to implement as full-blown Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. In a recent Forrester Research report, 40 percent of the companies interviewed spent more than $500,000 just getting started on their content management projects.
These costs aren't always immediately obvious to the customer, either. Vendors often pitch a system for one price, only to reveal that the system must be implemented by the vendor's consulting staff. Many content management vendors also offer limited-time licenses for their systems. If it takes five or six months to build the system and roll it out across your company, these numbers can add up quickly.
Moreover, the immaturity of the market makes it difficult to obtain solid product support. Many vendors bought their content management components from other companies and are still learning about the technology themselves.
Fortunately, there are several active content management newsgroups where you can bypass vendors and talk directly with the customers implementing these systems. One of the largest, most active groups is located at www.camworld.com/cms.
Still in Diapers: A Case in Point
In an effort to reach the market quickly, many vendors are shipping products that haven't been sufficiently tested or documented. Early adopters often end up using software that isn't fully mature.
Portland, Maine-based interactive agency VIA found itself in exactly this situation. VIA was brought in to redesign the Web site for a global electronics components provider. The site included over 10,000 pages of product data, as well as innumerable scripts calling to disparate databases.
After conducting interviews and performing gap analysis, the decision was made to use Documentum's WebPublish. "Documentum started in a strong position over the competition," explains Engineering Team Lead Jason Chase. "Our client was already using the tool for document management, so the WebPublish add-on let them use their existing systems to manage Web content. Also, because they were already licensed for the eContent server, the licensing fee was much less than other systems."
Documentum's WebPublish applet was only a few months old when Chase and his team got their hands on it. They soon encountered problems. Chase recalls, "We discovered this was a more complex implementation than had been done with this product, so we worked with Documentum to create extensions to make it work for this application."
To overcome these problems, Chase and his team created static HTML pages for the most complex and least replicated data types on the site, simplified the specification for the templated pages wherever possible and created a content entry lab with workstations that met the specific requirements of the applet.
In that regard, VIA's experience with Documentum's WebPublisher system was not different from other major software deployments. "There is no such thing as off-the-shelf, plug-and-play simple in a complex business environment," offers Chase. "But if you know what you're getting into, and have the right tools, you'll end up in the right place, as we did on this project."
Chase's advise to others is simple: "Decisions about e-business platforms require the same due diligence as traditional enterprise software. As we learned, it is absolutely critical to put a major new system—even one from a known vendor—through some kind of real-world emulation."
Content Management System Evaluation Criteria
Here are some suggestions on evaluating a content management system.
- Be clear about your priorities, because no single product does everything well. For example, do you need the workflow most? The centralized publishing? Or do you need a tool that excels in a specific operating environment?
- How new is the product? Did the vendor build it in-house or acquire the technology elsewhere? Beware that support may be more difficult for acquired or outsourced products.
- Can you implement the system in-house, or do you need to hire the vendor's consultants?
- If you can implement it in-house, what skill set will you need? Do you have the staff to handle this? Vendors can be vague about this, so try to talk directly with customers who already have implemented the system.
- If you choose to use templates as the client front end, how customizable are they? This can be very problematic. Although most content management systems ship with out-of-the-box templates, companies still need to tweak templates to support their specific requirements.
- Most content management systems let you bypass the templates and use standard HTML editing tools. Which tools, and which versions of these tools, does the vendor support?
- Consider the data you'll be importing into the system. Is it in HTML? If so, be sure to check how the product handles the copying of HTML entities. If your data is still in Microsoft Word documents, make sure the product can support simple copy and paste operations. For example, VIA discovered that Documentum's WebPublish had problems pasting the common trademark symbol from Word documents.
- Think realistically about the number of users who will need to access the system at any specific time. How well does it scale?
- What is the optimum operating environment for this system? As much as possible, try to nail down the vendor on specific details. This includes browsers, operating systems and memory requirements.
- Finally, but most important over the long run, don't forget the obvious: How easy is it to use? Interview the technical staff that implemented the product. Also be sure to schedule ample time to talk with the end users who actually enter data into the system.
As companies exchange their information with more diverse business partners, expect to see improved support for common standards. In particular, look for a heavier reliance on XML to enable easier content sharing. Personalizing and customizing data for specific customer sets will also continue to be important, especially in the wireless market.
Content management is being pushed as the savior for corporate online presences, with its version control, workflow and templating functionality. Although these three features are important, they aren't the end-all solution. VIA's Chase agrees. "Web site end users don't see any of this," he says. Companies need to place more emphasis on the usability of the site," he says, "and not just focus on the management of its content."
We're seeing two opposing trends in the content management market: from homegrown to commercial, and from commercial back to homegrown.
The pain-to-gain ratio is still so high that some companies are pulling the plug on their third-party implementations, instead using the knowledge they've gained to build their own custom systems. VIA was momentarily tempted to do this with its client, having implemented and customized several commercial content management systems already.
"Workflow is generally the toughest tool to reimplement," explains Chase. "But you could do templating and version control with a CVS (Concurrent Versioning System) and a good XSL (eXtensible Stylesheet Language) transformation engine."
The temptation to build a custom system was tempered by a business reality check. Chase explains, "We would've been placed in the business of supporting the ongoing development of a content management system. And that's not where we wanted to be."
The larger trend is still toward abandoning outdated homegrown systems and embracing new content management technology. "Site owners muddled through the early days of e-commerce with a roll-your-own approach to content management," explains John P. Dalton from Forrester Research. "But maturing products and the demands of content hypergrowth mean that homegrown solutions will soon go the way of the eight-track tape."
For the multitudes of content management vendors entering the fray, this is good news.
Banking on Content Management
Getting a consistent message across to the people of one country is hard enough. But imagine the challenge of conveying important information to the citizens of 13 countries.
That's exactly what the European Central Bank (ECB) needed to do as part of the January 2002 conversion to the new euro currency. ECB had to inform all individuals in the European Union (EU) about the appearance of the new currency, when the changeover was happening, what the new currency would be worth and what they would have to do. ECB also needed to make this information available to residents of other countries who may also be impacted by the change.
The ECB commissioned digital marketing and online agency Publicis Networks to build a new Web site to get the message out to everyone. The site needed to support an immediate potential audience of 350 million people, spread out over 13 different countries and in 11 official languages. The site also needed to support a potentially vast audience outside the EU. Some portions of the information would need to be localized for specific regions, but otherwise the ECB would use the same data for all sites.
With so much relying on content, Publicis chose to power the site with a content management system, which also satisfied another goal of the initiative. The ECB wanted to provide easy-to-use tools for banks and retailers so they could pass their own information to the site's audience. These organizations would then become ECB partners.
The Need for Ease
It was critical that the product support multilingual data delivery, including character-based languages such as Japanese, from one source. This would help ensure that the final data—regardless of language—is correct. "It's essential that all translations are both accurate and consistent," explains Patrice Liauzu, press officer for the ECB. "As the European institution with the clear responsibility for the changeover to the euro, we cannot be seen to be disseminating wrong information. For this reason, our translators check every new piece of information carefully before it is live."
Also key was the ability to repurpose content for other media such as wireless and print; and the ability to support a contributor population of 100 people across five countries.
From an architectural standpoint, it was important that the ECB be able to separate content from the presentation layer and site structure. With so many groups involved, ECB anticipated that there would be numerous design changes and customizations for specific regions.
After sending out a list of requirements and narrowing down the contenders, Publicis chose Communiqué from Day Interactive Holding AG, a Switzerland-based content management provider.
Building a Solution
Working with Day consultants, Publicis customized and implemented the system—which runs on Solaris and Windows NT—within Communiqué's integrated Development module.
Although the development team used Communiqué's workflow module during the build phase and while adding some of the site's key information, workflow wasn't the main reason they chose a content management solution.
Security was a major concern because of the ECB's high visibility, so they rely on Communiqué's Zurich security module. If there is a breach in security or if the site is updated incorrectly, the system instantly rolls back to a previous version of the site.
To ensure that all internal and external links are correct, the team uses Communiqué's Singapore external link checker module in conjunction with the product's own internal link-checking functionality. Together, they enable all internal and external links to be validated prior to each page generation. Any invalid links are represented to end users as unhighlighted text, and the site administrator is notified of the problem.
Most of the content is fairly static and won't require extensive changes once published. A press relations center lets journalists and public relations representatives access, upload and publish content remotely on any Internet Explorer 4 or Netscape Communicator 4.x browser.
The ECB partner center lets users make any necessary quick updates such as adding artwork, news and documents. Communiqué can dynamically process and manipulate tables, graphs and images, producing Photoshop-like effects that include layering, embossing, rotating and resizing.
To support the large amount of anticipated site traffic, the team uses Communiqué's built-in load-balancing functionality. It monitors the server loads within ECB's mixed-operating system environment in real-time, compares the results to a constantly updated statistical model and automatically redistributes server requests for optimized performance.
ECB representatives declined to state the actual cost of the system, but they did say that Communiqué was close to half the price of Vignette and other competitors. The bank didn't need an extremely costly solution, since they intend to shut down the site by the middle of 2002. Liauzu adds, "There will always be an interest in certain parts of the site such as the history of the euro and the images of the banknotes and coins, so some sections will be integrated into the ECB's own Web site."
More to Go
The ECB project represents just the tip of the iceberg as far as what content management systems can do for international audiences. According to a recent Giga Information Group report, by 2005 more than half of the Internet's users will be non-English speakers. Unfortunately, many global companies still fail to project a consistent corporate identity across multiple Web sites.
Content management systems (also called Web content management systems, or WCMs) offer promise. According to the Giga report, "A WCM system will play a crucial role in globalization efforts by standardizing authoring environments, rationalizing content repositories, standardizing workflows and separating site design from content."