A Rant Against "CMS"

This is a rant. I rarely write rants, but here is one. It is based on one of my largest pet peeves in the technology industry.  It is about a commonly accepted term and not about the people who use it.

It is about “CMS”.  This is a term that for many is synonymous with Web Content Management. This just gives me the screaming heebie jeebies.  Let me illustrate.

An Example of the Problem

imageI was at a meeting in DC called the Web Content Mavens recently.  The topics of discussion should be obvious.  I made a comment to a group there that there is content that isn’t web content.  This person, an experienced “CMS” implementer did not believe that any such “content” existed.  I used the easy examples of Word and Excel files.  She immediately jumped to the conclusion that if it wasn’t web content, it was documents.  I then fired some examples at her:

  • Medical X-Rays
  • Raw news footage
  • Voicemails
  • Scanned images
  • Faxes
  • Emails
  • XML

Her eyes lit up as if I had just revealed a whole new world of content to her.  I didn’t.  I revealed the world of content, not a new one.  She hadn’t been living in the world of content.  She had been in the world of web content.

There is more to Content Management than managing Web Content!!!

Being able to publish or host a website does not make something a CMS!!!

The Growing Itch

I first noticed the problem several years ago.  I went to an event focused on Content Management Systems and noticed that everything focused on publishing a website. Ah, Web Content Management, I know a little on this topic, I thought to myself.

The problem is that people don’t think of it as WCM, or any similar terms.  They think of it as CMS.  This drives me NUTS! There are systems out there that manage content, quite well, but don’t publish to the web.  They don’t get considered a CMS by many people.

I hate the term.  It is a term that has such potential, but so many people use it in such a limited fashion.  Qualify the thing with “Web CMS” or create a new friggin term.

Let’s look at some of the people using the term (keep in mind I like and respect most, if not all, of the people behind these sites)

  • CMS Wire: They cover the broad spectrum.  They have a heavy focus on the Web CMS products, but they cover others and use the term “Web CMS”. No issues.
  • CMS Watch: Part of The Real Story Group, the focus is Web Content Management, Analytics, and Collaboration & Community technologies.  Sounds like they could talk their way out of this until you realize that IN PARALLEL they have Enterprise Information Watch.  That includes both ECM and DAM, among other technologies.  Really? Is Artesia not a CMS?  What about Documentum’s CenterStage?  They aren’t Web CMS solutions, but it isn’t called Web CMS Watch.  Tony, you are brilliant and I love the stuff that you guys do over there, but ARGH!
  • CMS Report: Prime example of my frustration.  Check the list of covered CMS applications, current and past.  I quote, “CMS Focus is meant to include today’s web content management systems thus this list does change over time to stay relevant.” [Original formatting shown] There is no Documentum, FileNet, Livelink, eDOCS, OnBase, or any other number of systems that I have worked with in the past.

There is a big world out there.  All you Web CMS people need to give the term CMS back!  It doesn’t belong to you.  A long time ago you took it while the broader content community was trying to futz with the term ECM.  By the time we realized what was happening, you had taken the term.

To whome does the term belong? That is a topic for another day.

A Quick Breath

This isn’t personal.  Far from it.  I read the websites listed above and find them valuable.

Pretty much everybody who reads this will have entered the industry with the term CMS firmly entrenched, incorrectly, into daily use.  That is life.  I had to get this off of my chest so that when I occasionally twitch when the topic of “What is a CMS” comes up in conversation, you know why.

I’m also going to not respond to comments.  I’ll allow them and read them, but I’m not going to get sucked into an argument over a rant.  This is a rant and there is a lot of irrational emotion that fuels it.

24 thoughts on “A Rant Against "CMS"

  1. Nice rant! As someone who I guess is largely in the WCM camp, I broadly agree – these are great points. I absolutely agree that ECM proved a distraction.

    I have had similar conversations when people realize that they can use our content repository to store, version, manage workflow and publish digital assets and documents – not necessarily solely over the web. I don’t say that to promote our product, but that we are known as a WCM solution – these capabilities doesn’t make the product a DAM or DM system but a good content management back end can do so much more.

    Some people buying WCM systems are also now looking for more than a CMS, they are looking for features such as a delivery infrastructure for personalised content or that displays web analytics data to the author. The term WCM is being extended by these expectations.

    Product capabilities aside – I think you are saying that we should think of the discipline of WCM as a subset of Content Management. The techniques and good governance practice of information management and publishing? The DNA that is shared with the core of DM, DAM and even Marketing Asset Management?

    I was also interested that when you tweeted this you used the hashtag #ECM not #CMS – are you saying we can use these terms interchangeably?





      • I look forward to that post!

        John Mancini also promised a post on the same subject after this post. Where the author (Ed McQuiston) was using the term ECM, when really could probably have referred to just DM (or now come to think of it CMS!).




  2. LOL –

    Medical X-Rays? DICOM images
    Raw news footage, ( what is that, do you mean film?) – it is digital these days…
    Voicemails – digital
    Scanned images – okay, these are digital
    Faxes – mine come into my email as PDF files
    Emails – digital
    XML – digital

    I fail to see how any of these examples can’t be managed by a web based CMS.

    Now, if you sited

    Rack of Lamb
    Mint Jelly
    Spoon, Fork and Knife

    Well, then you would have had us… humm – Chef Management System ?


    • Breaking my rule. The issue isn’t a web-based system. A Web CMS refers to systems that manage website content itself.


  3. The main issue, I think, is that “CMS” is not a qualitative judgement. It’s a (very) broad descriptive label. A lot of people forget this, start using the term for their own narrow field of vision, and get into debates whether something is or isn’t a CMS. But any system that helps you manage content is a CMS, whether it does it badly or not, only manages specific kinds of content, or is incredibly limited. It’s important to understand, though, that what people *expect* a CMS to do depends on their own context. Like so many labels, it has different connotations in different circumstances. Which just means we have to be clear what we mean by “CMS” in such a specific context (rather than to tell everyone what is or isn’t.)

    I can understand why such a broad definition drives you nuts, though. But if you’re honest, isn’t that so much the terminology, but rather the simplistic notion that a basic WCMS would be suited to manage any kind of content?


  4. Pie, I think you’re dead right. For me, the point about web content management is the need to create and relate content, not to manage stuff that’s there already.
    However, there will come a time I think when documents are web assets and that’s going to complicate the naming issue. Perhaps someone could define a vision for something like omnipresent content management?


  5. Ok, Since its a never ending fight around the *cm acronyms, loosing a little patience is acceptable 😉

    Before I agree with you, Lets take lot of steps back and find out how ‘CMS’ was originated and where from ‘W’ in CMS came into picture. Whatever the content type was, web was the only delivery platform and (then)CMS vendors had a new term to sell their offerings. [Excuse me on modern day WEM ].
    With time both the content types and the delivery platform changed but the name remains the same. Before we agree to change the ‘W’ to some ‘X’ or ‘Z’ we need to find out how many WCM based intranet/public facing website/microsites/Corporate Brochures etc delivers the content on Mobile, Kiosk, or any other platform other than web. Forget about customers even most of the WCM vendors websites are busted on any other rendering platform other than web[Janus has recently dissected most of them].

    ‘W’ should remain on WCM as long as Web exists, as long as ALL wcm products successfully extend themselves and deliver content on other devices too, as long as we do not find a single content type called “omnicontent”.

    I think, the only thing that needs to be changed/updated is the definition of the “WCM”.



    • ARGH!

      [20 minutes later]

      People published content to paper from digital system before the web was invented. The Web was a NEW delivery platform and people developed ones specifically for that platform. There was a big world of content management before that. To ignore that and claim that the web ushered in a new technology is arrogant and at the heart of this rant.



  6. So how about:

    ECM – Enterprise Content Management = overarching strategy as part of information management strategy – not a system

    next layer down….

    CMT’s – Content Management Technologies – the family of often specialized technologies, solutions and products that are used to create, edit, manage, store and publish various types of content in various business contexts

    next layer down…….

    WCMS, EDMS, ERMS, EDRMS, CCMS, WEMS, blah blah blah…………..

    However as we can wax lyrical in your blog comments but we cannot force the world at large to adopt whatever ‘we’ agree on – I fear your going to be loosing your cool over this issue for some time to come…… 😦


  7. Brian says:

    My 3c.

    I take it the issue arises out of the convergence of two different ‘markets’ or ‘industries’.
    From my experience hacking around the internets, putting up websites for friends and the occassional freelance project, I have heard the term CMS as in (Web)Content Magement System used for years to refer to platforms/products such as Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, phpNuke, etc…. essentially, low-end, open-source tools that make the Content of a Website more dynamic and easier for the non-technical user to update. (To be sure there are non-opensource, enterprise WCM solutions out there offered by real companies with real support; I have little experience with them).

    In the Enterprise Content Management world (where I live today), Web Content Management (WCM/WEM) is a sub-set of Enterprise Content Management (ECM).

    I’m curious about your experienced “CMS” implementer; which platforms were they experienced with? Sounds like they would fall in the first camp of wCMS implementer and probably had no experience with platforms like Sharepoint, Documentum, Filenet, etc.

    I understand your frustration, but when I’m talking to someone about managing a website or internet application and they use the phrase CMS I understand the context.

    As an ECM representative, I hear the term “CMS” used rarely and always in one of 2 contexts. The first, being used as part of a broad reference title to a corporate ECM initiative, and second in a departmental discussion with ‘the web group’ when they are referring to whatever WCM/wCMS tool they are using. In either case, I don’t try to correct them or educate them on the terminology. When in Rome.

    >”To whome does the term belong? That is a topic for another day.”
    I think this battle is already lost, I think the web-world pwns the term.



  8. Bill Carpenter says:

    Although I don’t feel as passionate about it as you apparently do, I certainly agree that many users/developers/observers of CMS (in the sense of Web CMS) don’t grok that there is a larger universe. In fact, within the last week, as part of an article explaining what ECM is, I wrote a short section called “ECM is not CMS” in an attempt to unconfuse anyone who didn’t know the difference. I could just as well have called it “The aerospace industry is not ‘how to fly a kite'”.


  9. Funnily enough, I have much the same visceral reaction when folks (many from an ECM background) assume WCM is “document management of HTML, CSS, JS and images”…


  10. Sometimes I think CMS “experts” are out of their mind and rants like these just prove it. This is a good rant with value though because it spells the same frustrations we all have every year in defining what is a CMS.

    Scott Abel convinced me a few years ago on my own blog that the definition of a CMS is never static and always changing. We’re chasing our own tail when we get nit picky in our definitions of a CMS. Somewhere in all the marketing that has been done for terms such as CMS, ECM, and WCM…we have forgotten the difference between information system and information technology.

    Whether you’re talking about WordPress, Documentum, Drupal, FileNet, or the thousand other software titles out there…from an information system perspective none of them are really “content management systems”. These applications we keep pushing high on the pedestal are merely tools used to perform the required content management functions in an organization’s information system. In other words, a combination of people, business processes, inputs, outputs, software, etc is all part of the content management system. As organizational needs change so too must the parts that make up the information system including the software.

    We could all unanimously agree today what is a CMS and I promise you by tomorrow the evolving needs of businesses and organizations will require we change that definition. Personally, the only way I make sense of terms such as CMS, WCM, ECM is by understanding the business needs of the user. I then use whichever one of the three terms that the user has indicated he/she is most comfortable in using and that’s the only term I use in the rest of the conversation. In other words, I think it’s not the customer that needs educating here but the CMS expert instead. You’re never going to win these people over if you don’t yield to the CMS their organization has already defined for you. Everyone has their “ideal” vision of what a CMS is and isn’t and most often the term is defined in the context of organizational behavior and not on a web page.


  11. Chris Campbell says:

    The confusion originates with marketing mixing and melding definitions in order to build sales. Users adopt the terminology mistakenly thinking it means something it doesn’t. I’m about to send some of my folks back to “re-education camp” to remove all the indoctrination they’ve received over the years.

    Here’s how I define the terminology…

    Content: information; something that holds meaning.
    Content Management: a concept or system for organizing or cataloging content in a meaningful way.
    Web Content Management: a system of organizing or cataloging content for the end purpose of being displayed on the internet in a meaningful way.
    Enterprise Content Management: a system of organizing or cataloging any type of content across a business enterprise in a meaningful way.

    As Bryan Ruby’s comment alluded to the ever changing nature of managing content. I see CMS as the most broad definition; with WCM, ECM or any xCM as a further definition of how and which content is being addressed. Mistakes are made when people think that a WCM and a ECM are one and the same. They are not. While they both are branches of CMS, the serve entirely different purposes and have different feature sets.

    Rant or not, I think that it serves as a good litmus test if a person really knows their subject matter. For example, the “CMS implementer” you spoke of would be great to place in my marketing area, but there’s no way I’d hire that person to architect any type of system for integration into my legal department.


  12. Chris Campbell says:

    I wanted to post a separate comment. I think that you’ve got the best perspective because of your work on CMIS. One of the main purposes of the standard is to query the system and ask, “What features do you support?” Not all systems are built the same. While most have the essential bits enough to be labled as a CMS system, there are features unique to Web and others to Enterprise.

    Is there work being done or any thought being given in the CMIS standard to label or group feature sets? Or would that just end up complicating matters?


    • Any such groupings would be in the next version when more domain-specific functions are added. It isn’t a bad though.


  13. It can depend on context. When talking about Tridion systems, I often refer to the CM or CMS in discussions where it’s relevant to distinguish between that sub-system and the Content Delivery sub-systems. It doesn’t mean I don’t get the point you are making or that I’ve stolen your terminology.

    Whatever – the “stealing” part was clearly covered by the ranting disclaimer. 🙂


  14. I agree with you Pie. It seems to be a matter of perspective; those coming to the game from the web site delivery side appear do not see the older broader context of the term CMS, and believe that CMS is only really about delivery via web technology. In some part you might be able to blame the traditional CMS vendors for not delivering effective solutions to web publishing to their core product sets early on. Web content management solutions have evolved and increasingly encompass many of the capabilities that the traditional CMSs majored upon. There’s now such a significant overlap between traditional CMS, web content management and collaboration tools that this frustration is not going to go away, the important thing is that there is clarity about the required functionality when selecting an appropriate technology to support the particular content management challenge, and the current use of CMS for web content management systems exclusively is not helpful.


  15. I fully agree with you : “There is more to Content Management than managing Web Content.”

    ASFAIC, I try now to better differentiate acronyms on a per audience and focus basis: Techies vs Practitioners which globally means Horizontal Platforms/Frameworks vs Vertical Tools/Applications/Solutions.

    I then consider CMS as being a term used by or for the IT experts. We are usually speaking about “content objects”, “compound documents”; technology-oriented standards (CMIS; JCR; XML, RDF and all the other common content-oriented acronyms), etc. We should then treat any content from a generic horizontal manner. Some content frameworks are putting a stronger focus on publishing services, others on mashability, some others on long term content storage, etc.

    There are then all the content enabled applications. These tools are generally being used by practitioners (marketers, librarians, HR, knowledge workers,…). They do not really care what’s running below, if it is enterprise-grade or not and if it supports such or such standards. This is not their job. They just want tools which can boost their productivity in their daily tasks.

    Shouldn’t we then better distinct?
    – Horizontal (Enterprise-grade or not) Content Platforms (CMP – or let’s use the old CMS name if we do not want to change any existing acronyms). We could also speak of a CEVA Platform. Some others are also imitating ECM to a Platform. What is important is the Platform term.
    – Vertical xCM Tools and Solution (WCM, PCM, DMS, etc). But I limit their scope to the Tools and User Experience proposed to the non- or semi-technical end-users.

    Coming back to WordPress, this is a lightweight horizontal CMS (considered here as a CMP) with a strong focus on multi-site management and on the presentation service but which still lacks more robust enterprise-grade back-end content management capabilities. In term of application for practitioners (the xCM side), this is a nice Blogging Solution.

    I then fully agree with your comments regarding the new CMSWatch classification (here again nothing personal, just debating 😉 ). There is a mismatch of audiences which is quite difficult to understand now. With the new Enterprise Information Watch site and reports, does it mean that WCM or Community oriented products are no more enterprise-grade now? Or should we consider such a split as a way to separate public-facing projects from internal-facing initiatives? But then where do you classify all the E2.0 solutions (including IBM Connexions and similar which are quite “enterprise-focused”)?. Does it mean we can not use a WCM to power an Intranet? A better to separation would certainly have been on a per audience basis: technological platforms for techies on one side and applications/solutions for practitioners on the others. They do not speak the same languages with the same terms. They don’t have the same needs nor expectatives.

    What is sure is that every content-enabled application can be considered both from a platform/framework and usability/application point of view which is not the case of pure content middleware actors.

    Lots more to say on this subject, but I lack some time. More to come soon in a future blog post.


  16. Good Rant! I’ve been a Documentum specialist since 1998. I agree that not all content goes to the web. In fact, the term “content management” has been hijacked by the web content vendors or sector. In fact my take on content file is that it is a file with unstructured content. Much the same with knowledge management as the term has been hijacked by BI and market intelligence… Just ain’t so…

    Many of the so called document management apps have web publishing applications which can be bolted on. However for Documentum, which is what I know, it is generally targeted for the large organizations. If you think it might be a market laggard you would be mistaken. Take http://www.sears.com for example. This site was, as of 2003, Documentum managed. The repository contains, as a rumor, over a billion objects.

    Also, like you said, there is a lot more to content than html, xml, and jpegs. A lot more…


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