By Paul Trotter, CEO , Author-it Software Corporation

The term “double-edged sword” may have been created with content management systems in mind. 

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On one edge, they hold great promise for organizations in terms of their ability to create and manage content that is more accurate, less costly to produce, and more consistent in appearance and message.  On the adjacent edge, they can present a myriad of challenges and barriers in their implementation and ultimate acceptance by the people using them – and purchasing them.

Let’s examine the challenges that a content management system (CMS) presents, along with some of the ways those challenges can be overcome.

Challenge #1: Control & Management

Perhaps the primary challenge with managing content (which, for the purposes of this article, is defined as an organization’s “human readable” information, representing about 80% of a company’s total information base), is that there is little or no control around creating it in the first place. Content is produced by a wide range of people at every level of an organization, and there are usually no control mechanisms over it.

Another issue is the way content has been traditionally managed over the years. From one perspective, it is instructive to examine the way financial information has been handled. Years ago, people began writing out their financials longhand on paper, then in ledgers. This was followed by the first generation of software that produced spreadsheets, which simulates the written ledger in the way it looks and behaves. Soon thereafter, the second generation of software arrived which actually allowed users to manipulate the information in a far more creative fashion, followed by sophisticated financial management software.  This evolution of systems to produce financial information, which took place some 15-20 years ago, has essentially never taken place for content.

The fact is, the majority of common-use tools to create and manage content (e.g., Word, Frame, etc.) have never moved away from that “paper simulation” stage. The first word processors essentially replicated the function of typewriters, albeit on a screen instead of on paper.  Since then, word processors have become more visual and offer more features, but they are fundamentally still doing the same thing: storing information as linear documents. CMS’s have been instrumental in moving content creation out of the paper simulation phase into the database stage, which can’t be duplicated in a paper format. Basically, it is a revolution in the way content is managed and mirrors the evolution of financial software.

Challenge #2: Migration

Migrating all of the existing information in an enterprise into this new format, this new way of writing, represents a significant investment in time and labor. To complicate matters, the sheer volume of content is overwhelming in comparison to what it would have been 20 years ago at the time the financial information was being converted. And remember that this content represents 80% of all data in the organization. Clearly, the importance of the migration phase cannot be overestimated.

In the end, migration requires a technology solution. Some CMS’s are more adept at allowing people to import content quickly, and in the most popular formats.  Unfortunately, successful migration involves other factors, specifically the formatting of the original document. The less structured a document, the more difficult it is to import it into the CMS. For example, a manual created by a writer in the technical publications department will be relatively straightforward, since most technical writers are meticulous about style and formatting.

Conversely, a manual written by a different department may present a different set of issues. We’ve seen documents created by human resources, for instance, in which the writer came to the end of a line, hit the Return key, and then used the spacebar to line up the next paragraph. Importing a manual with this lack of style will involve much more labor and effort.

CMS vendors who do not have technologically advanced migration capabilities may very well propose that a company simply create all new content. The reality is, many companies have already invested millions of dollars in their content; they cannot be expected to give it up so blithely. Of course, many of the same vendors are willing to provide migration assistance at a substantial cost – sometimes as much as 15 dollars per page.

One way around this dilemma is to migrate only the content that is absolutely necessary. There is no need to migrate manuals for products that are no longer manufactured or for procedures that have long ago been discarded. The amount of content that can be left on the side of the road is often quite voluminous.

Challenge #3: Gaining Approval

The approval process for a CMS is an all-too-familiar barrier. While the verbal representation of this issue is, “I can’t get the budget to do this,” the real obstacle is convincing people that there is a good business case for going down this road. In many ways, it is a generational issue: many executives in their 40s and 50s simply don’t see the value of managing information. This is the challenge to gaining internal endorsement: the only types of arguments that are considered involve hard ROI. In some situations, this is readily evident, where there is a high volume of customer-facing content or where there is a possibility of realizing significant savings in actual, out-of-pocket translation costs. But if the issue is just making life easier, gaining internal approval can be difficult.

The answer? Obviously, where there is a good deal of customer-facing content or translation, the case can be made easily. But where neither item is a factor, the case should be made through the value of producing content that is consistent, graphically uniform, and ultimately quicker to create.

Challenge #4: The People Factor

Another problem area is people themselves. In our experience, our main competitor for a CMS is not really another vendor, it’s apathy. Often, people who are using Microsoft Word to create their documents are comfortable using Word and don’t care enough to try anything else-even if the program is more suitable for managing their content. The only areas of the company for which change is desirable are those where the pain of creating and managing content is particularly strong, such as product documentation, where they’re driven by deadlines, quality and other factors which don’t affect many other departments in the organization.

Sometimes the opposite is true. Company executives frequently ask how the CMS can help on a more company-wide basis, while writers wonder how it can help them specifically. In many cases, the true benefits of a CMS are realized downstream from the actual writing (workers from different departments drawing on each other’s work, greater consistency and efficiency). Getting writers to alter the way they work purely for the sake of others or other processes can be a hard road to hoe.

In the end, the CMS is a two-part sell: the CMS vendor must demonstrate value to the organization at large and to the individual as well.It’s critical to ensure that every person in the process will see some improvement in the way they work.

Challenge #5: Fear of Obsolescence

One of the other challenges in terms of people is personality problems with individuals who have played crucial roles in a group because of their expertise. Perhaps there’s one person that everyone comes to when they have a problem, particularly with a piece of software. Once a CMS has been implemented, that person is generally not required anymore because work is no longer performed in the same fashion – people are focused on a particular job that doesn’t involve creating the final product. So there can be a real issue from people who see their power base eroding because they would no longer be of the same value; they feel a growing obsolescence. They’ve successfully positioned themselves as being indispensable, while the organization wants to do just the opposite.

How is this obstacle overcome?  The fact is, many times it is not. Often, people who perceive themselves as indispensable must be left behind in order for a better system to take hold. Other times, however, it is possible to make the person “indispensable” in a different area.

Challenge #6: Document Ownership

There can also be a problem with people who are accustomed to working on a document by themselves. When the transition is made to content management, it’s a “team sport.” Many times, the writers in an organization, who may collectively be viewed as a team, actually share nothing more than a location. They may consult with each other about writing guidelines and styles, but when it comes to the actual writing, writer A is working on Manual A and someone else has sole possession of Manual B.

When moving into content management, especially the component-based variety, you immediately have components you need to share, so a person’s manual is not really “theirs.” It’s going to be the effort of all the individuals that contribute to it. This can create a barrier because an individual within the team may feel threatened by it, or others think they’re superior writers and don’t want other people’s substandard work gumming up their labor.

What some writers fail to realize is that this process can help them focus on a specific niche in which they have particular expertise. We’ve found people who might be writing entire manuals but they have a particular aptitude for writing procedures. A good CMS product will allow them to concentrate on individual specialty.

Creating documents in a CMS also necessitates that the users display some flexibility. Writers are used to being able to work on their documents when and where they want.  When the move is made to a CMS, it’s not as simple. The document is stored in a centralized system made up of thousands of components. The centralization of content creates problems of access from remote locations. However, the new Web-based systems do help resolve that issue effectively.

In terms of the personal problems, the most effective remedy is education. Consultation with the entire team, involving the individuals in the process and not just dictating to them that they will use this product – getting them excited – is critical. There are a variety of techniques for accomplishing this goal. Often we explain that this is the way of the future, that you can increase your job skills and solidify your job security. There will always be some individuals who will leave because they are reluctant or unwilling to go along, but that is always the price a company pays for advancing its technological capabilities.

Challenge #7: The IT Department

If a specific CMS product doesn’t fit the current “buzz” of the ideal technical solution, IT can get in the way. Reluctance also comes from the fact that IT is sometimes unwilling to support or install software on the desktop in larger enterprises. Generally, they do not want to install another piece of client software that will require maintenance and support. They are certainly willing to do it for a professional writing group that’s producing technical documentation, but they are far more reluctant to go through the exercise for the entire company.

It should be noted that the presence of new Web-based CMS products are a real boon in this area, since the application simply requires installation on the company servers.  Plus, by and large, IT departments are quite supportive of Web-based applications. But the real key is to involve the IT department as early as possible in the process, getting their buy-in on the process and the specific CMS product.

In the end, there are few obstacles or challenges for which education and training are not the key – not just product training but training in how to write in a component-based fashion. Some CMS vendors will offer this type of training, while others require you to find a third-party solution. Some vendors even run “train-the-trainer” programs to continue training in-house once the CMS implementation is complete.

However, there has to be buy-in from management, not just monetarily but from the perspective of continuous improvement. Management has to provide all of the requisite support and must remain focused on getting results so that the entire company is motivated to achieve the corporate goals – together.

About the Author

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Paul Trotter is the founder and CEO of Author-it Software Corporation.  He is a popular speaker at events all over the world and a well-known expert on the subjects of single sourcing, component content management, collaborative authoring, and localization. Questions? Ask Paul