Think Info

Exploring the information space

What does your CMS actually do?

You’ve shelled out the money – six figures very likely. You have the license. The wonderful CMS they sold you is yours to use. So, what are you going to do?

In other terms

I am no musician. My fingers do not obey my instructions when it comes to evoking the melody. But, I wanted to learn. The piano is supposed to be a fairly basic instrument; maybe not the easiest, but the notes are all laid out in front of one is a fairly obvious way.

I went into a music store and asked a salesman which piano I should buy. I was honest about not having a clue; not knowing how to play. But I have a good ear for sound. I know if I like the tone of something. All smiles, he took me to one special piano he had; I closed my eyes and listened while he played. The piece was hauntingly beautiful – a minute and a half of lively bounce. Chopin, he told me; Étude Op. 10 n. 5. A piece that demonstrated no lack of skill.

Sold. I handed over my money and awaited delivery.

Was I ever in for a shock? A week later, the very piano the salesman had played me that demo piece on arrived and was set up in my living room. I lifted the lid to see what my new toy sounded like in my home – and discovered that half the keys were missing! On the right half of the keyboard, there was only the single white key; an F.

Appropriate, really. I was F-urious.

It took only a moment to be on the phone to the store, demanding that they give me a piano that actually works.

But what I had bought, they claimed, was the piano that could play Chopin’s wonderful “Black Keys” étude flawlessly. I had experienced that in the store. If I wanted to extend the unit’s capabilities, I would need to customise it myself.

Back to the digital realm

Anyone who experienced the black keys piano sale would kick up quite a fuss; no music store would get away with that practice for long, if at all. Only the foolish would consider trying it. Yet that is exactly what the CMS vendor industry does. They sell us a basic system, that has been extended just enough to allow a wizz-bang demo (you know the one, the “fully-featured” blog you can set up in seven minutes), and then work on the premise that anything further we might want – any functionality that will serve our actual business needs – will require custom development.

And for some reason, we feel this is acceptable.

What’s in the box?

A CMS is, fundamentally, a framework. It provides a mechanism for connecting to a database (which may be as basic as create the tables yourself, and learn SQL), then tells what programming language we must learn. It give us a protocol for how to invoke functions, build data structures, connect services.

While CMS’s may even provide some basic structures around user management (back-end, at least) and blogging, a couple of content entities that allow posting of images and text, the odd tool that looks fancy, they rarely behave as we need it to.

What’s not in the box?

By their very name, CMS’s are supposed to help us manage our content. They should empower us, facilitate information usage. On this basis, there are things that one would expect a CMS to do, yet few do any of them with any competence, and none (that I know of) come anywhere near doing all:

Why do we put up with this?

The reality of the situation is that most CMS’s are redundant. Anything you want built on them needs to be developed from scratch, and the vendor’s framework hinders as much as it helps. Yes, it provides portability of functionality from one installation to another (maybe), but their rules, their ways of doing things stop us from easily implementing features we need in our sites. And when we decide the features are important enough that we must have them, we break some fundamental part of the system, so can no longer upgrade to the next release of the product.

We would never dream of accepting this level of disservice from sellers of other products, but this is considered par for the course when it comes to CMS vendors. What is it they are offering us that the developers who customise their systems could not implement from scratch? Where is the value in a product that hobbles as much as it enables?


There may be a CMS out there that isn’t quite as bad as the black keys implementation, but I have yet to hear of it…

Reference links

Lang Lang playing Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 n. 5., on YouTube
Maestro, by Chris Shipton@ChrisShipton
Separating content from presentation
The Quantum of Content Management
Dependency awareness (content’s identity crisis)
How do we manage this Context thing, anyway?


10 responses to “What does your CMS actually do?

  1. David Hobbs 2012/06/26 at 21:07

    Thanks for the post, and I’m glad I found your blog.

    The nice thing about pianos is that they’re relatively standardized. I have an antique in the living room (with oil-burning lamp holders and all) — it doesn’t sound good, but it is a piano with white and black keys. Not only are pianos standardized (even if some have more keys than another, like mine downstairs with less than the full modern standard), but the music for the piano is standardized.

    Websites are dramatically different. I recently put together a list of all the visions of my clients over the past few years of their website transformations and, although they had similarities, they were very, very different. Different CMSes have very different capabilities, and different organizations have different levels of abilities in maintaining different levels of firepower. I’m working on the content strategy for a site with 10M+ web pages, and that has very different CMS needs than one of my four page microsites (which actually doesn’t need a CMS). The point is that since websites have different needs, and these needs are not yet standardized, CMSes aren’t standardized yet either. Some CMSes have some of the features you list above, but a CMS should be selected based on the specific use cases of the organization needing the website (this blog post may be relevant:

    Some sites only need the black keys in their CMS. Others can’t even get by with a standard piano.

    • jdavidhobbs 2012/06/26 at 21:14

      I should have said I’m working on the content *management* strategy for that large site….

    • Rick Yagodich 2012/06/26 at 21:20

      Thanks David.
      I agree entirely. There is no such thing as a standard web site. And I would not expect a CMS to do everything everyone wants out of the box. It would be nice, though, if the bar of standard functionality were not set quite so low; the features not smoke and mirrors just insubstantial enough for a demo…

  2. Ian W 2012/06/26 at 23:48

    Rick, you’re spot on.

    It genuinely pains me to see the CMS setups that content people are expected to use and the infrastructure that supports them. Even the exact same brand and version CMS deployed for two different client projects, in different environments – one smooth and easy, the other almost unusable.

    I can sign up to a brilliant CMS for $10 a month, corporations are spending hundreds of thousands on tying themselves into massive, complex systems that may not do what they want and may tie them down in the future.

    The way I see this going, I hope, is twofold.

    First, the CMS needs to be separate from the content database, and it needs to be disposable. Aaron Shapiro’s ‘Users Not Customers’ book makes a great case for disposable technology, and CMS systems (in my opinion) must become lighter, nimbler and less permanent. I genuinely don’t see any reason a CMS needs to be a hulking corporate software entity like SAP or a payroll system.

    Secondly, usability. The missing link in many companies’ content success chain is the usability of the CMS. I would say that many of them unnecessarily increase the effort and pain involved in content tasks up to 100%.

    Karen McGrane is all over this, we must must must include usability and hands-on testing with content editors in every CMS selection and customisation. Users already starting to expect great content management (Facebook, Word Press, Squarespace etc), in the future they will not accept anything less. And they’re right.

    As you can tell this is a pet hate of mine. Why do we put up with it? Who knows? Maybe a combination of sales pitches, fear of change, lack of voice for the real users of the CMS, misunderstanding about what a CMS really is or what its success depends on.

  3. BWRic 2012/07/20 at 10:37

    I agree that the piano analogue isn’t the best, but a lot of the CMS’s are woeful. When developing we usually use out bespoke system that fits the requirements of most of our clients. If they need special features we build them. It’s not idea. I’d like to spend less time on the CMS and more time on making the site look and function well. I’ve started a move of basing my DB stuff on schemas from, good relations etc. This in theory will make it easy for me to add semantic meaning to documents and should make the site more portable as it uses public schemas. There are of course linking tables etc but I feel it’s a step in the right direction.

  4. Jamie 2012/07/20 at 11:02

    This is a pretty poor analogy and I think one that can only be applied to buying packaged, premium themes. If a Designer/Developer is providing custom CMS’s and this is the result then the issue is due to poor customer service and expectation management, more that the systems themselves. As a Developer, you should be taking the time to understand the full requirements of the website, and then using your experience to explain the benefits and limitations of a CMS and then looking at how it can be future proofed it once it’s handed over – forcing the customer to think about their website/business long term rather then simply meeting the immediate requirements.

  5. KJ 2012/07/22 at 04:46

    I’m not trying to be obtuse, but I don’t know how any content management system that costs six figures. Can someone please cite an example? Are you talking about big enterprise type software where you have like 10,000 users? When I hear ”CMS” I think of a web application to make it easy to manage your website (a la Drupal, WordPress, Joomla).

    • Rick Yagodich 2012/07/23 at 20:29

      Hi JK
      I am not going to name any of the suppliers of CMS’s who charge six figures for a license, but I will give you a starting point: pretty much all of those in Gartner’s Magic Quadrants for web content management and/or enterprise content management fall into this category. These vendors charge based on various models, but it often has a per-server aspect, so when you require a dozen servers, the price very quickly surpasses six figures. It can quite easily hit seven.
      The key differences between these products and the ones you mentioned: direct support contracts from the platform supplier, and the underlying languages (Java or .NET, vs PHP).

      • Ian W 2012/07/23 at 21:37

        I do wonder if the days of companies investing in these mammoth CMS are coming to and end. I hope they are to be honest, I think everything except your content now needs to be easily thrown away or completely changed… much more quickly and cheaply than an enterprise CMS allows. What do you reckon Rick?

      • Rick Yagodich 2012/07/23 at 22:45

        Well, Ian, that is a question that is perhaps impossible to answer conclusively. There are two forces pulling in opposite directions.
        On the one hand, communicators want speed and flexibility. They want to be able to adapt. The nimble want reusable content; repurposable structures; concepts that can be expanded upon without having to recode the logic underlying the old.
        On the other, the people with the money have been trained that big business needs big suppliers – they will not trust a small, flexible counter-party. They believe that “doing it right” means picking stable partners.
        So there will be a market for the expensive enterprise products for a long time to come. But there will also be a growing market for the more flexible approach. Whether the smaller market can – has the will to – invest to build the systems that provide real flexibility, real use… that is the key question. Or will the “big boys” make the leap first?

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