To CMS or not to CMS?

Earlier, I was with my brother and we were talking about his new job as the Publicity Coordinator for the UVM Program Board. I don’t know quite what the situation is, but it sounds like he wants to make their current web site more relevant to the students. I applaud that effort. To that end, I showed him what WordPress, a blogging tool, might be able to do for them.

However, as I was going over the system with him I was reminded of this interview with Jefferey Veen, in which he says that most web sites and companies never need a CMS, and that it may very well fail in the first year anyway. According to Veen, the most important factor to consider when thinking about whether to use a new CMS is only the basics.

“What’s the absolute least you can get away with?” Initially, teams should get the super-simple solution working and, only then, start adding complexity.

This strategy is very sound because it focuses on the active process of getting content published, which is the ultimate goal. Here’s one area where blogging tools like WordPress really shine. At its roots, it is a super-simple mechanism for writing stuff that gets published on a web site. Contrast this goal with other, more “robust” CMS packages like PostNuke or Drupal, and it’s easy to see why the more one tool tries to do, the less effective it will potentially be for certain organizations.

Content management isn’t a software problem at all. It’s a process problem. By solving process problems, you often find you don’t even need software. Many companies buy software thinking that it will fix their process problems. But that’s like buying Microsoft Word hoping that it will make you a better writer.

(That’s not to say that PostNuke and Drupal are bad CMS packages, they’re just different, but I’ve never known anyone to be happy with either of these products when all they wanted to do was “get my page online.” Most of their features are overkill, either too complicated or too confusing or, even worse, not relevant for the average business web site.)

This “best tool for the job” philosophy is too often overlooked by webmasters who are rushing to get it all done. Analyzing a web site’s needs is the most important step towards building a site that works. And that brings me back to the UVM Program Board.

Starting from scratch they have a golden opportunity to define their workflow and create a process for creating content that works for them. WordPress might be a great tool to aid in that process because they have the content and the architecture they need to start using it right away. In other words, the role of their CMS will be to provide access to content to the appropriate people. Everything else is the job of a person. Veen says it best:

[…] a CMS is almost never a piece of software that you can buy and start using right away. Rather, they are platforms — frameworks for building custom content applications based on an organization’s needs.

So in short, Shir, congratulations on your new position as the Publicity Coordinator, and I’m proud of you for thinking of innovative new ways to use the Web to achieve your goals. That said, keep in mind that whatever you end up doing with the site, whether it’s using WordPress or not, remember that it’s all just a tool to get another job done. Keep the big picture in mind, and I know you’ll succeed.

Update: On further examination of their site, it looks like some sections might be using Moveable Type as a blogging system. Either way, the point I’m trying to make is that whatever system you use has to be compatible with the way you work, and the way you work needs to be planned out well before you start picking a CMS to install.

2 replies on “To CMS or not to CMS?”

  1. Don’t compare a relatively primitive CMS like PostNuke to an Application Development Platform like Drupal, which will support advanced community solutions, advanced taxonomy based solutions etc. Drupal is based on a philosophy and an architecture which will enable you to do things that systems like PostNuke and WordPress can only dream of.
    Drupal is way too advanced to do just a simple company brochure site. You can disable complex functionality and build a simple site, and then enable it when the client wants it – if ever.
    You cannot do that with a WordPress or a Postnuke system which will stay primitive forever – unless you want to lift all the content to another solution and start all over.
    Jeffrey Veen is right that most small solution will never become advanced, and that the “small, slim solution” is a better bet. But if you’re an internet consultant and not a designer, you would like your clients to dig further into e-commerce which means more advanced solutions.
    So I’d go for the scaled down Drupal as a starting point.

  2. Those are really good points, Gunnar, I must admit that it’s been a short while since I took a serious look at Drupal.

    Nevertheless, even with a system like Drupal in place, it will fail unless the organization using it can, in fact, use it in a manner that works for them. Most of what I was trying to talk about was actually how people organize their own non-technically dependant workflows rather than which software they use for the web.

    Perhaps it’s time I take a closer look at Drupal, though. Thanks for the comment!

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