Saturday, August 2, 2014

Do you have the right CMS?

I have evaluated dozens of content management systems over the last 20 years, as well have having built several myself. The answer to the question, do we have the right CMS, is almost always going to be no.

It is no because your business will always be changing, and there will be a gap between what you want to do, and what your CMS will let you do.

Given this gap, the question that inevitably follows is, would be better off with something else. That depends on how big the gap is, and whether it can be closed (and the cost).

There are four things a CMS needs to do.

1. Product Delivery

The most obvious is that it must allow you to deliver your product. This might be a blog (writing), or selling things (commerce), or a large media site like the one I manage (news, features and audio story telling).

2. Business Processes Support

The second is that it must support a streamlined business process. Note that I am not saying it should support your current business process. It might already do that, and that might be a problem - it might be limiting your ability to improve and streamline the way you do business. 

It might even be, and I have seen this many times, that the functionality of the CMS forces you to work in a way that is inefficient or convoluted. Technology should not dictate to you how to run your business.

3. Systems Integration

It must also integrate with any of your existing business systems - and these are probably systems that you cannot easily replace. An example from my own company is how we've integrated our newsroom system - used by over 100 people daily - with the CMS.

4. Innovation

The last, and probably the most important is, does it allow you to continually innovate in the first three areas. Can you launch new products? Can you improve your business processes? Can you improve the way existing systems interact with the CMS?

If your CMS allows you to do these things, then you are probably in good shape but for one exception: cost. What is the cost of being able to achieve the above four points?

There are three broad classes of CMS, and each has it own cost structure.

1. Proprietary

The CMS is a 'black box'. You use it, but you cannot see or modify the source code. Any changes have to be done by you the vendor who 'owns' the code, at a cost and timeframe they determine, hopefully in consultation with your. The term 'charge like a wounded bull' comes to mind.

2. Supported Open Source

In this case you can view the code, but you must still use your contracted vendor to make changes and add new features. Some prefer this model because they have the best of both worlds - access to the code, and some performance guarantees (based on losing the ability to change the code themselves).

3. Fully Open Source

A fully open system means you, or anyone you choose, can modify your CMS code, although this can be at the expense of reliability and performance if the change processes are not carefully managed. You may choose to work with one vendor.

The first two models can be problematic because the vendor's system will evolve based on their customers' needs, and this may not line up with your own individual needs. In RNZ's case we changed from a supported open source solution that we'd used successfully for 5 years because the system's performance and content management focus was moving away from media organisations.

We now follow the third model for the CMS that drives In the last 30 days we have made over 100 changes to the CMS - some visible to the public, most to improve the administration section our staff use. We have also reduced the application's response time by 30% and a our page speed (according to Google) by 25% (see dip in the graph below).

In my experience that pace of change is next to impossible (at any reasonable cost) with the other two models. (We also have periods of little change, consolidation and reflection.)

Should you change your CMS?

You'll need to find out how much will it cost you to migrate to the new system, and determine if this will be paid back to you by the improvements you'll get from the change. Those improvements should include the four factors I outlined above.

In making a decision it can be useful to look at what your competitors are doing. In my field - media - the companies that are disrupting and innovating in this space all use custom CMSs built with open source software. They control the platform and in many cases the infrastructure too. I think that says a lot.

Which ever model you choose, you need to balance risk, innovation, internal capabilities (e.g. programming and infrastructure skills) and cost. I am happy to answer questions in the comments.