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CMS proves its ROI mettle

Once implemented successfully, a content management system not only improves organization and efficiency, but also pays for itself within a year and a half.

The case can be made that a content management system (CMS) is an ROI success story. Just listen to the CMS accolades from vendor land: "GE Healthcare achieved a reduction in annual translation costs from $3 million to $300,000."

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But on the flip side are cautionary voices, like that of Mary Laplante, an analyst and vice president of consulting services at Gilbane Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "ROI is important, but it cannot be the sole basis of a CMS investment because there are ways to make a business case not tied to numbers," Laplante said.

CMS no longer optional

One thing is indisputable: In a complex global business world governed by regulatory compliance, it is no longer safe nor smart to have your information fly about "willy-nilly," said Tony Byrne, an analyst at CMS Watch, a CMS research and analysis firm based in Olney Md.

This is where content management comes in. Whether it's a collaborative Web tool or a records management solution, CMS allows content to be stored, retrieved, edited, controlled, updated and output in ways that can reduce incremental costs of each update cycle and shrink output production dramatically over time. A CMS takes the power out of the IT department's grip and puts it into the hands of everyday nontechnical users -- a cost-saving step in itself.

CMS success and ROI results

Take Autodesk Inc., for example. The San Rafael, Calif.-based software company had a product documentation base of more than 8 million words being translated into up to 18 languages. But manual processes were time-consuming and costly, said Minette Norman, Autodesk software systems manager. By implementing CMS Idiom WorldServer, together with Adobe FrameMaker for structured authoring in XML, Autodesk streamlined documentation and reduced redundancies using a centralized workflow system. Although quantifiable numbers can't be crunched, the result has been "more languages, more content, shorter time frames," according to Norman.

Like Autodesk, which began seeing results in a year, companies can expect to achieve ROI quickly, with noticeable results typically coming within a year to 18 months, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, also an analyst at CMS Watch. But achieving ROI has as much to do with how the technology is implemented as with the technology itself. A CMS simply has to work within existing business processes.

Other best practices for CMS recommended by George Goodall, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group: start small and plan on incremental improvements; remove the webmaster bottleneck by encouraging content contributors to become self-sufficient, and keep workflows simple.

"There is an assumption that content management is easy," Goodall said. "Implementers often neglect some of the real issues of the technology."

But once it's up and running, a CMS has uses for many industries. Byrne listed a number of potential scenarios where a CMS could play a critical role: a small engineering company with a sophisticated Web site that needs to relay information to partners and customers; a big pharmaceutical that wants to give employees the ability to self-publish on the corporate intranet; a large trade association that communicates varying content for different membership categories; a newspaper that wants to more effectively repurposes its print content by putting it online.

"At the end of the day, content management is about applying management principles to information," Byrne said.

CMS choices abound

Buyers have plenty of CMS choices. Gilbane Group counts 1,800 tools and solutions to manage content, ranging from custom-developed and open source CMS offerings to Software as a Service (SaaS) and packaged software applications. Microsoft's SharePoint 2007 has increased its records management capacities, and FileNet is strengthening its collaboration features. Vendors are also beginning to embrace social computing, with wiki, blog and RSS tools offering multichannel marketing opportunities.

"The end result is workflow on steroids," Laplante said. "There is more emphasis on business process management and using content management to drive customer satisfaction, increase profit margin and satisfy compliance demands. These are all buckets of benefits for ROI."

Cindy Atoji is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.

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