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Weighing content management options

As more information becomes available to employees, the more important it becomes to organize it well.

Today's technology puts an incredible amount of information at workers' fingertips. The sheer volume of information means simple goals, such as communication between corporate management and employees, can become difficult.

IT organizations have a number of options to choose from when it comes to content management and communications systems. The more widely used systems are portals and Web content management systems. Deciding which application best fits company's needs can be a challenge.

"You could have a document management system or Web content management system that works on its own," said Connie Moore, vice president, research director for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "A lot of those products have portal-like interfaces, but I'd say a number of companies deploy them together."

What's the difference?

A portal is essentially a display screen that delivers content to computer users. Employees can pull separate sources of information, applications and back-office systems into a single framework, with a consistent appearance throughout the entire organization. Portals do not organize or standardize a company's back-end content.

A content management system, on the other hand, can organize and standardize different kinds of content, such as documents, contracts, presentations and sales figures, and deliver that content to portals. However, content management systems do not support sophisticated Web transactions.

"The portal is your interface, where you go to get all your information, that links into the source of your information, which would be some type of content management system," Moore said.

Both systems aim to streamline communications, personalize information and give employees access to the applications they need to perform their jobs. The question for companies limited to a choice between either portals or content management systems is which area is in greater need of attention.

Determine the goal

As with most other technology projects, the first step is an objective opinion.

"Hire an information architect first," said Tony Byrne, founder of CMS Watch, an independent Web content management analysis group. "Have him look at how to get actionable content produced and get it to the consumer who needs it."

Essentially, if a company wants to get more use out of its existing content, a content management system could do the trick, Byrne said. This type of system works well for tasks like presentations and sales projects.

If the company wants to enable easier Web transactions, a portal would suffice.

"Which one I would do first depends on what kind of problem I have," Byrne said.

Kyle McNabb, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., recently consulted for an insurance company that debated on implementing a portal or content management system. After deciding that accessing historic documents existing in different formats was the priority, the company chose a content management system, McNabb said.

"They did not have a wide need to integrate with a large number of back-end applications," he said. "They wanted to integrate the content they already had and make it more accessible."


Cost and ROI are always a concern to CIOs, as is any major technology investment.

The cost of a content management system can range from $75,000, to $150,000 to start. Archiving and cataloging of past information scale up over time, which drives up the costs, McNabb said. Portals, on the other hand, are often sold at a discount as part of a larger package, such as content management suites, he said.

The functions of portals and content management systems have been slowly converging. Some are being bundled together in larger enterprise content management suites sold by large infrastructure companies such as IBM, Microsoft, SAP or BEA Systems. Smaller, pure-play companies are also seeing more mergers: Vignette bought Epicentrix, and EMC expanded its product offerings by acquiring Documentum and Plumtree.

"The two are coming together to the point where in the near future, organizations won't necessarily be looking for a portal or content management system," McNabb said. "They'll be able to say, 'I want intranet in the box.' "

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