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How do you know if it’s time for a new CMS?

This article appears in the issue July/August 2010, [Vol 19, Issue 7]
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Let’s say you’re fed up with your current Web content management platform. Many customers are. So you’re thinking, “There must be 50 ways to leave my vendor.” And you’re right—there are.

But is replacing the platform always the right approach? Changing vendors and tools gets costly, not just in money, but in time and attention as well. That’s why in many enterprises just as many people want to hold on to an incumbent platform as replace it.

The day will almost surely come when you do want to (or must) replace your Web content management system (CMS) vendor. But how do you know when that day arrives? The decision is multidimensional and should involve both business and technical considerations. Let’s examine when you probably shouldn’t switch platforms, and then when you probably should go ahead and leave your vendor.

When is it not a good idea to switch?

Your colleagues may raise many reasons for switching platforms, but some rationales should give you pause. One common complaint is interpersonal conflict between key people on your team and your vendor or its integration partner. Those can frequently be resolved through traditional mediation. Note that switching the point person—on either side—is usually much less traumatic than switching platforms.

We also see people advocating for replacement technology on philosophical grounds, say, a desire to pursue an open source model for its own sake, or to give more business to a local or regional firm. Those may be worthy objectives, but if your primary goals drift away from business benefits, then your organization loses out in the end.

Your IT team may also encourage you to switch because it can get Web content management (WCM) software as part of a bigger deal with an infrastructure vendor. That is almost always a bad idea. Case in point: the many EMC/Documentum customers who suffered through a mediocre WCM product because their company licensed it as part of a huge document management deal. (Documentum has since deprecated its WCM platform in all but name only.) Beware of similar pressure to go with SharePoint for Web publishing. A “good deal” often turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Debatable reasons to switch

Other problems and shortcomings may spur a conversation about switching, but in the end, are probably best addressed through adaptation. A common complaint is the requirement for “nice-to-have” functionality that your incumbent vendor doesn’t supply. Before you switch, make sure that someone else in the customer community hasn’t already solved the problem. Moreover, many features (like user-generated content services and mobile delivery) can be supplied by third-party vendors.

You may also face contributor dissatisfaction and/or low adoption with your current CMS. But ask: Is it the implementation or the tool? More often than not, it’s the former. As a practical matter, though, the current platform’s reputation may be so sullied that you have to switch anyway (more about that later.

Finally, IT may encourage you to switch platforms to “consolidate” multiple CMS vendors within the organization. That is understandable from their standpoint, but you have to ask yourself: Does that really serve the business? If you operate multiple different Web sites (internally and externally), will one vendor adequately serve them all? What additional resources will be required to make a tool do what doesn’t come naturally to it? (See Figure 1 on page 18, KMWorld July/August or download PDF).

Technical rationales for switching

Now let’s turn to the circumstances under which you should definitely consider a new vendor. First, sometimes a CMS project can result in unmitigated failure. You’ve tried hard to make it work, brought in experts, but it still can’t publish your most important content types. When that happens, it’s time to just let go.

Similarly, upgrading a heavily customized implementation can sometimes constitute as much redevelopment as starting over with a new vendor. In that event, consider the broader WCM marketplace among your alternatives (and review your implementation approach to avoid the same situation again).

You may also require essential functionality that’s unavailable in your incumbent system. For example:

  • records management, auditing and compliance;
  • multilingual Web sites and contributor interfaces;
  • the ability to support significantly larger volumes of contributors or pages; and/or
  • managing content as components, rather than pages.

None of those capabilities are easy to retrofit into a product that doesn’t supply them natively.

Business rationales for switching

Of course, this should never be a purely technical decision. There are also some critical business factors that could prompt you to switch vendors.

First, your product or vendor may be going away (as one or two CMS tools do every couple of years). There are some grey areas here, since the strength of the product and longevity/survivability of its customer community may become a more important factor than ongoing support from the vendor. Still, when a vendor announces a cut-off date for official support, you’ll want to at least start looking elsewhere.

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