Content management tools help support KM solutions
The rise in publicity over Web content management and the tools supporting it has been meteoric. The tools are being marketed for a huge variety of functions ranging from e-commerce Web site management to heavy-duty document management. Among the areas being targeted is the use of the Web for intranet sites, particularly to help manage internal documentation and support knowledge management initiatives.
The old chestnut of knowledge management being more about people than the technology that supports it is still true. Content management tools do not provide a complete knowledge management solution, as some vendors seem to believe, or at least as some marketing material would have you believe. Content tools can provide helpful facilities to manage the large volumes of content that organizations inevitably accumulate. They can also help manage organizationwide contributions to best-practice and "things I have found useful" resources. So how do they actually do that?
Ovum has defined a model for content management that describes how the tools should work. The major elements of functionality that are particularly relevant to knowledge management are discussed in this article.
Content management tools take input, manage it and then publish it to a Web site. They usually are able to manage multiple versions of content as it changes over time. While some tools provide facilities for actually creating and editing content, many will simply expect you to create your content externally and then load it into the management tool. The software then manages the versions and publishes it to the Web site.
Some tools, usually from a document management background like FileNet and Documentum, will allow you to create content in any format that you like. If you use MS Word, CAD/CAM, Wordperfect, Corel or any one of a whole range of tools, you can simply use them and load the resulting content into the software. Other tools from different backgrounds--such as Interwoven (interwoven.com) or Mediasurface (mediasurface.com)--are engineered more toward entering content through templates. While you can load externally created content, it is usually delivered as the original source through a "hot spot" on the Web site rather than being rendered to HTML. Common examples are the white papers often seen on Web pages that are provided as Adobe pdf files. Those tools are much more focused on managing traditional Web sites or helping to you manage e-commerce.
Managing the content
Content is loaded into the content repository, database or file system. The way the content is stored is sometimes proprietary to the individual content tool, although a general theme is that metadata is often stored in a database--usually a standard database like Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle or Sybase—and the content itself is stored in the file system. Sometimes when the content is relatively small it is also stored in the database.
Versioning can be an important element of managing your content. It is often important to ensure that the version you are looking at is the most recent. It can also be essential to go back and look at previous versions--how often have you changed a document and deleted something that you wanted subsequently? In general, content tools will version all content when it is loaded (checked in) to the repository. The system also will usually record the date, time and log-in name of the author--knowing who wrote a document can often give it additional authority. When content is edited, the same information is recorded so that it is possible to retain a complete audit trail. Many systems will allow you to enter comments about the content, such as why it was created or updated. However, that is usually voluntary, and most people don't bother. How many of us regularly use the "Properties" function in MS Word for that? The information can be incredibly useful, particularly for searching, but is rarely completed. That is one of the big "people" issues for knowledge management.
Where do you use the content?
This is not as odd a question as it seems. Content management tools that have come from a document management background are designed for you to create and use the content directly from the repository. The publication is an add-on facility so that content can be made available over the Web. However, the newer tools focused on Web publication are designed for the content repository to be used as a "back-office" facility principally for the content authors and Web designers. The content is then published to a Web site, and the majority of users access the content from there.
Those two models mean that different facilities are available for using the content. Those from a document management background are often more suited to environments where everybody is a frequent and substantial contributor. The more Web-focused tools may be better in environments where more people simply read the content. However, all usually provide browser-based thin clients for reading content, and many also provide mechanisms for contributing clients from the same environment, often using Java applets.
After content has been created, it can be published to the live Web site. The process usually involves copying the content from the repository to the live Web server. The large majority allow you to publish content incrementally so that only the changes are copied. Clearly that is important if you have a large Web site.
For some tools, that stage also involves rendering the content to HTML from its original stored source. Software such as Xpedio from Intranet Solutionscan take more than 200 different formats of input documents and render them to HTML or GIF files so that both text and images can be delivered directly to the Web browser. That tool, together with a small number of others such as Panagon 2000 from FileNet, will also split large files into smaller components so that long documents are split into more manageable pieces for delivery as HTML pages. Connections between the pages and tables of content are also generated automatically to provide navigation links for users. The technology was originally developed by an organization called InfoAccess, which was acquired by Intranet Solutions in 1999, and is the basis of similar functionality in a number of other tools, such as Panagon 2000, through OEM agreements.
Other tools, such as Vignette and Interwoven, will simply provide you with a link from the Web page into the original source file.
The technology can only ever be part of a knowledge management solution. Content management tools provide several features to help issues beyond the storage and distribution of content. One of the most important of those is workflow. At the least, workflow provides you with facilities for routing new or updated content to individuals who can authorize it for publication. It is usually supported by links to an e-mail system so that the appropriate "authorizers" can be notified automatically, rather than having to check tasks lists at regular intervals.
The authorization process has at least two different aspects. Is the content correct, and is it actually useful ? Content that is published on a Web site often gains a credibility that is not always justified. Knowledge management information must be trustworthy. There is also the element of usefulness. Knowing the monthly rainfall in Alma Ata might be essential to some people but not to most. The information that is posted must be relevant and valuable or a Web site becomes cluttered with useless "knowledge."
A perennial problem of knowledge management is persuading people to contribute their knowledge. Content management systems do not provide an answer to that problem. But if the system provides valuable information, people are more likely to contribute. Content management tools provide facilities for universal contribution and access to information. Therefore, they provide a supporting mechanism for knowledge management--not the whole answer.
Alan Pelz-Sharpe and Chris Harris-Jones are senior consultants at the research and consulting firm Ovum, and are authors of the recent report "Web Content Management: Strategies, Technologies and Markets," e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.