Failings catch up with Web content management's consultingware
By David Walker (Google profile)
Until now, the big-name IT analysts have pretty much agreed that the future of Web content management is the "commercial package". The commercial package looks like shrinked-wrapped software but is usually consultingware, boxed software whose installation, configuration, customisation and maintenance need a herd of consultants and leave the site owner paying a six- or seven-digit bill. Since about 1997, such systems - from firms like Vignette, Interwoven and Documentum - have been praised as the inevitable future of content management. And custom-built efforts, constructed by an organisation's own IT team or site consultants, have been largely viewed as an obstacle to progress. In the buy-versus-build battle, they say, buying will eventually win.
One of the most recent published views came from Giga Group in April 2002: "The competitive advantage that exists for custom Web content management implementations has been absorbed by the advantages and increased sophistication available from commercial-off the-shelf Web content management offerings. Although close to 60 percent of Web content management implementations are custom, this number will dramatically decrease during the next 12 to 18 months. A key factor will be cost savings and business efficiency." At various times Gartner Group, Forrester Research, Jupiter Media Metrix and others have portrayed commercial packages in similar terms.
Such views have persisted despite the multiplying accounts of expensive commercial Web content management package failure. In the shadow of the high-profile disasters like the Vignette-driven Scape.com lurk many incomplete implementations - the majority in large businesses whose harried IT chief eventually put the commercial box back on the shelf, sent the consultants home and quietly built something to do 80 per cent of the job for 20 per cent of the money. IT analysts have mostly been able to ignore such issues.
The first hint of a change came back in early 2001, when Forrester Research released a report concluding that 2001's CMS offerings were "immature", that none adequately addressed all needs, and that the vendors all had very different visions of how the CMS would evolve. "Owner satisfaction will be short-lived", Forrester concluded. But Forrester nevertheless maintained that commercial packages would soon triumph over do-it-yourself solutions.
Then in mid-2001, in an interview for this column, Ovum senior consultant Alan Pelz-Sharpe declared that "a lot of the time, there's no business value" in a commercial package, that most left buyers with a lot of work to do themselves, and that vendors were delivering more complex and expensive systems than most users needed.
And now Jupiter Media Metrix has gone the whole hog and declared that the custom-built, "home-grown" Web content management solution is often the right choice for an organisation. In a May 2002 report titled "The Content Management Threshold", Jupiter puts on the record most of the issues with today's buy-versus build decision:
- Buying a commercial package costs - just in the first year, as much as $US25,000 ($A45,000) for each person using the system. (You pay most of this money to get the system working after you buy the box.) Jupiter found many commercial systems require "exorbitant technical maintenance" and reported "site managers frequently railing against the high costs of managing complicated content management software". And commercial packages were supposed to cut IT support costs ...
- Along with the cost of commercial packages comes risk, "with managers complaining of rigid or simplistic workflow, awkward interfaces ... [and] difficult integration with other applications".
- Among the biggest risks is that users will shun your expensive new system. "Nearly one-quarter of executives Jupiter surveyed [complained] of sparse adoption by end users".
- The best-known and most flexible systems only make sense for very large-scale Web sites. How large is very large? Jupiter's example: "A large hotel chain with over 700 international properties, each with its own Web site and local content requirements". If that sounds like you, call Vignette or Interwoven now; otherwise, read on.
- Most sites should focus on finding specific fixes for specific problems, instead of seeking the platform that will do everything they could ever imagine needing done.
Building or extending your own existing IT work on managing Web content? That may be the smart business choice. Says Jupiter: "If the content management initiative applies to a single Web property, the parent company has no aspirations to manage content enterprise-wide, the number of contributors is fewer than 20, and the workflow no more complicated than a few steps, then a homegrown system will work quite well". That description covers all but a handful of Australian Web sites. Now wonder that Jupiter expects the number of home-grown systems to nearly double by 2004.
The rise of the commercial content management packages paralled the rise of the dot-coms, intent on growing now and making money later. As more sites adopt clear, well-defined commercial goals, those commercial packages will need to evolve or die.