Content Management Systems

In an earlier article on content management I mentioned the importance of considering what data is most important to you or your business and finding a way not just to back it up and archive it, but also plan ways to store that data in file formats which will allow you to use it over its useful life, even as computer, paper and media formats change.

The phrase “content management system” is a general one, but in the context of modern computers usually means some sort of database or filing system to help track and store documents in computers. Law offices and medical offices solved many of these problems decades ago, and a book written for legal or medical secretaries in the mid-1970’s is a superb resource for understanding the general principles of thinking about information and categorizing it for retrieval over dozens, even hundreds, of years. Modern library science also has a large body of thought on this subject. For most individuals and small businesses, though, a computerized content management system will probably take the form of an established file structure, a simple database or one of the current blog or wiki systems such as Movable Type, Word Press or MediaWiki.

Document Management

By “document management” I mean any system for the medium and long-term storage of documents related to your work or business: correspondence, appointment books, phone logs, bank statements and financial records. For some households this may be something as simple as a single box or envelope where documents such as old tax returns, passports, birth certificates and social security cards are stored. For most businesses it is a special locked file cabinet, while for large hospitals or legal firms it may be an entire warehouse with catacombs of carefully categorized archives. If you don’t currently have such a system for physical and electronic files, I strongly encourage you to develop one, and if you have a physical system which works well, that can largely be adapted to an electronic system as well. The most important thing is that there be some logic to it, and that this logic be documented somewhere and followed.

The simplest way to begin a document management system is to decide what sorts of things will be important and how they will be stored. Most businesses have a hybrid system which combines chronological files (organized by year) and project-specific files (organized by client, vendor or category). An agreed-upon file structure is established, documented and then placed in a central location such as a file server, where people can get a copy if they need one but usually not modify records. This directory structure (bunch of files) is periodically archived for off-site storage, ensuring continuity should the facility be physically destroyed. On a home computer, this could be something as simple as a folder marked “archive” which is periodically burned to a CD or DVD (to store “off-site”) and then transferred from computer to computer as one upgrades.

If some data is stored in a particular computer program, it is important to save a copy of that program and/or the installer. The most important data should be printed or saved out to a PDF file or other interchange format as I have discussed elsewhere in previous articles on file formats and content management. Copying to new media (hard drive, floppy disk or DVD) every year or two also helps assure data integrity and avoids media obsolescence. PDF, ASCII text, TIFF and AIFF files are generally-accepted archival stoarage formats.

One huge advantage of a document-management folder schema is that pretty much any computer “document” whatsoever can be stored this way by even the most naive user. Including a small text file at the top level of key folders explaining the logic and organization of the structure will help those new to the system or refresh your memory as you search for something or try to figure out where to file it.

Content Management Databases

For text-based information, a simple networkable database such as FileMaker or SQL is also very powerful. The text from key documents such as letters, reports and contracts can be copied and pasted into a single field within the database, other fields being used to “tag” the information by client, date, project, keywords or other information. Since such textual databases are designed for sharing and searching, finding something is as simple as searching for likely text strings such as “linoleum” or “oatmeal.” Sometimes a system such as this will also include a reference to the original document’s location on a server or in an archive, serving as the “working copy” but helping to locate the “archive copy” within the general document management structure. More sophisticated databases can include multimedia or container fields for charts, pictures, sound files and so on.

Content management databases such as this can be used in a variety of ways, including as an organization’s main workspace. Common letter or report types can be stored for easy retrieval, duplication and modification. Older documents, minutes, schedules and checklists can be easily retrieved and adapted. Many newspapers use systems such as this for daily production, as do writers, medical offices and law firms. Making such content available on the local network or intranet through a web browser is also possible, eliminating the need for special “client” software on networked machines.

“Blogs:” Moveable Type, Word Press and Weblogs

Blogs (short for “weblog”) are database systems designed primarily with an eye to distribution. Content is created within a web browser window then “published” as HTML to be viewed through a web browser. The most popular “back end” software for weblogs is currently Moveable Type and WordPress, both of which are free for individual use. This software is installed on a Unix-based web server and accessed through a web browser, allowing the creation, categorization, publishing and modification of pages or “posts” as well as some user interactivity through optional “comment” and “trackback” functions.

The metaphor for most blog software is that of magazine or newspaper publishing: a relatively small group of authors create and publish content, which others may comment upon or reference in posts or articles of their own. This makes it ideal for policy or briefing documents which may need to be dissemenated through an organization with some ability for comment or clarification, but which are unlikely to change frequently. Because blog entries can be modified or edited by the “owner” they are less transparent than some other tools, but the static HTML documents they can generate are very useful for archiving.

Most blogs allow an author or publisher to categorize articles and create searchable archives by subject or date. Once recategorized or modified, pages or entire sites can be “rebuilt” to reflect these changes, and it is possible to do such things as schedule articles for automatic publishing at a particular time, and to rescind or “unpublish” articles if need be. Blogs also support RSS “syndication,” giving them some of the characteristics of broadcast media. All of these things make blogs a popular content management system not only within an organization but outside of it, as a marketing, publicity and customer relations tool.

Another example of a blog to encourage greater fertilization and cross-talk is LiveJournal, currently owned by Six Apart, the same company which manages Moveable Type. LiveJournal allows individuals to establish accounts and publish personal weblogs or pages, but also includes “communities” that are more like standard blogs and can be moderated to allow extensive cross-content and sharing of mutual interests.

Wiki Content Management

A “wiki” is yet another content management database, designed to allow rapid collaboration. Probably the most famous example of a wiki project is Wikipedia, a massive online encyclopedia which anyone can edit. Installed on a server and accessed through a web page, the wiki software allows relatively simple content management, including the re-use of multimedia content such as graphics, charts or sound files. Text is entered through a web browser using a simplifed markup language, with links to other articles or files in the system. When “published” these files are viewed as web pages, but are designed to be easily modified, making it an ideal choice for complex projects which may involve multiple iterations and/or a wide variety of authors and editors.

A quick look at any Wikipedia page shows how an article looks, as well as this interaction. Along the top of the page are “tabs” for editing the article, discussing the article, viewing the history of an article and even comparing different versions of an article. This ability to make the editing process transparent and accessible is the main advantage of wikis. Public wikis are, of course, vulnerable to vandalism, and require routine maintenance which can be simplifed in various ways such as through use of “watchlists” by authors and editors.

Using Content Management Systems (CMS)

There are a variety of options available for those interested in using a content management system, either internally or externally. As with most things in business and in life, where you want to go determines how you travel.

Anyone can come up with a general document management system for physical and electronic files, and there are literally dozens of books on how to organize your life. If nothing else, create a folder on your computer or server where “the important files” go to be archived, and be certain to archive it and save at least one copy far away from the computer itself.

If you have a wide collection of text documents to place into a searchable database such as FileMaker, again the first step is to identify what is important and begin collecting it to copy and paste (or import) into one central place. For experienced help in such as a system, please consider phoning Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.

If you are a business who would like to use a blog to augment your current newsletter or presentation marketing, the simplest thing to do is probably to set one up using one of the commercial blogging services such as TypePad or others such as Google’s Blogger. As the company who currently owns Moveable Type, Six Apart (who also runs TypePad and LiveJournal) has a variety of features which make it a good business-friendly blog, and prices start as low as $50 per year. An excellent example of a writer who uses her TypePad blog to promote her books, speaking engagements and other appearances is Susie Bright at http://susiebright.blogs.com.

If you are slightly more adventurous, a variety of webhosting services also have or can install blog management software such as WordPress or Moveable Type, so ask. The worse that can happen is that they say no and you go somewhere else. Sometimes a webhost which provides blogging software will also have technical help and marketing suggestions.

Currently I am not aware of any established services offering reliable hosting for wiki software, but anticipate that such businesses will emerge shortly, just as professional blog hosts have. In the interim, an internal blog will need to be configured in-house. Such blogs have modest hardware requirements, but pretty much require a dedicated server LAMP server (running the open-source combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP with Perl). Most competent open-source system administrators can configure such as system, and MacRory.com can help you get it up and use it more productively through intelligent training and deployment strategies.
Wherever and however you choose to deploy your content management system, please consider phoning Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.

Links, some of which which show Wikipedia.Org wiki in action…


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