JUNE 2003

So, what is a CMS?

Written by , published June 3rd, 2003

Categorised under: articles, content management

A content management system (CMS) is critical to the success of almost every website and intranet, and yet many organisations are not familiar with this technology.

So, while we have written many articles on a range of specific CMS issues and strategies, we now take a step back to answer the question: what is a content management system?

In this article we will focus on web content management, and will only touch upon broader content issues at the end of the document.

The business problem

You have a website, or intranet. It has grown organically over time, and while it is very useful, it is far from perfect.

Much of the content is out-of-date or inaccurate, it’s hard to find things, updating the site is complex, and the appearance is becoming dated.

Worse yet, you’ve lost track of all the pages on the site, and by having all the changes made by your skilled webmaster, the updates are piling up in their in-tray.

What was on the site last week, or last year? You couldn’t say. In the back of your mind, you know that this could leave you in a difficult position if a customer sues, but there is little that you can do.

If this sounds grim, you are not alone. In fact, it’s the natural by-product of maintaining a site using manual tools such as Dreamweaver or Frontpage.

Thankfully, these problems are what a content management system is specifically designed to solve.

CMS: A working definition

A content management system (CMS) supports the creation, management, distribution, publishing, and discovery of corporate information.

It covers the complete lifecycle of the pages on your site, from providing simple tools to create the content, through to publishing, and finally to archiving.

It also provides the ability to manage the structure of the site, the appearance of the published pages, and the navigation provided to the users.

Note that we are focusing on the most common use of a CMS: to manage web content. In some circles, these systems are therefore called web management systems (WMS).

Content management systems can be much broader than this, but we won’t touch upon these aspects until later.

Business benefits

There are a wide range of business benefits that can be obtained by implementing a CMS, including:

  • streamlined authoring process
  • faster turnaround time for new pages and changes
  • greater consistency
  • improved site navigation
  • increased site flexibility
  • support for decentralised authoring
  • increased security
  • reduced duplication of information
  • greater capacity for growth
  • reduced site maintenance costs

Beyond these, the greatest benefit the CMS can provide is to support your business goals and strategies.

For example, the CMS can help to improve sales, increase user satisfaction, or assist in communicating with the public.

Anatomy of a CMS

Anatomy of a Content Management System

Anatomy of a Content Management System

The functionality of a content management system can be broken down into several main categories:

  • content creation
  • content management
  • publishing
  • presentation

Each of these will be explored in the following sections.

The CMS manages the entire lifecycle of pages, from creation to archival

Content creation

At the front of a content management system is an easy-to-use authoring environment, designed to work like Word. This provides a non-technical way of creating new pages or updating content, without having to know any HTML.

The CMS also allows you to manage the structure of the site. That is, where the pages go, and how they are linked together. Many even offer simple drag-and-drop restructuring of the site, without breaking any links.

Almost all content management systems now provide a web-based authoring environment, which further simplifies implementation, and allows content updating to be done remotely.

It is this authoring tool that is the key to the success of the CMS. By providing a simple mechanism for maintaining the site, authoring can be devolved out into the business itself. For example, your marketing manager maintains the press release section, while your product manager keeps the catalogue up to date.

Content management

Once a page has been created, it is saved into a central repository in the CMS. This stores all the content of the site, along with the other supporting details.

This central repository allows a range of useful features to be provided by the CMS:

  • Keeping track of all the versions of a page, and who changed what and when.
  • Ensuring that each user can only change the section of the site they are responsible for.
  • Integration with existing information sources and IT systems.

Most importantly, the CMS provides a range of workflow capabilities. These are best explained by giving an example:

When the page is created by an author, it is automatically sent to their manager for approval, and then to the central web team for their editorial review. It is finally sent to the legal team for their sign-off, before being automatically published to the site.

At each step, the CMS manages the status of the page, notifying the people involved, and escalating jobs where required.

In this way, the workflow capabilities allow more authors to be involved in the management of the site, while maintaining strict control over the quality, accuracy and consistency of the information.

Workflow rules bring order to the chaos of manual processes


Once the final content is in the repository, it can then be published out to either the website or intranet.

Content management systems boast powerful publishing engines which allow the appearance and page layout of the site to be applied automatically during publishing. It may also allow the same content to be published to multiple sites.

Of course, every site looks different, so the CMS lets the graphic designers and web developers specify the appearance that is applied by the system.

These publishing capabilities ensure that the pages are consistent across the entire site, and enable a very high standard of appearance.

This also allows the authors to concentrate on writing the content, by leaving the look of the site entirely to the CMS.

The CMS fully automates the publishing of your site


The content management system can also provide a number of features to enhance the quality and effectiveness of the site itself.

As an example, the CMS will build the site navigation for you, by reading the structure straight out of the content repository.

It also makes it easy to support multiple browsers, or users with accessibility issues. The CMS can be used to make your site dynamic and interactive, thereby enhancing the site’s impact.

Beyond the web

So far, we have concentrated on the creation of HTML content for corporate websites or intranets. While this is the strongest aspect of most content management systems, many can do much more.

Central to the power of many systems is the concept of ‘single source publishing’, where a single topic can be published automatically into different formats.

This could include printed formats (PDF, Word, etc), wireless/hand-held formats (WAP, etc), or XML.

Enterprise content management

There is also a relationship between content management systems and other information systems within an organisation, including:

  • document management
  • records management
  • digital asset management

At present, these are typically sold as separate systems, and achieving interoperability between them is not easy.

Some progress is being made with the creation of so-called enterprise content management systems (ECMS), which combine together a central content management system with other tools to manage the full range of content that exists within your organisation.

These systems are relatively immature, however, and there is not much agreement about what they should encompass. This is certainly a market that will evolve rapidly over the next few years.

Take the time to pick the best product to meet your needs

CMS marketplace

This article has presented a general overview of typical content management system capabilities, and how they can be used to benefit your business.

In the marketplace at present, there are literally hundreds of content management systems, all having different capabilities and strengths.

This is the nature of a rapidly changing marketplace: while there are many very good products, there is little consistency between vendors.

Our single best piece of advice: take the time to determine your business requirements, and then comprehensively evaluate the products on the market against them.

Every organisation has a unique set of requirements for a content management system, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. By allocating sufficient time and resources to selecting the CMS, you can be confident that you have the best possible solution.


Content management systems are relatively new in the market, and while many are still not familiar with them, they have the potential to dramatically simplify the maintenance of both websites and intranets.

This article has given a high-level overview of CMS capabilities. For more information on specific CMS issues or aspects, browse through the other articles available on our website (www.steptwo.com.au).

For example, you will probably find our article How to evaluate a CMS to be very useful when investigating specific products on the market.

(For further information regarding the evaluation and selection of a CMS, download the Content Management Requirements Toolkit.)

Other articles of interest

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  1. ismail yusuf usman commented on October 10th, 2008

    This article explainned more on CMS and business operations, please can you try to relate CMS as authorising tools in academic libraries.

  2. Hi Ismail, are there specific library needs that you would like to meet using the CMS?

  3. Rohan commented on November 29th, 2008

    Hi there: when you say they ‘have the potential to dramatically simplify the maintenance of both websites and intranets, yes, but they also result in a complex and disorganised application. The problem is that when webmasters create pages and content, they use their organisational skills and experience to properly structure the content. Not all Website OWNERS are this way inclined. In fact a great CMS in the hands of someone lazy or disorganised can be a bomb in an otherwise great website. Free-reign for inexperienced web users can destroy an information resource. What is a Content Management System?. Elure.

  4. I’ve heard about CMS for the first time.
    Reading the contents on this page really makes me dream about it & is driving me to use it once a.s.a.p for my Website.

  5. hi, I enjoyed your article. It gave a lot of valuable information and a lot for me to think about in developing my new website.

    I haven’t used any cms yet but, now i want to use one.
    Is there any working example or demo which i can refer to understand and acquaint myself to how it’s being done and how i should use it.

    Thanks to you

  6. victor commented on May 12th, 2009

    really thanks for the information.. the first day of my step in cms..is cos of this articles.. really simple..effective and crips…

  7. Ryan Warner commented on August 12th, 2009

    i hate you.

  8. Sridevi commented on September 24th, 2009

    Thank you very much for the information shared. It is a very nice article which explains briefy about CMS, ECMS

  9. Thomas commented on January 15th, 2010

    Hi James,

    Even though your article has been around for a while it is still very relevant today. Thanks for writing such an easy to read and understand article.
    SEO Sydney

  10. Mike commented on March 10th, 2010

    Rohan, I agree that CMS’s can be hazardous in the hands of the wrong people, but would take a disorganised CMS over a disorganised static site any day.

    A decent CMS should allow you to support the organisation’s content and publishing strategy with sound workflow approval structures. A CMS should also allow you to restrict styling content that deviates away from the organisation’s (and CMS’) style guide / stylesheet.

    Also, your point about webmasters using their organisational skills and experience to structure the content is fairly sweeping. It only works in some instances because using a webmaster to upload your content reflects a “centralised” publishing model with the control lying with only one or a handful of individuals.

    I am of the opinion that webmasters have a more broad set of skills that should be put to better use rather than have them publish content.

  11. k.puppy commented on March 16th, 2010

    very useful for me.

  12. Duncan Cowan commented on June 27th, 2010

    Excellent article. Quickly and clearly pointed out the benefits and structure of CMS. Thanks for the information.

  13. It would be of interest to hear your views on which one you like most…

    Duane Hamann

  14. David commented on October 31st, 2010

    Thank you for explaining an important WEB architecture in such a concise way.

  15. Tim commented on January 2nd, 2011

    Now I understand why websites can have a complex structure with information. Thanks for good explanation.

  16. Josh commented on January 11th, 2011

    Wow, thanks – that was exactly the overview I was looking for. That makes a lot of sense; now I’m starting to comprehend the vendor’s documentation.

  17. Very useful article and well written. I particularly liked the business benefits as this is often overlooked when it some to CMSs.

    I have written an blog post that your readers may also get value from:


  18. The problem Ive always found when implementing CMS on clients websites, is that they typically go crazy with font styling and colours. Seem big bright red font seems to be attractive to clients for some unknown reason.

  19. Should I change my existing web site (1750+ files, 900MB) to a CMS?

    I probably only need some hand-holding and reassuring…

    1. seems like it’s complicated to keep local copies of a web site this large. Our provider dropped us for missed payment.

    2. I have edited hundreds of files to correct global misspellings (à instead of à) using wingrep, then easily uploaded the 200 changed files. Can this be done with CMS? This includes changing tags, when I changed the file structure of the site. Is this possible with a CMS?

    And many more questions such as this. I have been reading the online documentation for days and still can’t figure it out.

    Regarding the existing site: Right now only two people manage the site. Both have admin access to the remote server. Both are semi-skilled in CSS and html. When there is a typo on one page, one of these (volunteers) has to fix it, not the site owner. It was thought that with CMS, the site owner would be able to make such changes. But it seems easier to train a newbie in rudiments of html and in ftp to to introduce him to content, presentation, articles, pages, forms, tags, etc.

    So we would end up with the same two people doing all the work, but it would have to be done through and extra layer of indirection.


    is it really worth it, in this case?

    I would be grateful for any advice, including emails.


24 Trackbacks

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