quoth the raven, nevermore
For the first time since the millennia, both web and enterprise content management systems are setting the same course PHOTO: Tyler Quiring

Over the past year, we've witnessed a push to using headless CMSs. 

While the concept is far from new, the interest reflects a growing recognition that managing content for multiple channels is hard to do well while also managing those disparate channels. 

Meanwhile, in the enterprise space, there's growing recognition that the old ECM deployment models have failed and leveraging content services is a better approach for managing enterprise content. 

For the first time since the turn of the millennia, web and enterprise content systems are setting the same course.

The Underlying Problem with CMS

What's driving this two-pronged change is the realization that now more than ever — content matters. Enterprise content management (ECM) emerged as a way of combining the different content applications, including web content management (WCM), into a single platform. The logic being that as content was a core resource, businesses should manage it under the same roof.

Right concept, wrong solution.

Content management was not separated from the applications using the content. This resulted in generic user interfaces (UI), which led to horrible user experiences (UX). Over time, vendors became either strictly ECM or WCM. Some ECM vendors, like Oracle, would periodically acquire a more modern WCM to help its broader ECM strategy. Many decided to just form partnerships when necessary or push support for standards like Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS).

While the distinction between ECM or WCM has benefitted customers, the underlying problem remained. Content often serves multiple purposes. In addition, content needs to appear in different contexts based on the requirements of the consumer.

In the WCM world, content management became less about the format and more about the text as every channel required different styling. In ECM, a contract is important for sales and delivery. In both instances, different people need to interact with the content in different application contexts.

Removing the Application From the Equation 

Decades ago, the techies of the world decided that managing data was distinct from building a user interface. Databases became stand-alone applications and the industry developed standards which allowed business solutions to leverage the database capabilities without creating the underlying system. 

Every CMS today leverages a database to store its data. Most of that data is metadata that describes the content being managed by the system. 

Isn’t it time we take that same approach with content?

When you look at the push to headless CMS, you see a system designed to capture the structure of content used for web content. Given the plethora of channels the content may be directed, it would be more accurate to call this content "communication content" rather than the traditional "web content."

The advent of content services in the ECM space acknowledges that people do not want to use a single massive platform with a collection of customized UIs. While such solutions technically meet most requirements, they forget the basic requirement for a positive UX that encourages use and adoption.

Which brings us to now. In both ECM and WCM worlds, systems are splitting between solutions which solve the business problem at hand and those that manage content for those solutions behind the scenes. 

Will this reunite these long lost friends in a marriage of the two content repository styles?

Two Parts Greater Than the Whole

The short answer is no. We need to maintain the division of systems which began when WCM spun out of the ECM world. 

In the web, marketing and communications world, structured content in a headless system focusses on the words and their logical structure. A content entity, such as a conference talk, may have several pieces of content associated with it (title, summary, description, etc.) that is only formatted for display once the publishing solution pulls the content into a page, app or post.

Enterprise content is more complicated. The content format (PDF, Word, etc.) is a defining characteristic of the content. Content is only meant to be viewed inside its proscribed format. 

People may create different renditions, but the reader's visual interpretation needs to remain the same. This is more than a luddite reaction to advancing technology. It recognizes the broader context this content serves, in the form of deliverables, documented discussions, contracts and other items which must be captured at a point-in-time for reference and sometimes more formally as a record.

The underlying requirements, while similar, are different enough to warrant specialized systems. 

WCM will always focus on managing structures and the relationships of the entities, with the need for strong authoring environments acting as a differentiating factor long-term. ECM will always look for ways to store blobs. Auditing and internal security will always be more critical for ECM. 

What Comes Next for CMS?

A few points to keep in mind: First, don’t try to combine enterprise or communication content into a single CMS. If a solution requires both types of content, consider having the solution consume content from the repositories designed specifically for that content.

Second, start thinking about the worlds of WCM and ECM in a new way. What's the best underlying CMS to effectively manage the content models and desired business rules? Just as database designers implement triggers and foreign keys, content modelers create relationships and automated business rules.

And finally, remember that at the end of the day, the goal is to solve business problems. Find the right solution for your business that delivers a strong UX. Do that and you'll be two steps ahead of the competition. Moving towards a headless CMS and providing content through content services allows for greater investment in the UX, without disturbing how content is managed.

And yes, I did just mix the headless and content services trend terminology into a single solution — because the drivers are the same. Business solutions are evolving at a rapid pace, while the backend CMS features remain more static.

It is time to divide them and conquer content applications once and for all.