cms turns 21
Is WCM mature enough to be handed the proverbial keys to the car? PHOTO: Siobhan Fagan

This year marks the 21st birthday of Web Content Management (WCM). In the US, 21 represents the legal drinking age. 

Personally, I cannot believe WCM is old enough to be granted that privilege, but every adult who witnesses a birth has the same feeling about every coming-of-age.

Should we be more forgiving? WCM, simply Content Management to most readers, has undergone a lot of false starts, direction changes and a shifting reality of what we want WCM to be now that it is all grown-up. Is WCM even mature enough to be handed the proverbial keys to the car?

The Early Content Management Years

I remember the first web pages I created. Everything was done in Notepad and uploaded to the server via FTP. To separate the main body of the page from the headers and menus, I created JavaScript to import standard content sections. 

I didn’t know it at the time but I was creating a form of structured content. It must have been the database part of my brain.

Eventually, the concept of a WCM became widespread and started to be used in organizations everywhere. Most of the management was centered around pages and the goal for every site was to create something memorable and cool.

And a memorable time it was.

It seemed only natural that as WCM was approaching school age that the concept of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) took shape and brought WCM under its umbrella. 

We didn’t realize at the time but this was a mistake.

Learning from the Past

The first inkling of a problem came as WCM entered its teen years. 

The term Web 2.0 started to gain popularity as our relationships with websites evolved. The web was moving from a collection of static engines, akin to a gigantic encyclopedia, to a dynamic environment where people directly interacted on the websites.

The days of a dumb web server were over. There was no time for processes that sent visitor content back to the repository server in order to have that content republished after approval. Interactions had to happen instantaneously and at scale. Things had to happen without human involvement. Discussions of capturing all information as a record or timely snapshot faded into the background as the clamor grew louder to keep things shiny, new and fast.

Agile became a defining characteristic of successful organizations.

Enter the next generation of WCM applications. They ran on the web server and switched from simply managing content to managing the entire website. Imported content was repackaged for optimal storage and display. The WCM system of yore faded away and was replaced by WCM acting as a website management system.

Rebounding from an Overcorrection

Today we are seeing a pushback from that basic architecture. Content is no longer simply being pushed to the website. Mobile apps and responsive designs are forcing us to reconsider content's close ties to the web delivery mechanism. The rise of headless CMS and investment in structured content is the result.

Is this the final stage in the evolution of WCM? 

Based on the history of WCM and my own experiences from my 20s, I think I can safely say no. However, we are seeing a more mature approach to WCM. The management of content, once again, is being moved outside of the front-end web server. 

This approach separates the rapid changes in delivery mechanisms from the content which supports our organization’s mission.

WCM Takes the Wheel

Is WCM equal to the responsibility that comes with being granted unfettered access to an intoxicant best known for impairing decision making? My gut says no. 

It seems only yesterday we were willing to finally let WCM, and content, drive the mission forward. Left to its own devices, who knows what will happen.

Of course, my opinion is secondary. Like any student getting around age restrictions, WCM is out there, structuring content and supporting multiple platforms. All we are really waiting on is widespread understanding that this, or some other upcoming approach, is the way it should be.

The 20s should be fun to watch.