The IDC projected in a 2020 report that enterprise data will grow at a 42.2% annual rate over the next two years.

Enterprises have many software systems that manage this data. Two of them that often intersect are document management systems (DMS) and content management systems (CMS). Your enterprise’s greatest needs will naturally determine the type of system it invests in to manage documents and content, and it’s important to recognize some key differences between these two systems.

“Organizations that are researching options should be driven by the type of challenge they are trying to address and secondly focus on technologies to address these challenges,” said Edwin Elmendorp, information architect with Kinsmen Group. “If the core challenge is around the long-term preservation of electronic files, some form of a DMS would be a likely candidate. On the other hand, if the content is more fluid, typically presented on the web, then a CMS is the more likely candidate.”

What Is a Document Management System (DMS)?

Document management systems capture, store and retain documents and include functions such as document intake, drafting, generation templates, versioning, collaboration, security, metadata, access rights, approvals, distribution, search, repository organization, archiving and retention policy management, along with reporting and auditing on these functions.

Some of the more advanced capabilities in a Document Management System can include object linking, workflow, external sharing, auditing, record retention capabilities, co-authoring and more. Your IT team, information management champions and those tasked with storing and managing sensitive business information will be the owners of such systems.

“In reviewing different DMS systems, your industry and the context of its use are extremely important,” Elmendorp said. “For example, in highly regulated industries such as pharmaceutical, specialized systems such as Accruent Meridian will support regulatory compliance such as 21 CFR Part 11 from the FDA — where such a system would be too complicated for a small consultancy firm.”

In short, a DMS is used for collaborative or transactional purposes. It captures digital documents but can also be used to store paper documents.

“These systems may involve transactional processes where the paper documents drive, or are secondary, to a business process — accounts receivables, payables, permitting, etc.,” said John Phelan, EVP, chief product officer at Hyland, which offers such software. “But, (a DMS) is often more suited toward collaboration and retention. An example here could be SharePoint or more broadly Office 365.”

Related Article: How Document Management and Content Management Differ

What Is a Content Management System (CMS)?

With a Content Management System (CMS), you're likely not thinking of SharePoint, but it's possible. A CMS, commonly offered by vendors like Adobe, Sitecore and Episerver, helps brands store, manage, personalize and publish content in digital formats such as websites and other digital media. These are also called Web Content Management (WCM) systems and have been said to be the digital centerpiece of a company’s digital experience management software. 

However, analysts and those charged with producing digital customer experiences are lately seeing a CMS as one of the digital components among a wide range of software that manages customer experiences — alongside systems like digital asset management, customer data platforms, ecommerce, social media management and listening, marketing automation and CRM, along with others. Many vendors call the amalgamation of such technologies digital experience platforms.

Content management systems offer control over storage, access and distribution of key content asset pieces like logos, videos, audio file and documents.

“I first heard the term content management with people talking about what we now call Web Content Management,” Phelan said. “It was a time in our industry where the born digital information was meeting the born physical information. Since that time the term has morphed into what we see today. Content Management Systems are similar to a document management system but are more inclusive of other types of content including audio, video and other born digital formats, like XML, HTML and JSON as examples.”

Related Article: DXP? Web CMS? Content Services Platform? Navigating the Chaos of Vendor Categories

Key Differences Between CMS and DMS

CMSWire author Sergey Golubenko noted some key differences when the two software systems are matched together:

Types of Data

  • DMS: manages structured data and is focused on documents in the traditional sense in such formats as Word, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.
  • CMS: handles both structured data and unstructured data, such as web content (HTML and PDF files) and digital assets (images and audio and video files).

Key Purposes

  • DMS: regulatory compliance and workflow management.
  • CMS: storage, retrieval and publishing of content.

Bonus Features

  • DMS: advanced imaging and scanning capabilities, such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Handprint Character Recognition (HCR), Optical Mark Recognition (OMR).
  • CMS: headless content management, VR, AR, providing experiences in digital arenas as kiosks, personalization.


  • DMS: Enterprise systems (such as Enterprise Resource Planning and Customer Relationship Management tools).
  • CMS: Digital Asset Management, marketing automation, ecommerce.

“The differences between document and content management systems are nuanced and depend on the scale to which you are using them,” Phelan said.

Where a DMS excels is at the preservation and organization of company documents (records), a CMS is often focused at content presented at websites, which is not specifically locked in individual documents, according to Elmendorp. A good example, he said, is the difference between a contract and a company web page. Where the contract has legally binding consequences and becomes a static record upon agreement, the company webpage is constantly changing with new content authored by many different individuals. “Where a DMS can help a company to track the contract from cradle to grave,” Elmendorp said, “the CMS offers web-based tools to collaboratively edit and maintain content.”

Learning Opportunities

Evolution of Content Services Platform

Although this article is focusing on the differences between Document Management Systems and Content Management Systems, it’s worth noting the rise of Content Services Platforms over the last five years.

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is "a set of services and microservices, embodied either as an integrated product suite or as separate applications that share common APIs and repositories, to exploit diverse content types, and serve multiple constituencies and numerous use cases across an organization,” according to Gartner.

Although the term ECM may still be used by some, Gartner changed those systems in its reporting in 2016 to “Content Services Platforms,” citing a shift “from self-contained systems and repositories to open services.”

Content Services Platforms are for enterprise information management leaders and used for international content management, and not usually for external digital customer experiences (like a CMS does). “The industry has primarily settled on content services to describe the set of functionality required to manage the lifecycle of documents,” Phelan said. “Content services has replaced the term ECM to reflect the changes brought about by cloud technologies.”

Related Article: The Advantages of Putting Content Services Platforms in the Cloud

Is ECM Still Kicking?

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is not entirely dead as a term despite the Gartner name-change. It has a broader scope and has the ability to manage content and documents across the whole lifecycle of that content, according to Elmendorp. A CMS can be a part of an ECM, but also stand-alone systems.

“More important than the products or categories purchased are a customers’ plans and purposes for use and the ongoing commitment to use the capabilities that those purposes require,” said Mason White, vice president of product management for Conga, which provides document management capabilities. “When implemented and used well they become systems of control, coordination and leverage. When not used well they are candidates to become digital content compost heaps.”

Where BPM, EFSS and CCM Fit In

For most of the 2000s and part of the 2010s, ECM, Phelan noted, became the standard term and encompassed all document and content-related technologies available. In the same timespan, technologies focused on automating business processes emerged as business process management (BPM), a market focused on intelligent data capture. Optical character recognition also emerged.

“Through vendor consolidation and other market shifts both eventually became incorporated into the commonly understood definition of ECM,” Phelan said. “Over recent years, with the emergence of cloud technologies even more related technology markets appeared, the discipline of handling data-centric scenarios emerged under the term Case Management.”

Then came multi-repository search tools known as Enterprise Search. Then video storage (multimedia), cloud-based sharing and collaboration (Electronic File Sync and Share or EFSS), Customer Communications Management (CCM) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

On a similar technology traject, Content Management Systems has morphed into Digital Experience Platforms for some. And there is some banter in the digital customer experience/digital marketing software industry of this vendor market merging into "Content Hubs."

“Due to the relationship all these technologies have with the discipline of content management, the term ECM became outdated and limiting,” Phelan said. “Gartner coined the term Content Services in the past few years as a way to articulate the combined value of all these capabilities under one technology umbrella. Content Services is the current term which best encompasses all of these technologies today. What will the next term be as additional technologies such as AI and blockchain enter the fray? Only time will tell.”