A CMS by any other name...

“We need a CMS…and a portal too, I think.” When it comes to deciding on the right kind of management system for your website and its content, there are a few options that are usually the first to be considered: Content Management Systems (CMS), Document Management Systems (DMS) and Portals.
Customers can be forgiven for all the confusion that is caused by the ever-increasing blurring of the lines between these solutions. After all, they all involve “managing content” in one form or another. And given all the hybridization of products, industry consolidation and marketing slants, there are literally hundreds of offerings available in all feature shapes and financial sizes.

Although there seem to be subtle differences between solutions, once you look at the issues that each system is designed to address, distinctions begin to emerge.

Content Management Systems (CMS)

CMSs are used for managing what actually appears on your website—what, when, where, how and by whom. A CMS is designed to allow non-technical staff with little or no programming skill to easily and quickly publish content to a website. Content is normally defined outside of the system (e.g. an HR policy or a news item) and the CMS is used to define the presentation of the content on the website. CMSs usually provide a range of features, including the capability to:
  • define workflows and approvals
  • archive old content
  • immediately publish directly to the site
  • contribute content directly into the CMS
  • define when content appears on the site
  • populate a database of all information on the site (i.e. a content repository or inventory)
  • facilitate site search functions, navigation and a site map
  • enforce site policy, standards, structure and design
  • automatically index and meta tag content with keywords

Real Life Example

A health care organization recently approached Prescient to evaluate their intranet to determine how to improve and evolve it. The site administrator was dealing with manually tracking hundreds of web pages, all created individually, without any site inventory log of what had been published to date. The effort required to stay on top of managing page layouts and design, updating navigation, and checking cross-links was onerous. The client had hit a proverbial brick wall in terms of what they could continue to manage manually.

There was plenty of content that staff could access, but most of that content (in the form of policies and procedures) was created well before the intranet existed. After an extensive evaluation and the formulation of a plan addressing numerous recommendations, it was recommended that the client select a CMS to manage the content, process and people connected to the intranet.

There is a department within this health care organization which is entirely devoted to managing thousands of health care policies and procedures. During the business case evaluation for installing a website CMS, this department’s requirements revealed the need for a different kind of system—one dedicated to managing all their documents.

Document Management Systems (DMS)

Enterprise Document Management Systems provide users with an environment that specifically facilitates what is traditionally viewed as “desktop” or “office” documents and provide features such as:
  • collaborative document creation
  • authoring tools (combining text, images, audio, video)
  • check out/in documents (versioning)
  • document editing and approvals (workflow)
  • industry compliance
  • application enablement and media delivery (e.g. feeding into a CRM, ERP or website CMS; transport to print, CD-ROM, wireless devices)
  • release and access control (security)
  • consolidation, organization and repository functions
At the previously mentioned health care organization, a majority of intranet content consists of links to policy documents. Features like collaborative editing, versioning and access control for maintenance all sound like the same features that a CMS offers. But the difference is that a DMS deals with content that intrinsically has nothing to do with being on a website (or at least isn’t limited to web presentation).

Or you could look at it this way: a DMS helps formulate the content that would be managed on a website via a CMS.


Online portals are normally considered a hub or a centralized information access point for activities and allow for the presentation of a consolidated view of data from various sources.

Portal system features can also be viewed as “managing content”, but what differentiates them from a CMS is the facilitation of access (integration) to information from various applications, data sources and structures, and back-end systems. Users select from a list of pre-defined site components (sometimes called “gadgets” or “portlets”) and manage the layout and presentation of this information in a page location of their choosing. They can add selected application interfaces, real-time data dashboards, reporting functions, and personalize how their page looks.

The selection and personalization of the page by a user is normally done on-the-fly without the need to formally log into any system. There’s no direct content contribution, nor is there any associated workflow for the end user. Every component of information available to the user on a portal has already been produced from somewhere in the organization. So the content that is managed in a portal is done so at a more “macro” level than it would be from within a CMS.

Corporate portals are a natural evolution of a well-defined and mature intranet. Instead of only providing links to other pages or documents, users are provided with a greater degree of control over their own website experience. Usually, a CMS is deployed to efficiently manage web-published content. After a website has grown and stabilized, portal functionality is then designed to extend the user experience.

Another Real Life Example

During an evaluation of CMS solutions that Prescient was facilitating on behalf of a client, one vendor demonstrated what amounted to a portal solution. Prescient had helped guide this client through a detailed business requirements and needs assessment process, and everyone agreed that what in fact was needed was a CMS—no more, no less. The vendor had presented a solution which they felt would address the customer’s future needs, but the client was not ready to make a leap beyond their immediate and pressing concerns: managing their internal communications more efficiently.

Both Prescient and the client decided that a CMS would first allow them to better manage and control the presentation of content on a redesigned intranet. The implementation of portal functionality was put off to a future date when the re-launched intranet would be mature and stable.


A lot of systems offer similar content management features. An example of a content item’s life cycle could be illustrated like this:
  1. Department collaboratively creates a policy document using a DMS.
  2. Webmaster publishes a link to the document on a website using a CMS.
  3. Site user personalizes a web page with content links from multiple sources or applications with portal functionality.

So if your organization finds itself trying to sort out marketing jargon, flashy vendor demos, subtle differences in solution features and a laundry list of flimsy requirements, it pays to take the time to examine your own needs and map them to the kind of solution that fits your organization. Remember that it’s the context and environment in which information is created, presented, managed and consumed, as well as how technical requirements and business needs are addressed, that distinguishes the systems for “managing content”

To engage Prescient for help in selecting the best CMS for your organization, please see our CMS Blueprint service or contact us directlly.

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.