When most CIOs consider selecting a content management system (CMS) product, the first thing that pops into mind is “Okay, I think the hardest problem I will face will be deciding whether to buy my CMS from Vignette or Documentum…”

Tech leaders will likely be surprised to learn that the actual product choice is the least of their concerns when implementing a CMS.

That’s the startling insight I gleaned when I asked four leading CMS gurus to share their wisdom on the best approach to selecting a CMS.

I posed the following scenario to the experts: “You’re on an elevator, and the CIO standing next to you suddenly turns to you and blurts out a quick question: “I wonder if you could help me out. I’ve been asked to select a CMS for my Fortune 500 company, but there are just too many products to evaluate and too many variables to consider. Can you please tell me what really, really matters in selecting a CMS product?'” I then gave each of the experts 30 seconds in which to frame their response.

From their feedback, you’ll learn why selecting a CMS isn’t just a matter of comparing a product against a long checklist of desired features and benefits, and why it’s surely not just a matter of whether Vignette, BroadVision, or Documentum is better.

Better to have a strong team with a weak product than vice versa
Tony Byrne: The most important thing to keep in mind is that the actual product you select—with some exceptions—is unlikely to make or break your CMS project. So I would encourage the CIO to convert some of the time, energy, and resources she may be putting into product research and due diligence into doing two other very important things:

  • Get to know your own content, authors, processes, and business systems more carefully. What you find may surprise you. Most organizations overlook this key step and end up having to understand their requirements “on the fly.”
  • Conduct careful due diligence on the organizations and people who would be actually implementing the product. This is where 80percent of the time and money get expended and where most CMS projects typically fail or succeed. The moral of the story: A strong integration team with a weak product will always trump a weak integration team with a strong product.

The product has to serve your needs—period
Ashley Friedlein: I’d tell [the CIO] that the most important thing to bear in mind when selecting a CMS product isn’t the product, but your needs—needs that should be clearly understood, articulated, and defined. Needs that are backed by a solid business case, driven by real end-user requirements, and supported at a high level within the organization. You may be looking for a product; however, the product itself is not the thing to keep in mind, but the degree to which it serves your needs.

If she had another 30 seconds, I would also emphasize how important things like internal communications, change management, rollout, and integration are to any successful CMS implementation. So again, in selecting the right CMS, I would worry less about the product and more about the capabilities of the CMS vendor, their partners, and your own internal resources to work together to deliver and integrate the solution. For example, in the case of a vendor, I would recommend looking at their delivery processes, previous track record, partners, and so on.

As you might notice, I’m not a fan of a features-led approach. In most cases that I’ve seen, about 80 percent of the benefits of a CMS—what actually ends up being delivered and used—come from around 20 percent of a typical CMS’s overall functionality and features. Most CMS products now deliver that 20 percent pretty robustly—what that 20 percent is will depend on your needs, of course—so I’m increasingly less interested in the product and more interested in how it would be delivered, rolled out, maintained, evolved, and so on.

Don’t do it on your own
Jason Meugniot: Get help. In my experience, companies that attempt to select a CMS product without assistance or substantial experience in the space will unnecessarily waste money, increase the time-to-launch, and jeopardize their success. I would tell [the CIO] to look for cost-effective consulting [planning] and implementation [development and launch] services. Then I would also tell her to identify capable resources internally and pair them up with seasoned integrators. But most importantly, I would tell her to define her business and technical requirements first. (Editor’s note: For more information, see TechRepublic’s March interview with Jason Meugniot on defining content and technical requirements.)

Know what you need
And while Bob Boiko’s response is much more concise, it’s clearly as insightful as his colleagues’.

Bob Boiko: Go into the selection process knowing exactly what you want to accomplish. Don’t ask the wrong question: What can your product do? Ask the right one: We have this particular need, how does your product address it?

The CMS experts:

Tony Byrne is the founder and managing editor of CMSWatch, an independent source of information and analysis about Web content management. Byrne provides CMS consulting and training to enterprises and government agencies.

Ashley Friedlein is the CEO of an e-consultancy, and author of a best-sellingbook, Web Project Management: Delivering Successful Commercial Web Sites (Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2000).

Jason Meugniot is a managing director and CMS Practice Leaderat Guidance, an application development and systems integration firm based in Marina del Rey, CA. Guidance has helped companies like Foot Locker, The Right Start, and Universal improve the ROI of customer-facing Web initiatives that include content management, commerce, and customer management.

Bob Boiko is president of Metatorial Services Inc, a content managementsolutions consultancy, and author of Content Management Bible (Hungry Minds, 2001).