The perennial “what is a CMS” debate broke out this week, with a fairly innocuous tweet from Dirk Shaw, “I am sorry but wordpress is hardly a web content management system.” that many of our CMS community waded into and included this post on CMS Myth arguing in favour and just about everyone arguing against… and crikey I might  not be standing next to my on-line friends on this – now Dirk knows what he’s talking about, as a Vignette alumnus and blogger, maybe the key to the phrase he used is the word ‘hardly’ – could I suggest we should say ‘barely”?

Now I agree we need to draw the line somewhere, you describe ‘content’ and ‘management’ loose enough and suddenly every RDBMS could consider itself a CMS – especially if your pet part time geek has slapped a PHP front end that adds rows – I quite like this from Robert Rose, in his post – Why every CMS fails:

Wikipedia defines content management as “a collection of procedures used to manage workflow in a collaborative environment.” Put simply, a CMS is a process meant to grease the workflow skids for managing web content. It doesn’t matter if it is a million dollar software tool or some dude named Sergei FTPing files from Dreamweaver, every organization that updates a website has a CMS.

I am going to skate over the academic discussion over what we ought to consider a Content Management System to be, by hiding behind the excuse of brevity and not having the room here or to presume that you the reader has the time to indulge me.

I am just going to say that I am not sure that we can define it, it’s the market that decides and there’s a lot of stuff out there packaged up with the CMS label. Perhaps we even run the risk of saying there is everything labelled CMS (good, bad and ugly) and there is WordPress. My concern here is the if we get snooty about what constitutes a CMS – we could be missing something or failing the folks that are confused by this software space.

WordPress is a specialised CMS (or WCM). But blogging platforms (or might I add wikis) are just CM systems, simple ones – with specialist fancy user interfaces and web applications, that have carved their own CMS niche in all the excitement about Web 2.0 – are they not?

I think perhaps our industry needs to take a look at why people are reaching for these tools instead of “traditional” CMS products. It’s not just because they are free, plenty of open source alternatives around – it’s about the ease of adoption, perhaps the very lack of governance, the basic ease at which you can just get publishing? Maybe these are requirements we need to be listening to as an industry – rather than try to exclude them from the club.

Folks suggest that WordPress is not a CMS because you can’t create content types, that it doesn’t have a multi role approval process or whatever – but if I only require a single content type (or a page based CMS) and you only have a couple of excellent trusted authors – maybe it fits the requirements?

It also doesn’t have in-context editing or multi-site functionality, but then neither do plenty of commercial and open source established CMS products – so where do we draw the line? (Nice conversation happening now about Drupal vs WordPress going on Twitter as I write this – being driven Jon Marks).

There’s a law when CMS folks are having a discussion, that it will come to a car analogy (what is it with CMS folks and cars?) and in this case Scott Liewehr did this – by comparing WordPress with a scooter. But, I’d like to think of as a car – the Tata Nano. I believe that the Tata Nano is the words cheapest and (arguably) the most basic new car on sale today.

If you are a family in India, used to loading your family precariously onto a moped the Tata Nano is a revelation, access to a new freedom in transportation – although a Tata Nano won’t meet a rural farmers requirement to get a lamb to the end of a muddy lane and it certainly won’t meet McLaren’s requirements to have the Mercedes and Vodafone logos dancing on the top step after a formula 1 weekend. But, it’s still a car.

These analogies often don’t really work very well, as we don’t buy cars for the same reason as we buy software, but if I may try to extend it – there are governing bodies that defines what is a car, a van, or a truck.

I guess in software, that’s what analysts are for? In any case, without that trying to hold back the tide of content management systems that don’t meet this or that ideal for a CMS has a whiff of Canute about it – there are so many of them and who can tell them whether they call their offering a CMS or not.

Maybe a cheese analogy would be better here, if I want to produce English Stilton, some nice man, probably in the EU needs to approve, telling me and my market that my product is Stilton. In the absence of this (or the crowning of a benevolent CMS dictator) – it’s beholden on CMS practitioners to educate the market, to understand, own and define their requirements and understand what it really takes to meet them.

You could argue that blogging platforms, in the same way as the Tata Nano will revolutionize access to transportation in India, have revolutionised people’s access to being published, prepared a generation of new authors to contribute content – that I have referred to as democratized content authoring.

They have also prepared folks for consuming a new kind of content, informal stuff that comes from knowledgeable folks – rather than what sales and marketing say in their (I should say ‘our’, as I am one of them) business speak, jargon littered ‘on message’ sales messaging. This is an opportunity for anyone driving a web content management (or dare I say engagement) project today – I maintain that it’s ongoing success will rely on fresh new content and those contributors.

I’ve digressed, I’m supposed to be talking about tools and we’ve seen what a CMS means change hugely over the last 10 years, from an IT enabling rag bag toolkit of API’s and you build on yourself over a painfully expensive year long project – to an expectation of business user driven, easy to install and implement tools that deliver value in weeks.

I’ve talked here about how the titans of our industry got distracted by ECM, while a vibrant community of new vendors delivered what the web content management systems that actually everyone wanted.

Lets’s not do the same thing here, with CMS – sure WordPress is barely a CMS – implementing it for a decent sized site could catapult you back into the dark ages of web content management, like I imagine that jumping from your Prius into a Nano would be. You’ll also get very expensively stuck if you try and adapt your Nano to do the job of a Land Rover or the McLaren MP4-25.

– But it’s teaching us lessons on what the people want and we should respond and welcome it into the club..