Thursday, August 17, 2006

The ABCs of Portals vs. Content Management

A brief primer on content management systems and portal platforms; how associations really use them.

What is the difference between a content management system (CMS) and a portal platform? Let's start off with defining what a content management system is.
You can find a variety of definitions for content management systems (CMSs) and portals. In the context of associations, most of these definitions will overlap; hence, so much confusion in the marketplace.

Generally, a content management system (CMS) is focused on the authoring and production of content, but some CMS products are incorporating applications and delivering content as well, which can make them more ”portal-like.” This is especially the case in the open-source world, where the systems often grew out of dynamic page delivery systems or predefined templates and a content database.. A CMS’ primary function is to help manage the process of who authors content (access, rights, workflow). It serves to maintain consistency in look and feel and style standards, while providing an audit trail to maintain content integrity. Finally, a CMS manages the publishing environment in structuring the content for online delivery.

However, because an association web site provides much more interactive elements such as members only, online registration, directories, newsfeeds, dynamic calendars, and other transactional activities, an association CMS must also incorporate these various methods of engagement in a seamless fashion.

A portal generally serves as a framework for a single point of contact (access) to deliver content so it can be consumed, but portal software also typically aggregates content and data from a variety of locations. A portal is also often referred to as a technology as it provides expanded functionality that incorporates many different applications and services.

Perhaps more importantly, association portals are designed to deliver a variety of services as well including search, communities, document management, business intelligence, business process management, e-commerce, self-service, and more. Portals will consist of public and members only areas, and in some cases an association’s Intranet and extranet. In short, an association portal is designed to facilitate the easy delivery of content and applications to specific audience segments or individuals. Originally, portals became associated with a web site that was able to integrate various applications and user experiences. Portals took on more and more process functionality promising to deliver a more coherent information management platform, and a more seamless user experience for users and targeted stakeholders.

The general concept of portals as the single point of access means:
  • Providing staff/users/stakeholders/members with a single point of access to the web and related applications and databases
  • Aggregating association information into a single location
  • Providing staff/users/stakeholders/members with a consistent user experience that crosses different applications, databases, and technologies
  • Tailoring (customizing or personalizing) information to the needs of users/staff/stakeholders/members
  • Reducing (or eliminating) the need for multiple logins
Portals are very different as a single source of access and as a technology.

The first generation of portals was born on the web, a product of the initial Internet boom. Created by major players such as Yahoo and AOL, these promised to deliver a single site that would become the user's home page for the entire WWW.

While a few of these portals still exist (and even prosper), the vast majority of these sites are rapidly headed to extinction. To a large extent, the concept of the “portal” on the web died and has not been resurrected. On the other hand, association web sites continued to evolve during this period, adding more and more functionality and taking on the role as a primary source of information for a profession, trade, or non-profit domain area. As association web sites moved from static sites to more dynamic database-driven capabilities with content management systems (CMSs), they, by necessity, had to incorporate more portal-like functionality. Thus, today we are seeing a convergence of the CMSs and portal platforms. As Web 2.0 continues to evolve with “mash-ups,” a new paradigm of Enterprise Mash up Services (EMS) is beginning to take hold in the portal landscape. More discussion will take place on “mash-ups” later.

Portals all offer the same basic interface design. This consists of:
  • A single “home page” which aggregates all of the information and tools into one location
  • Individual elements within the page (known as “portlets”), each containing a specific piece of information or functionality
  • Some controls allowing portlets to be minimized, resized, or moved (example:
  • A configuration page, allowing users to “personalize” what is displayed on the portal.

Sound familiar? Many association web sites have taken on some of these characteristics. Even more interesting is the impact that Web 2.0 is advancing with new tools and capabilities such as “mash ups” to provide more of these user controls to an individual’s personal web site. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Portals offer the following advantages:
  • Simplify some integration issues
  • Provide single sign-on for common applications such as the web and AMS
  • Support portlets, which offer much functionality
  • Offer a development environment
  • Provide integration standards
  • Allow for more dynamic delivery
  • Provide personalization/customization

One of the major features of portals is support for personalization or customization. These are two related but different concepts, which can be defined as follows:
  1. The personalization capabilities allow individual users/stakeholders to tailor the portal for themselves (such as what information is displayed).
  2. Customization capabilities enable the filtering of information and tools to target identified user groups or roles (such as delivering information to specific geographic areas).
Disadvantages often cited with portals include:
  • Inflexible in design and appearance
  • Default user interface is not usable
  • Users don’t personalize
  • Integration is often only one click deep
  • Development needed for some integration
  • Doesn’t manage content
  • Relies on the quality of source information
  • Can lead projects to be driven by technology

An association web site (online channel) should help to provide context and frames an association’s content. In many cases with added functionality to a content management system, a CMS can provide the functionality of a portal by enabling customization and personalization to support members/users/stakeholders. Other areas of overlap include single sign-on for the CMS and third-party applications. Additionally, a portal or an extended CMS can aggregate content from multiple sources.

How do you determine what you need?

It starts with a technology plan that comprehends the association’s business needs. By defining what the value propositions are for your members, users, and stakeholders, you will then have the foundation for extending what the key deliverables and services are for your stakeholders in an online and/or offline experience. Remember technology is only an enabler. In the digital world, with enough time and money, you can accomplish just about anything at least once. The key is to do it with intelligence, consistency, sustainability, and integrity in the most efficient and effective manner. That part requires an intelligent architecture and business savvy in designing your technology and business platform. Remember the technology industry is still evolving and the web is also still immature.

What are the types of requirements for an association web site?

In the context of Fusion’s Value/Strategy/Structure model, the process starts with defining who the key stakeholders are. Whether they are members, users, public, Congress, or others, each of the key constituent groups will have unique value propositions and expectations that need to be addressed. Defining what the stakeholder profiles are and what your association will deliver for them as expectations are the core elements of your association’s web or online business plan. The specific strategies regarding content and applications, as well as your policies, standards, and procedures, are critical components of the web or online business plan. Additionally, you will then define the governance, content and delivery, processing, and technical requirements to support the business needs.

For example, if personalization and customization are core components of your association’s value proposition, then more details will be required to define your content and delivery strategies. These would include:
  • Information architecture
  • Usability testing
  • Taxonomy and ontological concerns (
  • Content migration
  • Online web chunking
  • Look and feel
  • Content rights and privileges
  • Content schedules and archiving
Generally, within the CMS, you will also need to identify these key requirements:
  • Web site management roles and responsibilities
  • Internal association web content contributors and authors
  • Web editor roles
  • Web publishing and quality control roles
  • External roles and privileges
  • Search requirements and management
  • Publishing timelines and schedules
  • Reporting and tracking requirements
Finally, you will need to address the structure element of Value/Strategy/Structure model. Here you will need to look at these critical elements:
  • Web operating system – In what scripting language is the site developed? How can XML or SOAP interfaces be incorporated, if it can?
  • Association management system interfaces – What interfaces are available?
  • Customization and personalization rules engines – Where will the management and programming logic for them take place – in the CMS? the AMS? or separate application?
  • Databases – Running MS SQL, MySQL, Oracle, etc.
  • Portal or CMS application
  • Application integration – What should the basis be for single sign-on be?
Carefully evaluate technology options

Regardless of the earlier hype, portals are not automatically a “better” option than CMS technologies, and associations are not required to implement portals simply to remain sustainable.

Once business needs are known, the next step is to evaluate a range of technology options to identify which will provide the best solution.

This may involve exploring web content management systems (CMSs), document management systems (DMSs), portals, CMS elements of an AMS, or even in-house custom-developed application solutions.

Clear business requirements should be documented, and these used to evaluate the products under consideration. This ensures that all aspects are reviewed, including how information is presented, how the site is managed, and how the technology issues will be addressed.

Maximize flexibility

Efforts should be made to avoid being locked into a rigid design for the association web site, or limitations on how the software can be integrated with other systems. The key is having the right architecture. (See DigitalNow e.comm.unity framework.) The web project will only deliver benefits if it remains possible to design a solution that closely supports the integration elements of the Value/Strategy/Structure framework.

A number of practical steps can be taken to ensure that flexibility is maximized:
  • Specifying product (and interface) flexibility as selection criteria when evaluating potential portal or CMS products
  • Ensuring that the project scope and guidelines allow for customization of the portal interface.
  • Allocating sufficient time during the project for the interface design and usability testing work
  • Allocating time and resources post initial go-live for further refinement and enhancement
  • Ensuring time and resources are allocated to customization
Allocate funds to development

Integration does not happen easily, and yet it is one of the main goals of most portal or CMS projects. Funding should, therefore, be allocated to support sufficient customization and development to deliver a solution that is in alignment with the Value/Strategy/Structure model.

Associations that have run highly successful portal/CMS projects recognized that the key functionality is that which targets the unique challenges and needs within the organization and more importantly in delivering the value propositions to its members. By funding customization and development of the portal/CMS, the site delivered can be both usable and useful.

Of course, this development must be project planned in detail, following standard practices of initially capturing requirements, developing prototypes, and then usability testing designs. (See below.)

Conduct usability testing

Usability testing should be conducted on the portal/CMS, to ensure that staff and members can easily complete common tasks.

This should be done as early as possible in the project, potentially even on paper prototypes or partially- working designs. This allows the usability testing to guide the ongoing development of the project, and avoids issues being identified too late in the project to be resolved.

The application of usability testing as part of the project will undoubtedly identify a range of issues that may impact on staff uptake and usage of the portal/CMS. These can then be corrected before the initial go-live of the software.

Don't forget search and findability

Often the focus is on getting existing content into the CMS/portal. Complete the templates and get the applications up. Then the last item is to add search functionality. While search can be applied using brute force by searching using full-text capabilities, most users today are either under whelmed or overwhelmed with the information that is returned. The issue is that users do not know what they don't know. Information has multi dimensions that can not be just described in a text string. The use of meta data to describe information by providing keywords, thesaurus, and other descriptors will enable more accurate searches and provides the bases for expanded methods of find ability. Somewhere in your work plans, you need to look at search as a full fledge application that requires detailed planning and assessment to truly deliver value to users and stakeholders.

Finally, you will need to address what the right solution for your association is. Can our association management software which may or may not have elements of self-service web publishing satisfy our online requirements? Generally, not unless there is limited non-database content that you are delivering in your online value proposition. The next question becomes, “Do we need a lightweight CMS or lightweight portal to supplement our AMS?” There are a number of open source CMS systems and lightweight commercial CMSs or advanced editors. If your needs extend beyond the capabilities of your AMS' self-service publishing for more HTML editing and some minor template systems, then a lightweight CMS or portal may be all that you need in the short term. However, if you have multiple sources of content such as:
  • Third-party journal publishers
  • Third-party application providers such as event registration or job banks
  • Third-party forum for collaboration such as a community of practice
  • Maintain body of knowledge that continues to expand online
Then a commercial grade CMS or portal should be considered.

Keep in mind the long term

In your current situation, you may be able to work within the capacity of your AMS or lightweight CMS. However, over time as you continue to refine your value proposition or as inevitably your members’ expectations for content and value add continues to rise, you will need to provide the capacity that a CMS or portal brings.

Most of the commercial CMSs and portals in the mid-tier and high-end of the lower tier in price points have been in the marketplace for several years. Some CMSs are in their 5th to 10th generations. For the most part, association management system vendors are only now or recently introduced an “n-tier” Internet based platform providing for the core functionality of the association management system for membership, events, publications, professional development, fundraising, etc. The addition of e-commerce and CMSs are areas that are provided to complete an AMS or providing deep functionality in these areas have not been a traditional domain expertise for AMS vendors. While some AMS vendors will integrate with a CMS more easily than others, an AMS, CMS and portals are unique domains of functionality that require experience and thoughtfulness. Integration between the systems is the key.

In summary, keep in mind the long view. With the advent of Web 2.0 where ubiquitous computing will be make applications and data more accessible, focus attention on the stakeholders/users/members and concentrate on delivering each of their unique value propositions. Define each of the key segments and prioritize; and make sure that you have an architecture that allows for growth and collaboration.

There is a clear need to deliver better information management solutions for users and for the business as a whole. The existing mess of overlapping (or even competing) information systems with most organizations must be addressed and resolved.

Enterprise portals may be able to assist with resolving these issues. Just like any technology, if they are to succeed. However, organizations must be fully aware of both their strengths and weaknesses.

Most importantly, these projects must be driven by clear staff and organizational needs, as well as a clear vision of the user experience that must be delivered.

When driven solely by IT considerations, portal projects will fail. They do not offer a “silver bullet,” nor will they eliminate the need to better manage the underlying information.

By taking a business-focused and user-centric approach to your online projects, associations can take valuable steps toward the goal of creating value and points of differences in supporting your members and stakeholders

Sample of Content Management Systems and Enterprise Portal platforms

More than 1,000 software products purport to manage web content. These are some of the ones that are being used by associations today.

Large-scale Enterprise and upper tier CMS platforms: $100 -$250k+
Interwoven - TeamSite
Stellent - Stellent Content Management Suite
Vignette - V7 Content Management Suite
Documentum (EMC) - Documentum Web Publisher
FatWire - Content Server
Percussion - Rhythmyx
Open Text - Livelink Web Content Management Server
IBM - Workplace WCM

These packages target mid-market enterprise organizations. They typically carry $30/$40K -$100k licensing fees, and usually trade off ease-of-implementation for fewer integration facilities.

RedDot (Hummingbird) - RedDot CMS
PaperThin - CommonSpot Content Server
Microsoft - Content Management Server

Although lower priced (typically $7k to $40k), these packages begin to offer customization opportunities and XML support.

Ektron - CMS400.NET
Refresh Software - SiteRefresh
Tenth Floor LLC - All BASE-10

These products target relatively straightforward Web CMS requirements, start at $500

Macromedia - Web Publishing System -Contribute

Open Source
The packages are available under open-source licensing terms and frequently bundle portal and community functions with the CMS.

eZ Systems - eZ publish
Zope - Content Management Framework (CMF)
Plone - Plone CMS 2.1
OpenCms - OpenCms

Enterprise Portal products and services

BEA - WebLogic Portal
Sun - Sun Java System Portal Server
BEA - AquaLogic User Interaction (Plumtree G6)
Oracle - Oracle Portal
Oracle - PeopleSoft Enterprise Portal
Microsoft - SharePoint Portal Server
SAP - SAP Enterprise Portal
IBM - WebSphere Portal Server
Computer Associates - CleverPath Portal
ATG - ATG Portal
Vignette - Vignette Portal
Broadvision - Broadvision Portal

Major Open-Source Portals

JBoss - JBoss Portal
Liferay - Liferay Portal
Plone - Plone
Apache Project - Jetspeed 2 Enterprise Portal


At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Patty Seybold said...

Hey Don,
This is a great overview of customer portal/content management issues and criteria to think about. I particularly like your emphasis on search and findability -- something we've been preaching for quite a while.

Your members might be interested in this free tool:
Evaluation Framework for Customer Portals,

Patty Seybold

At 1:48 AM, Blogger Sammy said...

Superb stuff!!!


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