Version control has been and is being used by 1000's of companies to manage their software design. Software programmers check out files from a server to their local client. They can then, make changes and update or check the files back into the server at any time, as long as the connection between the client and the server is available. The version control software keeps the change history. Version control is often used by the documentation department of small companies to track the changes in documents. So why would anyone need a Content Management System (CMS) to look after their documentation? I believe now that CMS tools are becoming more available and cost effective this questions is being seriously asked but the habits of the past are making it hard for us to justify the cost of the change.
In the 60's and earlier technical writing was a very narrow field, comprised mostly of defense and aerospace documentation content writers. It wasn't until the age of the personal digital computer and the explosion of software applications that the technical writer became an invaluable person in the design, distribution, and marketing of these new products. Before this age documents were paper based, stored in boxes. Design history was a function of process and procedure, tracked by a paper-driven system. Even as late as eleven years ago I can remember clearly the physical effort involved in updating a procedure or manual. It required:
- many trips to the active and archived document filing system
- the walking around of drafts for sign-off
- walking around beta for testing
- filing drafts
- archiving current documents to a physically different filing cabinet located in a different room
- holding a release meeting to have the traveler signed off by all officials
- filling the final released document to the active document location.
The process itself is not unlike what is used today, but we did not even have internal email so every question, response, check, and issue had to be physically walked from person to person.
As computer memory increased and word processing applications became more accessible the ability to store documents electronically became more feasible, but the systems that were available to the average company where for tracking the history of code changes. Using version control to track document changes was really a stop-gap solution with no alternative.
And again I ask, "what is the value of a CMS to a company?"
Content is not code. Software code is written for a specific function, used in a specific location, in response to a specific action or inaction of the hardware, user interface, or the software itself. Content is the description of a concept or procedure that can be used in multiple ways to define a product or company. The design of software code cannot be changed without a consequence to the quality of the product. The content can be written in multiple ways to mean the same thing or sometimes written exactly the same to mean something completely different. The consequence of changing content may or may not affect the quality of a product. At best it is merely inconsistent.
Kevin Ballard of L-3 Communications says, "CMS allows authors to maintain unique names" as well as "maintain the [relationship of] links" between document files. I believe he is right and here is why. As the volume of the content increases, the location of specific wording becomes impossible to track and remember. Content reuse is only possible if the relationship between the new document and the current content is known.
In a version control system files are checked in to a files system designed to store code. The file is checked out to any location on a clients computer. In a CMS system the relationship of file system is maintained when files are checked out. This means that when ditamaps are created for XML files or images used in marketing are imported into a user manual, the relationship is the same on the authors computer as it is when it is checked in. The knowledge of where a file is stored is related to the file it is linked to, not the absolute file location.
Files saved to a version control system use specialized naming structures to meet coding standards. This nomenclature often makes it difficult to determine the actual content or purpose of the document.
Another very important functions of a CMS is the ability to search for and find information using metadate. The term "information mining" is become very prevalent in this age of information. The more products and models, the more content that is created and the harder it becomes to find pertinent information. Text files and some word processing files can be easily searched but binary files like jpg, cdr, and quark files cannot.
In a CMS environment files can be categorized using metadate so that the information can be quickly grouped and located. For example, lets say we are a moderate sized medical device company that has 80 products on the market. Within those 80 products there are three target markets (hospitals, government, and personal use). How would you search for all products that can be sold to both the hospital and government market? Well if it was a Word document and you happen to put the target market in the document content then you will find those with a simple search using Windows Explorer, but what about marketing documents designed in Quark or Indesign, or jpg images, FAQ responses in XML, and HTML help topics?
As the amount of content in a company grows over the years, the ability to find specific information becomes more difficult. Without a way to search content across an enterprise, information is lost and then re-written causing similar products in current release to have different wording. If technical documentation is explained differently in different documents there is a potential for misinterpretation, incorrect product use, product failure, product damage or worse, injury. If updated in one document but not in all locations this content resides the problem can continue to haunt the company. The location of all content must be known to ensure consistent, reliable documentation and guaranty the reliability and trustworthiness of a company. Companies are built on brand, brand is built on trust and trust is not implied or expected, it is earned.
The CMS system is a tool required for this information age. Without this type of tool there is little hope of finding our way through the mountains of information we create every day.