How You Know You Should Have Bought a CMS Last Year

Originally published in Intercom, August 2010.

A CMS can be a handy tool in this new age of structured writing, whether in DITA, S1000D, DocBook, or some freaky, hybrid custom creation. No, scratch that “handy tool” part. If you’re writing topics, you should have a CMS. It’s that simple.

Take a look at the situations below. If only one applies to you, it’s safe to say you’re just in time to start planning your CMS purchase. If 2-4 situations apply to you, you should be shopping around and getting demos right now. If 5-6 situations apply to you, then you should have purchased a CMS last year.

  • Your file server runs out of memory on a daily basis and no one can ever, ever find anything that is not their own. And sometimes not even their own.

Cryptic folder names (probably based on product names that changed 3 years ago), a maze of nested subfolders, 10 versions of slightly different documentation, hourly snapshots, daily backups—it doesn’t take long to become a tangled mess. Time from zero to tangled mess: Less than 6 months. It takes longer to bake a baby.

If your standard operating procedure upon starting a new version of documentation is to copy and paste the last version of your files and then rename the folder, then you’re not working smart. A CMS lets you snapshot and tag your versions when you’ve released, then lets you keep on trucking. No copying. No pasting. And then it lets you fix that horrible typo (oh, no, that shouldn’t be “lick the icon”) without ever having to hunt up the old version. Or worrying that you’ve already made three months of updates on the files. Work smarter. Stop copying files. Prevent file server-induced madness. Leave the file server for what it was meant for: pictures of last year’s Hallowe’en costumes.

  • The files you worked on yesterday are just plain missing. As though they never existed. Making you break out into a cold, nauseous sweat. It’s only 9 a.m., but it’s time for a drink!

A CMS is, at its core, a database. A database doesn’t lose information. If your manager is the belt and suspenders type, then back up the whole database in case of earthquakes and fires and invasions from Mars (we suggest a Lunar-based backup in the Mars invasion scenario). But never, ever worry about losing content again.

  • You translate to any language(s) at least some of the time.

Using a CMS to help manage translation workflow can save anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars a year, depending on the number of languages involved. Track source versus translation, keep track of changes that should and should not trickle down through the translation process, control what and when goes to translation, and, oh yeah, have it all happen automatically. Don’t have in-house translation? You can also directly connect to translation vendors using the CMS, which means a couple of clicks gets you competitive quotes in your inbox. Easy as pie.

  • The thought of finding a particular version of a graphic you made last year makes you laugh uncontrollably. In front of your manager.

A CMS can also be your media library, letting you tag and search for graphics and multimedia. Mind you, the search is only as good as the tagging, so do your prep work on this one.

  • When you go on vacation, you have to write out pages of instructions for other writers to take over your project, just in case.

A CMS should be a way of pooling all your resources so that they’re available to everyone who needs them. Yes, you could set up the CMS to only show you your stuff, or break maps and topics out into product-specific collections, but you’re working against yourself and missing the point. Have everything available to all, tag as needed, filter like a master, and you’ll always be able to 1. Find your own stuff. 2. Find everyone else’s stuff. 3. Find the stuff that belonged to the guy in the next cubicle who just got fired.

  • Despite your best intentions, you have never, ever, ever re-used a single topic. Because it is just too difficult.

If you don’t know where it is, it’s hard to re-use it but still possible (hunt for it based on file name? ask your fellow writers over coffee and a doughnut?). But if you don’t know it even  exists, then how would you know that you could have spent 5 minutes searching the CMS for a topic that was almost perfect for you instead of 5 hours writing it.  (And don’t forget you can re-use graphics too.) Not quite right for your topic? You guessed it, you can get the CMS to change it for you but keep it the same for the original owner. All without actually copying the topic. The original changes? Well, then, the CMS lets you know that you can either roll those changes in to your version or ignore them, as needed. Are you weeping yet?

  • Your manager turned to you and said “So how much money have we saved the company since we started writing with DITA?” At your blank look, she then said “Let me know by the end of the day. Management has asked for hard numbers.” Now you are contemplating the pros and cons of creative number crunching based on a whole lotta nothin’ versus a most honorable hara-kiri in your cubicle.

A CMS can provide metrics that tell you how much re-use you’re currently rocking out with. You can also easily identify when you started working on a project, in the case of extreme temporal memory malfunction, letting you calculate the time it took for the project from end-to-end. Then you can waste the time you saved writing making pretty graphs instead. And everyone knows that management likes pretty graphs.

Are we recommending a CMS for everyone? Frankly, yes. Unless you only have one writer, one product, never update documents for new versions, never translate…well, then you’re not really a writer, you’ve just written. No, you can’t expect it to fix all your problems automatically, but yes, it can save time, money, grief, and possibly your job. And did we mention money? And while you’re at it, use the CMS to enforce the process improvements you’ve been meaning to introduce, publish automatically every night, introduce some information architecture solutions, and basically have it tuck you in at night.

There’s a CMS solution that’s right for you, from the little guys that just get the job done to the Cadillacs that get it done with flare, and bells, and whistles—and also let you know when you’re being stupid. Stop stalling. The ROI on a CMS is between 2 months and 2 years, with the average coming out around a year.

Can you afford not to have one?

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