Types of Content Management Systems Explained (CMS, DMS, CCMS, ECMS, and others)

There are many types of content management systemsAfter the first twenty times you ran across the terms “CMS” or “content management system,” you probably jumped to a conclusion about what people mean by it.  Or you search for the term online and get a list of one of the types. In all likelihood, the list you retrieve on a search engine won’t include many examples of the types of content management system you may need to manage technical content for your organization.

Simply Put

Using the term “CMS” is like using the term “vehicle.” Vehicle might actually refer to a bus, a tractor, a limousine, a spaceship, or a hovercraft–they are all machines that take people from one place to another. In the same way, a CMS is something that manages your content, but each type of of content management system manages them for a different purpose and for different reasons.

Vehicle It really means…
Spaceship A rocket-propelled flying machine that takes you out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Limousine A fancy elongated car that is rented and used on special occasions.
Hovercraft A craft that uses a cushion of air so that can travel over land, water, mud or ice and other surfaces both at speed and when stationary.

Depending on what you’re trying to do, you’d use one vehicle or another. The same thing applies to a CMS. You use the right tool for the job you need to do. Each of the major types of CMS has its own acronym, which can make a confusing situation even more so.

Types of Content Management Systems

Acronym Stands for… It really means…. Examples
CMS Content Management System A generic term that refers to any of the systems below. Too many to list.
WCMS Web Content Management System(often referred to as simply CMS) A program that lets you author, edit, and publish your website content easily. WordPress, Joomla, Drupal
CCMS Component Content Management System A database and software program that lets you store, access, edit, and manage topic-level content. Often used for DITA (XML) content because it manages the relationships between thousands or millions of components. This site primarily deals with CCMSs. Vasont, XDocs, easyDITA, DITAToo, SDL LiveContent and others
ECMS Enterprise Content Management System Intranet-like tool that allows everyone in the company to access, manage, and review documents, templates, media, and other information assets. Also includes collaborative features like wikis. EMC Documentum, Atlassian Confluence, Oracle WebCenter. If SharePoint had more content management features, it would be in this category.
DMS or EDM Document Management System or Electronic Document Management A place to store, access, and manage your PDFs, MS Word, or other documents. Sometimes seen as a component of an ECMS. DocPath, Document Locator, SharePoint, LiveLink (now OpenText ECM Suite, Content Lifecycle Management), Oracle Webcenter–Document Manager)
LCMS or LMS Learning Content Management System Stores, manages, and publishes or allows users to experience learning and training content. Joomla LMS, Absorb LMS
EDRMS Electronic Document and Records Management System Stores, manages, and enforces processes around electronic records, where an electronic record can be loosely defined as any digital information asset that has value (email thread, digital documents, decisions). Can be essential in a highly litigated industry, like healthcare. Generally speaking, this will be an optional component of an ECMS such as EMC’s products.


How CMS Types Are Similar

Every kind of CMS is designed to accomplish the same foundational goal: manage information efficiently. And all of  the  types content management systems share a base set of features. These include:

  • Storing content
  • Controlling access to content
  • Checking content in and out
  • Managing the lifecycle of content – from creation through to final disposition (archive or destruction)
  • Allowing automatic and on-demand version control (know the history of changes and when each one was published)
  • Searching for content
  • Publishing content (sometimes)
  • Providing analytics or reports

How CMS Types Differ

Here’s the crux of the matter–even though they share the same foundational goal and some basic features each type of CMS focuses on very different sets of objectives.  Just as you wouldn’t choose a limo to transport scientists to the International Space Station, you shouldn’t choose one CMS when what you really need to accomplish is something completely different.

For example, a CCMS is very specialized and solves the problem of managing the connections between hundreds of thousands or millions of small topics and graphics. Other vital CCMS functionality includes robust, multi-faceted search (being able to filter by many different options) so authors find content easily; integrations with XML editors like Adobe FrameMaker or Syncro Soft’s oXygen; and providing some method to see all the places a piece of content is being used (single sourced). Technical communication teams typically need the complex functionality of a CCMS, but can get sidetracked by the flood of information available on hundreds of WCMS  alternatives.

Blurring the Lines between the Types of Content Management Systems

To confuse things even more, the lines between the different kinds of systems get a little blurry sometimes. For example, Drupal (a WCMS) has been used by at least one team as a CCMS in an open source project. Sometimes companies offer add-ins that change a WCMS into more of an ECMS. And, sometimes third-party tools attempt to change a ECMS into a CCMS (with varying success).

Along the same lines, an ECMS or DMS with a plug-in and a special authoring interface could possibly be used for technical content (DITA for example), but the results are not always successful. As with any tool, the key is to thoroughly understand and delineate what your requirements and limitations are before you buy your CMS.

Doing It Right

As with all tools, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the result can be quite a mess. If you try to give your limousine rocket fuel so it can get to the moon, you will probably crash in Utah somewhere.

Choosing the right tool depends on understanding what work each tool is suited to. Failing to do that background work beforehand creates substantial risk. Instead of streamlining everyday information gathering activities, you may make things complicated and difficult for your users.  And that can turn the very mention of “CMS” or “content management system” into something that sends your non-tech comm colleagues running for the door.  Every content management system initiative should start with a thoughtful, intentional, and agreed-upon set of plans for design and implementation, worked out long before you start to use it.


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