The difference between CMS and ECM

enterpriseThere’s a lot of alphabet soup in online and digital. One distinction that keeps confusing us is between CMS and ECM. What’s Enterprise Content Management (ECM)? How is it different from Content Management and a CMS? And does it have something to do with Star Trek?

The short version:

  • ECM is document management.
  • A CMS is a web content management system.

Both are technically incorrect, but this is how they’re commonly used. It’s a bit like calling a tomato a vegetable. It’s a fun bit of trivia to point out this is wrong, a tomato is really a fruit; but does this really matter in the kitchen, as long as you know in which dishes to use it? Let me explain.

ECM
“Enterprise” is the marketing bit. A decade ago, a lot of vendors started rebranding their software like this. It sounds vaguely impressive, while not actually meaning anything. Document management vendors started marketing as ECM (which would be just great to create websites as well), and Web CMS vendors started adding “Enterprise” (suggesting they could also deal with documents, and sounding more impressive). Because of this, I think formal definitions of “ECM” make little sense (they’re just codifying the hype, and it’s a pretty stale hype by now). If anything, managing enterprise content is a practice (and not a “system” that automagically does it for you).

That said, and without necessarily agreeing with these definitions, an ECM system is generally regarded to be either one of these two things:

  • A system that manages documents or records. This is the “bread and butter” of enterprise content. It’s tempting to extend this to “any kind of content within the enterprise”, and software vendor marketeers love doing this (adding in anything from email, to social, to digital assets) but if you take a hard look at most ECM systems, they’re document management solutions. The names of a lot of well-known systems reflect this (“Filenet”, “Documentum”, and even “SharePoint”, meaning: share your Microsoft Office documents).
  • A “suite” of tools for managing enterprise content, usually a lot more loosely coupled than vendors would like you to believe. Vendors like Open Text have spent years on cobbling together software acquisitions, rebranding them, and then selling them as “integrated” ECM systems. (They usually require a lot of custom integration work, the components don’t play all that nice together, and the suite will usually still pivot around documents and records.)

CMS
As for a “CMS”, technically, this is any system that “manages” “content” (both terms are pretty hard to define). This means that anything from a document management system, to a media asset management system, to a portal, to a blog system could be considered a Content Management System.

However, the reality is that nowadays, when people discuss a CMS, they usually mean a web content management solution (technically speaking, that’s a WCMS).

Are they the same?
In theory, if you look at the definitions: CMS is a superset of ECMS (since any enterprise content management tool manages content, and is therefore a CMS; but not every CMS handles enterprise content well).

In reality, the common usage of these terms in the digital space tends to be as simple as I put it at the beginning of my answer. ECM does documents, and a CMS does web.

In the end, does it really matter? Well, you should be aware of the huge differences in what it takes to effectively manage different types of content for different purposes — the scenarios are wildly disparate and there are no tools or suites that are great in dealing with all of them. So don’t buy “enterprise content management” to also do your web presence; and don’t think a Web CMS with a document management add-on module will be as good at this as a document management tool. (Even if they call it ECM, or as I’ve spotted in the past few years, “Enterprise Web Content Management”, which is a ludicrously vapid description.)

It’s essential to know the difference between scenarios, and to find the right tool for the job. It’s probably a good thing to know what the common understanding of the terminology is. And keep in mind that usually, “enterprise” is just a marketing term that doesn’t mean a lot more than “we’d like to sell this to large companies.” And it has nothing to do with Star Trek.

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