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Why CMS is not ECM (or WCM)?

Why CMS is not ECM (or WCM)?

Frederik Rosseel,Principal Consultant & CEO




1 November 2008


Although I've had my own theory about the difference between CMS and WCM for years, I've never come across any other source that clearly explains the difference between both acronyms. This has cost several business 100.000s of euros and is going to cost them several 100.000s of euros in years to come.

Not everyone will agree with this article, but a lot of users might benefit from having a clear view on the distinctions between both.

The Rise of WCM

The mid 90's saw the rise of the first WCM (Web Content Management) solutions. They allowed for non-technical users to contribute content to the web via templates. Other major companies, such as Documentum and FileNet, jumped on the bandwagon around the turn of the century. These weren't native WCM solutions but, with some expansions to the core product, they could offer most of the same functionalities existing WCM players (Vignette and Interwoven) were offering. This effectively created ECM (Enterprise Content Management), as you could now manage content with a different purpose from a single repository (this must have been around 2001, the year of my first WCM implementation).

Enter CMS

The .com-hype (and in some cases regulatory reasons) caused for a huge popularity of these WCM solutions. The hype cooled down quickly for several reasons: too costly, long implementation cycles, bad user experience, etc. This was also due to the rise of a new phenomenon: the CMS. The CMS seemed to be able to offer a set of functionalities and a user experience WCM was unable to deliver. Especially marketing and communication departments were longing for these new functionalities (let's forget about portals for the moment, what has happened to portals anyway?).

Several companies abandoned their WCM solution and shifted their attention to CMS. At a certain point in time it seemed as if every web agency, web designer and even traditional integrator had become a CMS development companies.

Former pure-WCM vendors Stellent (now taken over by Oracle) and Vignette expanded their capabilities to become ECM-platforms in an attempt to lure new customers.

CMS: Not the holy grail?

But still, in several cases a CMS wasn't able to resolve the business requirements. There is a general misconception in the market (certainly the Belgian market) about the difference between WCM and CMS. CMS integrators generally don't know what a WCM is supposed to do, because their background is traditionally not in the field of ECM.

Therefore, it might be useful to clearly define both acronyms. Plenty of businesses might benefit from this, as it might help them to better evaluate and choose the solution(s) for their requirements.

Which one is which and what does what?

There are hundreds CMS'es out there, so I'm not going to describe the characteristics of every CMS out there. The CMS Matrix has a pretty extensive list of CMSes with their functionalities, but it is still not complete... due to reasons mentioned above.

Below, I'll give a set of core differences/characteristics between/of WCM and CMS.

(These two terminologies might be useful in order to be able to interpret some of the statements below:

  • Back-end: User interface and platform used for editing and managing the content / information
  • Front-end: Interface used by website users to consult the information)


  • Front-end and back-end use the same technology (PHP, .Net, Java, etc.)
  • Content is very often stored in a database; The same database is used by front-end and back-end. Generally back-end and front-end are installed on the same machine.
  • CMS offers advanced front-end functionalities:
    • Front-end user management
    • Blogs
    • Wiki
    • Front-end search
    • WYSIWYG web-editing *1
    • Is generally used for pure web content


  • Front-end and back-end are technologically independent *2
  • The data and database are generally not shared by the front-end and back-end (some WCM systems offer this option)
  • A WCM generally publishes the information, i.e. the content and data are pushed to the front-end
  • Multiple targets can be used for publishing, generally there is at least a staging environment and a production environment
  • Different targets can use a different look & feel
  • Advanced version control
  • Content can be more easily multi-channeled, multi-purposed, multi-site and multi-lingual.
    The level of multi-purposing is logically higher when the WCM is part of an ECM platform, i.e. the content is not only made available via the web 

When to use WCM or CMS?

The answer to that question depends solely on your requirements, but nothing keeps you from implementing a combination of both. Such a combination helps you in more rapidly creating your front-end (website) and allows you to manage your pure web content via the CMS. This architecture allows your communication team to keep their hands on the CMS, while content from other business user might be delivered via the WCM system.

The image below shows what such an environment might look like:

Of course, such an architecture imposes additional technical requirements on the WCM and CMS of your choice.

The future of WCM

Several of the WCM products have expanded their functionalities by offering site templates, microsites, pagebuilders, blue prints, etc. in order to reduce the time required to deploy a WCM solution. Only one moved on to become a true WCMS, offering both WCM and CMS capabilities (unfortunately, this is not an ECM platform). Several of the traditional WCM vendors now also offer, via several techniques, RSS, marketing management, WYSIWYG editing.

I've seen (things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire... stop!) WCM platforms that were turned into bad CMSes with the front-end accessing the back-end. CMSes that were fitted with a repository to try multi-purpose the content.

I hope that this article might prevent such abominations in the future.

Oh, so why is CMS not ECM? It has been mentioned implicitly several times above: A CMS only manages web content.

(FYI, this site is powered by a Drupal CMS.)

  1. WYSIWYG web-editing is mimicked by some WCM platforms
  2. Sharepoint WCM can not be considered as a pure WCM, since the front-end and back-end are not techologically independent.


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