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Document management vs. content management: How they differ

The sheer number of acronyms involved in enterprise content can get confusing. Let's break down the differences between content management and document management.

Document management system and content management system sound like interchangeable terms, but they are not.

A document management system (DMS) and content management system (CMS) can certainly perform similar functions, and there is overlap. It is important, however, to understand the differences between the two technologies.

What is a document management system?

A document management system stores, manages and tracks electronic documents, including emails, images and voice files. It can also track scanned images of paper documents.

Document management systems typically have the following capabilities:

  • A DMS captures content by processing images of scanned paper documents. Many DMSes use optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert these digital images into readable and editable text. Other advanced scanning capabilities include optical mark recognition and handprint character recognition.
  • A DMS can either have built-in workflow modules or the ability to integrate with workflow management tools.
  • A DMS enables users or administrators to view document versions and revert to a previous version if necessary.
  • A DMS can enable users to tag content by category, type and keyword to enable better search and organization.

Another related term is enterprise document management (EDM), which refers to the strategy of overseeing paper and electronic documents within an organization for easy retrieval in the event of a compliance audit or other legal incident. This strategy focuses on regulatory compliance from a document perspective. It should answer questions such as, "How long should a business keep documents for?" and, "How will the business recover documents in the event of a disaster?"

Document management process

Document management systems are sometimes sold as standalone systems, but, today, they have been largely incorporated into the broader category of enterprise content management (ECM). Most ECM vendors, such as Alfresco, M-Files and Microsoft SharePoint, offer a DMS component.

What is a content management system?

A CMS is an application that enables users to create, manage and publish digital content on a website. CMSes feature a graphical user interface (GUI) so that nontechnical users can edit, publish and manage content without knowing how to code.

A CMS has two key components:

  • A content management application (CMA) is the intuitive interface that users see, enabling them to add content to a site and manage it.
  • A content delivery application (CDA) is the back-end infrastructure that assembles the code, displays it to website visitors and stores it.

A related term is web content management system (WCMS). WCMS and CMS are nearly interchangeable terms; the only difference is that a WCMS is a type of CMS that is specifically dedicated to website content.

WCMS features
The core features of a WCMS or CMS.

A CMS is used within the larger scope of ECM. Therefore, CMS can be considered a subcategory of ECM software.

Popular CMS vendors include WordPress, Joomla and Drupal.

Similarities of DMSes and CMSes

DMSes and CMSes overlap in the sense that they are both components of an overall ECM strategy. They both perform the following functions:

  • Manage digital assets
  • Offer content security
  • Provide a centralized storage system for content
  • Create, retain and distribute information
  • Simplify the accessibility of search and retrieval
  • Automate workflows

Additionally, both DMSes and CMSes are available as cloud-based SaaS subscriptions.

DMS vs. CMS: Key differences

While there is overlap between the functions of a CMS and a DMS, they are not interchangeable. Here are the key differences:

  • A CMS handles structured and unstructured data. The major difference between a CMS and a DMS lies in the type of information that each system can handle. A DMS works best with structured data and documents, such as PDF files, Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. It can digitize these files, tracking them throughout the content lifecycle. A CMS, on the other hand, can handle a broader range of electronic information, including both unstructured and structured content. In addition to documents that a DMS can handle, a CMS manages rich media such as audio, video, flash and web content.
  • A DMS has advanced content-capturing features. Most document management software incorporates imaging and scanning features such as OCR, while a CMS typically does not.
  • They have different goals. The main goals of a CMS are to store, retrieve and publish content, whereas a DMS focuses on workflow management and compliance.

Which is right for you: EDM, ECM or both?

Leadership teams may wonder how to sort through the alphabet soup of DMS, ECM, EDM and CMS, and how to choose the right technology for their organization.

EDM or DMS is a component of ECM. ECM is the convergence of a variety of technologies, including:

  • Records management
  • Web content management
  • Digital asset management
  • Document management

Therefore, large enterprises that need all of the above components should purchase an ECM platform. Companies that focus less on external publication and content marketing may want a standalone DMS to track their records and documents.

There are also content services. In 2016, Gartner declared that ECM was being replaced by content services. A content services platform (CSP) is an emerging technology that refers to the capabilities of ECM combined with RESTful APIs. It's a set of microservices and applications that can come in the form of a single product suite or a collection of applications that share common APIs. CSPs can include both document management and ECM.

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