Tire Kicking and CMS Shopping

If people bought cars the same way they bought a CMS application, they would go to a lot toting a thick pile of papers and ask for a car that has a V6 engine, an alternator on the left-hand side of the cylinder block, a speedometer that has a black needle on a white background, and a trunk capable of holding two sets of golf clubs. Of course that set of requirements cannot be met, but the salesperson might just have a nice little Peugeot with just such a speedometer, and the buyer would drive off a happy person . . . until they tried to pack for golf the following day. Other approaches might include buying a Pontiac because your neighbor told you last week how wonderful his is, or driving aimlessly around until a ride catches your eye.

Last month, I came across an invitation to tender for a CMS that had 293 individual criteria, of which 68 were mandatory. It had been cut and pasted from a variety of sources, including other tenders and some of the boiler-plate documents that are available over the Web. Many of the criteria were open questions such as, "Can you describe how easy your workflow application is to use?" This approach simply will not work, for a number of reasons.

First, the time that a CMS vendor is going to allocate to responding to a tender must be related to the potential license fees to be gained. My guess is that if the vendor needs to allocate more than one day of time to responding, the project value has to be well into six figures. Of course they will often respond on a point of principle, but with a basic proposal, not a customized one.

The second reason is that the vendor may not be able to meet every one of the 68 mandatory criteria. Should they bother to respond if they can meet only 65? If the potential customer is a "criteria counter," probably not. However, just because they cannot meet all 68 does not mean that they could not implement a perfectly satisfactory application; they may have other attributes that do not appear in the customer's 293 but that are, in fact, even more important and useful.

The third reason is that a good CMS implementation is a partnership. I often advise clients to consider carefully if they feel they could work with the vendor. There may be a culture clash. However, the vendor is also looking to see if they want to work with the client. In the case I have set out here, there probably are at least 293 reasons why not.

When buying a car, you want to meet specific requirements regarding your family's size, leisure interests, garage space, running costs, and other factors relating to how you intend to use the car. The same is true of a CMS. You want to be able to devolve content administration across the organization for some specific processes, and the success of the implementation will be gauged by the increase in productivity of the content authors. Not the best of objectives, but it will do for now. The invitation to tender should set out very clearly what you want the CMS to accomplish and request that the vendor indicate how they will meet the requirements. The tender should be rich in scenarios and walk-throughs, and have a little bit of vision and just enough criteria to ensure that there is a good match with the IT environment. Apart from anything else, it makes the acceptance testing so much easier.

One twist to the tender document that I feel is a good idea is to include a risk register. The simplest form of this is a list of things that might go wrong (e.g., vendor's project manager leaves to go to a competitor). Rate each by the impact on the organization and the probability of it happening (high, medium, low). Then ask the vendor to go through the risk register for at any high or medium risks and indicate how, from the vendor perspective, they would endeavor to manage or reduce the risk. This is a good exercise for the client in any case, and the vendor is able to spot at an early stage risks that, using their approach, are not risks at all.

Of course you can ignore all this advice. One major law firm in the UK is selecting its CMS on the basis of a two-hour demonstration by the sales teams from a number of vendors. I hope they don't select their counsel in the same way. Or you can ask at the golf course if any one has a good recommendation for a CMS. Am I being alarmist? Perhaps, but just remember that when the intranet or Web turns out to be a lemon because the CMS was not correctly specified, the name on the invitation to tender will be yours.