There is a bit of confusion in the industry between document management systems (DMS) and content management systems (CMS). Both can provide networked access to assets, either via the Internet or a local network. Both systems can track a file through its entire lifecycle, from inception to editing, revision, finalization and finally distribution. As such, the two systems enhance collaboration and speed up time-to-publish.

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    In addition, both systems take great steps towards preserving the integrity of confidential information. Access and permissions can be managed on a per-document or per-user basis.

    So far it sounds like a content management system and a document management system do the same thing. What’s the difference? There are several, but the main one is the type of information being managed.

    The main differences

    Specifically, a document management system is concerned with the data held in specific types of files: Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel spreadsheets, PDFs and other popular file formats. A DMS’s main purpose is to digitize, archive, manage and track these specific documents throughout all phases of production.

    On the other hand, a CMS is about the organization of several types of structured and unstructured information. For example, raw data collected by any number of sources, Flash files, code, and multimedia files like audio and video.

    Other differences

    There are other, more fine-grained differences as well, and Step Two Designs recently posted a nice run-down. On the DMS side, author James Robinson notes that a DMS can be characterized as having the following attributes:

    1. Focuses on managing documents, in the traditional sense (like Word files).

    2. Each unit of information (document) is fairly large and self-contained.

    3. There are few (if any) links between documents.

    4. Provides limited integration with repository (check-in, check-out, etc).

    Meanwhile, Robinson attributes the following features to a CMS:

    1. Manages small, interconnected units of information (e.g., web pages).

    2. Each unit (page) is defined by its location on [a web site, for example].

    3. Extensive cross-linking between pages.

    4. Focuses primarily on page creation and editing.

    5. Provides tight integration between authoring and the repository (metadata, etc).

    Which is right for you?

    The natural conclusion is to ask, which is right for my business? First, realize that these are complimentary, not competing environments. With that in mind, understand that needs vary greatly between businesses. Consider the type, quality and overall scope of your information while making a decision.