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Before we get much further, I want to make the point that a CMS is not right for every project. Later on we'll talk about how to evaluate a CMS for your specific needs, but I think it's also just as important to discuss whether a CMS is the right solution for your needs. Once you begin researching content management systems, you're going to hear the same marketing points over and over again: first, that a CMS allows you to create a web site without having to know HTML, CSS, and server-side programming; second, that using a CMS reduces costs by eliminating outside technical work; and third, that a CMS will dramatically speed up development and deployment time.
Well, like most marketing pitches, there is a degree of truth to all these points, but it's important to have the proper expectations about how a CMS will fit into your organization or your projects. If you're a designer or part of a design team and you're looking at using a CMS to speed up site development, there are some things you should know. First, regardless of the CMS you choose, get ready for a pretty steep learning curve. Many systems have their own templating language and you need to understand the inner workings of how the CMS will assemble pages before you can really start gaining control over your sites.
If the only reason you want to learn a CMS is to avoid learning a language like PHP, I recommend just going ahead and learning PHP. In most cases, you're going to end up needing to be somewhat proficient in whatever codes base your CMS uses anyway. A good role of thumb is to check out the documentation forums and the codex of the CMS are looking at to see what's required for the level of control that you want. Once you're comfortable with the CMS, you should expect to see significant gains in development time, but be sure to give yourself a cushion as you go through the learning process.
Although it will typically speed up the process of publishing content to your site, you'll still need individuals to set up the CMS, maintain it, and update it, as new versions are published. Often this updating process requires changes to templates and the business logic of your site. If you don't have the technical resources in house to handle this, you'll still be paying for an outside consultant. Also, just because a particular CMS is free an open source don't assume that they aren't significant costs involved in setting up and maintaining the CMS.
Often the cost savings just aren't there once everything is taken into consideration. So when does it make sense to use a CMS? Well, if you are a freelance web designer and you need to rapidly develop complex sites for clients, finding a CMS you're comfortable with makes sense. You also need to be sensitive to whether your client base actually needs a CMS- managed site, and whether you have the time to devote to training clients in how to use the CMS to create and update content once the site is finished. You should also be prepared to spend a great deal of time researching which CMS fits your skill sets and than taking additional time to learn how to properly manage and build sites efficiently with it.
Just approach it the same way you would approach learning any new skill or technology and you'll be fine. And if you're part of the larger organization, you need to take some time to perform a high-level evaluation of your organization's needs and current problems. Often the problems with larger sites have more to do with internal workflows, inefficient processes, and poorly constructed site architecture than they do with publishing platforms. Too often a CMS is seen as a cure-all when the real problem lies within the organizational structure itself. Keep in mind that many CMSs don't offer flexible workflows, and forcing you're organization into a specific workflow without properly evaluating it first is often a recipe for disaster.
In those cases, reevaluating site architecture and internal processes is usually a better path to success. In the end, my advice would be to take a moment and carefully consider your goals and site needs before making the decision to choose a CMS. Having realistic expectations about their capabilities and what's required to implement a content management system will help you make a better decision about when it's appropriate to use them.
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