And what’s the difference, anyway, between Content Management and Knowledge Management?

A little theory and some practical examples are needed to help define and distinguish between Content Management (CM) and Knowledge Management (KM).

First consider how CM and KM are similar.  Both types of technology . . .

  • Support the creation and maintenance of content of virtually any size
  • Provide some means of controlling who may create or edit content
  • Support routing new and changed content through an approval cycle
  • Provide an interface to search for and find content based on some form of full-text index. (Some or all of various search methodologies may be supported – natural language, keyword, Boolean, etc.)
  • Provide means of controlling who may view content

Other similarities may exist but those are enough to work with for now.  So what differences are there?

  • CM systems tend to provide more control over not just the content itself but the style of the content – style guides that streamline the creation of standard documents with business rules to enforce adherence to established styles over large quantities of documents and large groups of authors.
  • CM systems typically include the capability to publish content in portable formats, such as PDF, and/or print in professional layouts.  Content in and of itself is something of a product of the system and the content, once produced, can exist and be used apart from the system in which it was created and maintained.

While perhaps not obvious at first, this last difference holds a clue to the key argument for needing a Knowledge Management system.  Once created, content can be used apart from a Content Management system because the system offers little or no assistance in using that content.  In fact, we expect so little (and are offered so little in this respect) that we don’t even miss it.  When’s the last time you read an owners manual or the safety placard in the seat-back pouch of an airliner and wondered, “What Content Management system was used to produce this document?”

So what’s missing?  What is needed when “using” content that is not provided by the Content Management system that did such a good job in producing the content in the first place?  One word sums it up – relevancy.  Which document, and which part of that document, is relevant to my situation – and under what circumstances?

It’s time to take a closer look at some terms that we’ve been using without asking whether we have a good – or at least a full – understanding of their meaning.  Words like “search”, “find” and even “knowledge” get used freely, especially in our industry, but what do we really mean and what expectations do we have when we speak, hear or read them?  Now entire doctoral theses have been written on the meaning of knowledge, technical white papers weighing several pounds have been produced on various search methods.

There’s no intention to go to that level here.  But all we need do to start is to develop an understanding of some key concepts that explains how a Knowledge Management system offers assistance not provided by Content Management in determining the relevancy of content.  For our purposes, let’s start to think of these key concepts in a certain light and frame their definitions in such a way to draw out the importance of relevance.

  • Search – to look for a piece of content with the intention of answering a specific question or solving a specific problem.
  • Find – what happens when a search engine matches a piece of content to a user’s search and when that user recognizes that piece of content as relevant to their intent or need.
  • Knowledge – what content becomes when it is able to be found when searched given the provided definitions of the terms “search” and “find”.

The importance of the highlighted terms in these definitions must be understood if we’re to build a compelling case for Knowledge Management providing relevancy and that relevancy being of value.  Of particular importance is the term “specific”.  The need for specificity is where Content Management starts to fall short.  If the user wants to read everything available on the history of credit in commerce, or some similarly general topic, then a Content Management system with a basic search engine will supply the need quite well.  But if that person needs to know what, if any, benefit or penalty there is if they payoff their credit balance early they had better be ready for a research project if all they have is the Content Management system that produced their Cardholder Agreement and a search engine.

In conclusion (for now) Content Management systems can serve as excellent sources of content for Knowledge Management but they can never deliver the same results and value – the turning of that content into usable knowledge – without the addition of a good Knowledge Management tool and methodology.  They should never be considered as one versus the other but rather as different tools with different needs serving an organization in complimentary ways.