Mission Possible: Move to a Content Management System to Deliver Business Results from Legacy Content

Mission Possible: Move to a Content Management System to Deliver Business Results from Legacy Content

Mission Possible: Move to a CMS

Greg Fagan, Sales Director, Data Conversion Laboratory

So you’ve decided you need a system to migrate, store, repurpose or tag legacy content, and to create and house new content—you want to implement a content management system (CMS). Now what? Time to answer some key questions and initiate your mission to monetize—to get more business value out of the content you already have and what you’ll produce in the future.

You’ve also heard the horror stories, complicated systems that never work as planned and cost more than any long-term planning anticipated. Yes, any content migration is challenging, but with well-conceived and achievable goals, shared business drivers and diligent upfront research on the CMS, and schemas that will meet your needs, you can complete the mission and deliver real business results.


Do you understand what goals the business has for legacy and new content? Start by identifying business drivers—across the organization—for converting content and moving it to a CMS. Business units in your organization may have different needs for essentially the same content, often the underlying reason why years of copy-and-paste led to your current scenario. But with a CMS working across the entire enterprise, all departments can work from the same content set, making it easier to continue to update, maintain edit, and reuse. The consistency and efficiencies also enable better processes for creating new content going forward.

Share these business drivers as you identify them. They’ll help you and other managers make a unified business case for the budget and resources. These drivers typically focus on uncovering new revenue channels, decreasing costs, and building brand or maintaining regulatory compliance.

  • Reusing Content: Dusting off the old content and making use of it (rather than starting from scratch each time you need some slight changes) saves effort in time and money.
  • Repurposing Content: Meet the needs of varying audiences, for example by repurposing marketing content as branded user documentation. Repurposing makes the most of content development efforts from the past by including still-relevant content in new formats.
  • Publishing to Multiple Channels: Structure and more easily maintain content. When you free content from outdated or unstructured formats, you open up possibilities to publish and share anywhere.
  • Improving Content Update Processes: Once you go through the process of figuring out what content you already have and what you can do with it, you can use the knowledge to consistently manage all future content conversion and creation efforts, with the added benefit of greatly increased quality.
  • Reducing the Volume of Conversions: A successful analysis of content and the tools available to convert, manage, and store it reduces the size of the workload for conversion. That means you reduce the number of times you’ll need to go through a conversion process—saving time and money.

Business drivers, important as they are to a CMS and content conversion initiative, cannot paint the entire picture. Content conversion is a complex challenge for project managers—content can’t simply be moved from one format to another. Your legacy content comprises a variety of files and formats. Many will be non-XML sources with their own embedded formats that make rendering the content into other outputs impossible. Tools used to create the legacy content (Word, FrameMaker, InDesign) are chock full of their own formats designed to create dependence on the tool functionality, rather than to take advantage of the flexibility inherent in structured solutions.


To successfully complete a content conversion effort, you need to determine how the content should be structured. Typically organizations choose an XML-based structure such as DITA, DocBook or XHTML, among others. If you are unfamiliar with the available formats, you should partner with a conversion expert that has worked with all of the most common current standards.

Occasionally, a unique business need appears that requires a less common standard. But we nearly always recommend using DITA, because of its versatility. DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, is a standard that allows content to be modularized, reused, and published based on topic types that include elements and descriptive metadata.

DITA is usually the best solution for two reasons: 1) it has no limitations to what output formats it can handle; 2) the solution can work well out-of-the-box, even though customization options are certainly available, and often desirable. When you create content with DITA, you can customize it for a variety of industries (educational, financial, legal), and additional specializations are on the horizon.

DocBook, an older XML standard still in use in many organizations can support structured content development, but DITA functionality offers everything DocBook can do, but the reverse is not true. And XHTML is not a true schema, but more of an extension of HTML.

When we work with our customers to truly understand their needs, and their perceptions of DITA implementations we usually uncover three primary needs that lead to the choice of DITA:

  • Reduce the need to compose
  • Reuse content
  • Reduce translation costs

The most effective CMS will support several different targets for outputs, and DITA provides you the most consistent structure and flexibility to address most outputs. DITA continues to add value after the legacy conversion is complete. Your teams author new content using DITA standards, creating to create modular pieces of content at the outset, components that can be combined for a variety of publications and purposes without maintaining individual source files for each output, or introducing inconsistencies in the style or design of the content.

In over three decades partnering with organizations to convert and manage content, we’ve learned a few things along the way that we use to refine our processes and tools, and provide even greater business value for customers.

We consistently hear that the top business driver for converting legacy content and implementing a CMS is multi-purposing, so various teams can use the same content to suit their particular needs. Conversion and processing using a standard such as DITA provides the process to deploy chunks of modularized content to suit multiple purposes. Repurposing content allows organizations to publish in multiple formats, including PDF, print, HTML, and eBooks. They can create training and help systems, and customize sales collateral from the same source. Teams can manage look and feel with styles, layouts, and designs maintained separately from content, all of which dramatically reduces development and maintenance costs while improving reliability. Whether organizations currently find business value in translating to multiple languages, or view translation as an essential future plan, standardized content always leads to significant savings in this area.


You probably share one characteristic with most of today’s organizations. You’ve collected years and years of content in print-based and digital content full of images, instructions, videos, formulas, and other text and non-text elements. Moving that to a structured storage environment can seem daunting in both budget and time. That’s why prioritizing the content conversion efforts is critical, so you can complete it in manageable stages. Factor your content types, conversion process, and structure into your choice of CMS to make sure you get the best fit. And develop your plan to include testing that fit in a pilot program to ensure it all works the way you expect, and make adjustments before full production.

DITA implementations certainly take time, averaging three years, and some customers consider the implementation as an ongoing process they use throughout the content lifecycle. The timeframe may appear longer than what you first considered, but the extra upfront analysis, testing and modifications save you from huge costs associated with rework and duplicated effort.

The timing of the selection of CMS tools varies; some customers select the CMS before starting the pilot, others after running pilot programs, and still others after converting the content. Best practice, and our experience, shows that you should initially select the CMS based on real data needs for your organization. Conduct a pilot program on a cross-section of your content to refine data needs and make the ultimate selection of a CMS.

Content conversion and structured content implementations are tough, challenging missions. With the support of management, clear business drivers for the effort, a comprehensive plan for testing, post-processing, and more than a little flexibility, you can turn mission possible into mission accomplished.