CMS or ECM – What is the difference?

The whole world often seems full of unfathomable jargon, and no one tops the information technology industry for its love of the Three Letter Acronym (TLA). Two TLAs that cause much confusion in our industry are CMS and ECM. Although there are similarities between the two, there are crucial differences that should be cleared up.


Despite what your web content management system (CMS) vendor may tell you about their ‘enterprise’ capabilities, rest assured that there is a huge difference between having an ‘enterprise content management’ (ECM) strategy and implementing a CMS. Unfortunately, despite considerable vendor and analyst literature on the subject, it appears that many CIO’s, CTO’s and IT Directors dive straight into CMS procurement without considering the bigger picture.


Let us start of with some definitions before we head into a more in depth examination:


CMS      Content Management System

Software used to create, edit, manage, and publish content in a        
consistently organized fashion using web and IP technology.

(Source: Wikipedia)

ECM      Enterprise Content Management

The technologies used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver
content and documents related to organizational processes. ECM tools
and strategies allow the management of an organization's unstructured
information, wherever that information exists. Tools include WCM and DAM.

(Source: AIIM)

DAM     Digital Asset Management

Falling under the ECM umbrella DAM has a more specialized focus, and is
primarily used to manage rich media assets such as video, audio, brand  
images, etc.

(Source: Bynder)

The first obvious difference we see here is that the CMS definition explicitly mentions software; it’s a software system (or systems) for a specific use (managing and publishing content – whatever that is!).  On the other hand, the ECM definition mentions both strategies and tools. So let us take a look at the roots and history of our two TLA’s.

Etymology and history

CMS as a term has been around longer, and its use is generally considered to address a system which manages content that requires publishing ‘to the web,’ be that the public Internet, or an internal company intranet.  So in this context, ‘content’ can refer to news items, marketing collateral, employee handbooks, etc.  Usually (but not always) this web publishing role means that the content is in web-focused formats, such as HTML, XHTML, etc., although as the web evolves, audio and video formats are becoming more prevalent.

A CMS can possibly provide many different features and tools, mostly around the ‘management’ part of the equation, but we will return to this later. More recently, the term Web Content Management System (WCMS) has been used to differentiate these systems from the other CMSs, but more on that later too.

ECM as a term is much younger, but it has a more convoluted history. As we have seen from the AIIM definition, ECM is as much about strategy as software, and you can have a strategy that addresses the creation (or capture), storage, management, preservation, and delivery of your content and documents without having a particular software system (or systems) to help you do it.

Notice that the AIIM definition also explicitly states ‘documents’ as well as content.  This is where the history comes into play, as many of the big ECM vendors have their roots in document capture (scanning) and document management rather than web content.

Content or documents?

Although this is really semantics, most experts would suggest that within the overall heading of ‘information’ the term ‘content’ usually applies to any form of ‘unstructured’ information ( as opposed to structured information  which is the stuff held in nicely ordered rows and columns in a database). So to apply some hierarchy to this the following can be seen as ‘sub-types’ of content:

  • Web content (HTML / XHTML / DHTML / Flash files)
  • XML (of various flavors, including its pre-cursor SGML)
  • Documents (MS Office, PDF, etc.)
  • Records (as in official documents, not old fashioned vinyl!)
  • Digital assets (audio, video files)

But of course all of these definitions are just meant to help us categorize our ‘stuff’ and are interchangeable to one extent or another. For example MS Office can save files in an XML format which can be ‘published’ on a web site or in print.

ECM and CMS similarities and differences

Let us look at some of the similarities between a CMS and an enterprise content management system (ECMS): They will both provide facilities generally termed ‘library services’ (i.e., check in/out, version control, workflow etc.) so let us use the categories from the AIIM definition:


AIIM category



Capture / Create

Built in editors and integration with MS Office

Built in editors and integration with MS Office, plus integrated scanning or imaging


Library services and metadata management, approval or editorial workflows

Library services and metadata management, plus records retention and disposal. Complex workflow as part of Business Process Management


Work in progress, staging and ‘live’ environments may all hold copies of same version

Sophisticated storage management including integration with storage hardware plus ‘single instance’ storage or other de-duplication technologies


Snapshots of websites and content

Long term archiving and digital preservation, more integrated with storage


To the web including mobile devices

To the web, to the desktop client, to other software and systems, to print, etc.



So, as we can see, generally a CMS provides features to manage web content, and an ECMS will take these features and facilities further by extending them into different areas such as:

  • Document imaging
  • Document management
  • Records management
  • Digital asset management
  • Workflow management / Business process management
  • Web content management
  • Knowledge management
  • Collaboration

You will note that there are point solutions that each major on managing a single one of these content types, whereas an EMCS is a ‘suite’ of software aiming to manage them all. One of the major differences between a CMS and an ECMS is in the area of Business Process Management (or BPM) or ‘workflow’. While a web-focused CMS may have workflows ranging from simple to quite complex based around editorial processes and authorization of what reaches the live web site, an ECMS is likely to have a full visual workflow design tool and a much heavier weight feature set for designing whole business processes.

Finally, on the Web 2.0 / enterprise 2.0 / social media front, a CMS might offer you the ability to build such features into a site, whereas an ECM system usually offers web or ‘fat’ clients to allow users to collaborate around the content in the ECM repository.

Summary and conclusions

In the end it all comes down to your particular context, and what your business requirements are. If you’re a small to medium company manufacturing widgets and you want a better website to sell more widgets, and a better intranet to improve employee communications, then your probably in the market for a CMS.

If you’re a medium to large enterprise, and most of your staff come under the heading of ‘knowledge workers,’ and terms such as Enterprise Information Management, or Information Lifecycle Management are not completely alien to you, then you probably need a ECM strategy as part of your wider information management efforts you may buy a an ECM suite from one of the big vendors, or you may implement your strategy using multiple ‘best of breed’ products (some of which you may already have), including a CMS. However, all content management requires planning; see the article by Toby Ward, Content Management Proves Costly Without Planning for some more information on that topic.

The main point here is to think holistically about your requirements.  If you think you need a new CMS, check around and see if other departments need a document management solution, and ask your legal and compliance people if they are investigating records management. Think strategically about information management and cast a wide net.  This does not mean you have to ‘bite it all off’ in one go and have a massively complex implementation. ‘Think globally, act locally’ is a good analogy; a phased implementation with pilot projects is established good practice.

In conclusion, implementing ECM is more about strategy, it will require more work than implementing a point solution using a CMS, but in the long run its ‘more pain, for more gain’ – in this digital age, competitive advantage awaits those organizations which realize information is a key asset, and manage it accordingly.

Whichever journey you’re on, Prescient Digital Media has the expertise and experience to help you to both understand your requirements and fulfill them. See our CMS Blueprint for some more information on our services.


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