Content Management 101: Discover the Best Approaches and Techniques

Smartsheet Contributor Joe Weller on Jan 02, 2018

Today, content is often focused on the digital environment, and any company that has a website is considered to be in the content business. Huge volumes of content are created every day, hour, and minute, and this continual generation makes it critical to find a way to keep content organized. That’s where content management and content management systems can help — but it isn’t easy to decipher the right system for you or your organization. In this article, we’ll discuss want you need to know about about content management systems, and outline the basics of content management so you can understand the key steps in creating a content management strategy.

 

What Is the Definition of Content Management?

Let’s start with the basics: What is content exactly? The answer to this question isn’t as simple as it might seem: In fact, in his book, The Content Management Bible, expert Bob Boiko spends several chapters discussing this topic. In a nutshell, content is information that is created by a human editor for the purpose of being published and consumed by others. For example, an article like this one is content, but a stream of raw data such as a list of purchases made through an ecommerce site is not. Content isn’t just restricted to writing, either — videos, images, and audio files like podcasts are all common types of content, as are social media posts. Just imagine how much content the typical company generates.

Content management is the processes that organize content throughout the creation, publication, and archiving lifecycle. It’s existed in different forms for millennia, starting with ancient libraries like the Library of Alexandria, where librarians organized and stored papyrus scrolls for scholars to use. In addition to libraries designed for public use, companies often maintained their own content, such as the “morgue files” that consisted of old articles from newspapers which reporters could draw on when writing stories.

Key Components of Content Management: Fortunately, content management has been democratized to include many low cost/open source systems with surprisingly powerful capabilities. Whether you use an all-in-one system or a combination of different tools and processes, there are seven typical components to content management:

 

Content Management Components
  1. Organization: The creation of categories and taxonomies for your content. For example, you might organize by topic (e.g., content about digital trends) or type (e.g., videos) or both.  
  2. Classification: Once you create these categories and taxonomies, decide where an individual piece of content should go.
  3. Storage: Content then needs to be stored in a specific format and place depending on its intended use. A corporate server might work for images designed for an internal team to use, but you may need to store a presentation aimed at a nationwide sales team in a special, password-protected online system.
  4. Workflow: The content creation process needs to adhere to any governance rules established by the organization. For example, a company might have a marketer write a blog post, send it to a designer to create images, and then have a manager review it before it’s posted on the corporate website.  
  5. Versioning: Throughout the workflow process, content is often edited and thus, there can be multiple versions to maintain and organize in case you need to revert to a previous draft or use it for some purpose, such as versions of a presentation designed for different client types.  
  6. Publication: During this stage, content is delivered to users through the desired channels, which often include outlets like a website or blog, intranet, email, or a third-party platform (e.g., YouTube, social media tools such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter). And of course, non-digital channels like printed newsletters still exist.
  7. Archiving: The process of moving older content that is no longer in use to an archive for long-term storage, or alternately deleted.

In order to succeed at content management, you need to develop a content management strategy: a set of guiding principles and goals for what you want to achieve with content management. In the next section, we’ll discuss the basic steps to follow when creating a content management strategy.

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5 Steps to Create a Content Management Strategy

In order to create a content management strategy, you need to focus on your needs and resources. There are five key areas to explore:

 

Creating a Content Management Strategy
  1. Know Yourself: Begin by determining your organization’s motives for content management and what you hope to gain. Perhaps you’re looking for ways to speed up the publishing process; maybe you’ve had issues with quality control and want to put some additional reviews into the editing process. Or, maybe you’ve got a lot of existing content that you could make better use of if it were more organized. Everything is fair game!  
  2. Set the Scope: Creating a content management solution can be a major initiative that requires a lot of time and money, so make sure you establish a reasonable scope based on top priorities. For example, if your main issue is quality control you might want to focus on workflow; if you’re more concerned about reusing existing content, a better archiving system might be the priority. You also may want to consider creating an end to end solution for specific types of content as a start. For example, consider focusing on blog posts as compared to other types of content your organization generates.
  3. Recruit the Team: In order for content management to succeed, you must involve key stakeholders from the beginning. First, they can help you think of any potential pitfalls or challenges and ensure your ultimate solution will account for them. Second, they will likely be the ones using the content management system or tools you develop and will be much more likely to embrace it if they feel they’ve been able to provide some input.
  4. Look Ahead: It’s easy to fall into the trap of solving today’s problems without also planning for the future. So make sure your content management strategy will work over the long haul. Will the volumes of content you’re producing increase over time as your business grows? Will you be adding new team members? Perhaps you’ll need to support new channels as well; for example if you change your primary communication tool from using a website to using a mobile app.
  5. Take Action: With a clear understanding of your needs, scope, resources, and future growth, you can create a roadmap for your planned solution and start putting it into place. For many people, selecting and implementing a content management system will play a significant role in this process.

What Is a Content Management System?

A content management system (often abbreviated as CMS) is a software tool that allows users to perform key content management functions, such as authoring and editing content. There are tools that support the full content management process from end to end, typically focusing on publishing digital content through the tool.

Note that a content management system is different from a content management framework, although they can allow you to do many of the same things. While a content management system is typically an out-of-the-box solution with the key features most users will need, a framework is more of an underlying technology that ensures different components of your content are compatible with each other and can be programmed to automate various processes. While a framework can ultimately be set up to do many of the things a content management system does, it takes a fair amount of coding and is best suited for companies that have access to coding resources, and those that have specialized needs that aren’t well suited by off the shelf solutions.

Because content management systems are a more standard choice, we’ll focus on providing a better understanding of those. There are a number of different types of content management solutions, which we’re organizing by the type of content they manage:

Online Content: Many content management systems are designed to help facilitate the process of creating content to publish on a website. Specific types of online content management systems include the following:

  • Web Content Management: Use these systems to create, manage, and publish pages for a website, all without requiring authors and editors to code in HTML.
  • Digital Asset Management: Allows users to organize and store digital assets such as photos, video, or audio files. You can use it in combination with a web content management system or other content management system.
  • Component Content Management: Also called XML content management, these systems essentially allow centralized storage of individual assets that can be used to make up a webpage, so the same component can be displayed in multiple places without being copied. For example, you can place a company logo on different pages but store it in one place.

Emerging Content Formats: Specialized content management systems are starting to appear to help companies with the following popular new types of content:  

  • Mobile Content Management: These systems allow corporate users to securely access content files from devices like phones and tablets, and typically focus on storage capabilities rather than publishing.
  • Video Content Management: Video poses special challenges due to large file sizes, which can cause problems with some content management systems and slow performance. A video content management system is optimized for storing, organizing, and delivering these huge files, and can include handy features like the ability to view an automatically-created storyboard or player software that works with different types of devices.
  • Social Media Management: These tools provide a handy way to make creating social media content more efficient and organized. While social media platforms obviously do include their own authoring and delivery capabilities, a social media management system can add on features like workflow and support for multiple authors, scheduling, and reusing content and more.

 

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Legacy Content: While digital content may have exploded, that doesn’t mean that older types of files and documents have gone away. Many companies also need to support the following:

  • Enterprise Content Management: Large companies in particular can benefit from enterprise content management systems that hold everything from documents to presentations to emails. Key priorities may include issues like maintaining security and auto-archiving files to ensure they aren’t lost if an employee’s laptop breaks down.  
  • Records or Document Management: Even good old paper files remain a priority for many businesses. Rather than software tools, the right solution here may be a relationship with a vendor that can store historic files and deliver them on demand, or assist with scanning them and creating a digital archive.

There are also specialized tools like digital asset management systems that focus on part of the process. Managing brand content is about more than simply storing assets. What it really comes down to is creating efficiency in the creation of, and securing access to, digital assets while maximizing their use across an organization. A digital asset management (DAM) system is designed to do just that. Collaboration between internal and external teams within a single source of truth, is essential to today’s successful content management strategy.

While it’s important to maintain a single source of truth within the organization for digital content, it’s also equally important that you’re also able to easily connect that content with the many places content lives externally. Whether it’s your website, ad campaigns, partner communication or anywhere in between, the ability to grant permissions and share CDN links is essential to maintaining a consistent brand experience by efficiently managing the content it’s made from.

According to Caitlin Pinkerton, Regional Marketing Specialist at Commscope, “[Digital asset management] has been great for collaboration. It's a great way to share content and resources with our partners and team members in one central location. It's made things very accessible and organized and helps make our teams more self-sufficient, which in return saves time and makes us more efficient overall.”


Content Management System Considerations

As we’ve seen, there are a multitude of content management systems to sort through. The following tips should help you figure out what you need.  

  • What kind of content are you trying to manage? Obviously, if you have a lot of video you might want to investigate video content management systems, whereas a typical enterprise content management system might work for someone who primarily has documents and presentations.
  • How much content do you have? The more content you have, the more robust of a system you will likely need. The challenge of organizing and storing so much content can also be a headache, which makes strong archival features a must.
  • How many people are involved? Multiple stakeholders can make strong workflow capabilities a must, and things can be further complicated if their teams are located all around the world. A simple, consumer-friendly tool like Wordpress might work fine for a website maintained by a small team at a single location, but it won’t be a good solution for a complex global site.
  • How important is consistency and accountability? If you want to make sure that multiple users maintain the same look and feel and user experience, you’ll want to find a tool with comprehensive templating and governance capabilities. Audit trail creation (which records which users made which changes) can be helpful for some organizations.  
  • How available are your IT resources? A company that has an onsite coder who knows HTML might not need an end to end web content management system, but that approach simply won’t work for a group of less technical marketers who need to put out a website on their own and want to know that WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) works.
  • What type of governance system am I looking for? Think of governance as the end of the statement “the buck stops here.” It needs to be an integral part of your content management approach. Perhaps you want a localized governance system, where the ability to approve and publish content lies as close as possible to the individual creators, Or maybe you’re looking for the discipline of a centralized governance system, which is great for ensuring brand compliance and avoiding duplicative work. Many content management systems are set up to permit a federated governance system, which is a bit of both: Multiple local managers can approve and publish content, but key policies like standards and style guides are set centrally.  

How Do Content Management Systems Work?

Now that you’ve gotten an understanding of content management systems and the different types available, we’ll take a deeper dive into how exactly they work. Many of these systems combine the basic components of content management into a single software platform, which means they allow you to manage and store content across its entire lifecycle, enable multiple contributors to play their various role, maintain editorial, design, and quality standards through set templates and levels of review, and provide version control management. Here’s what all of this involves:

  • Organize: Easily find content by classifying it through methods such as a system of folders and/or searchable tags and metadata. Most systems also index and allow you to retrieve content by common parameters such as creation or publish date or author.
  • Create: This facilitates creation of content, potentially within preset standards and style guidelines. For example, a web content management system might allow you to directly type in a blog post but with a maximum character count for headlines and required fonts.
  • Stakeholder Management: Allows you to set different user roles. For example, an admin can revise templates and styles, a contributor can only create content within specific areas, and an editor can see content from multiple contributors and approve for publication.
  • Editing: Enables users to revise content, potentially with features such as version management and audit trails. In other words, you can see who’s made what changes and go back to prior versions if desired.
  • Publishing: Makes content available to users. Today, that often means via a digital platform such as a website, social media platform, or email.
  • Short-term Storage: Keeps content available for editing and reuse, such as providing a database of image assets you can leverage for different site pages.
  • Archiving: Provides long-term storage for content that is no longer in use so you have access to it for research or historical purposes, but avoids cluttering your short-term storage for greater efficiency and ease of use.
  • Administration and Maintenance: Allows admin users to make any needed changes to the system, such as updating templates, improving performance, or fixing bugs in the publishing process.  

Deeper Dive: Content Management System Features

Now that you have an overall understanding of how content management systems work, let’s take a closer look at the features and capabilities that are essential to support those key components.

Integrated File Management: These capabilities help you store and access content.

  • Relational Databases: When you have different types of data within your organization, you may need a relational database to store and access them easily. These databases use a system of interlinked tables that you can access and modify using SQL queries.
  • Format Management: The ability to convert content into standard file formats is helpful in a lot of systems; for example, companies may want to be able to save a diverse range of images into specific file formats that work well online and avoid the need to have to store and use numerous different formats. For companies with a lot of paper documents, format management may even extend to using a service that scans and converts older files for electronic use.  
  • Indexing, Search, and Retrieval: The abilities to classify files according to an index, search based on desired criteria, and retrieve the desired files are crucial to any effective archiving and storage system. There can be a lot of variation in how these work within different systems. For example, some systems might only allow you to search tags or metadata attached to your content, while others can do full keyword searches.  

Workflow Features: These capabilities are key to stakeholder management and the editing and publishing process.

  • User Assignments and Permissions Management: Most content management systems allow you to establish a range of user roles with permission to perform different tasks, which are key to supporting your governance structure. Systems will also usually allow you to assign a task to a user (such as sending on a completed piece of content for approval) and avoid conflicting edits by having a specific user “check out” a piece of content when working on it.  
  • Audit Trail Logs: Particularly valuable for larger organizations where lots of people work on content, these capabilities typically allow you to track how many times a piece of content changed, when it changed, what the changes were, and who changed it amongst other data points. Learn more about this topic by reading Audit Trails: The Who, What, and When of Business Transactions.

     
    Sample Audit Trail Log

     
  • Historical File Version Management: As part of the workflow process, many systems also save multiple versions of a specific file so you can revert back if needed. This feature is also a necessary component of an audit trail, as it enables you to see the versions that specific contributors created.

Administrative Functions: These common features are built into many different content management systems.

  • Help Features: As with most software tools, content management systems will often have help tools, along with resources like online forums or wizards that can walk you through common tasks.  
  • Calendar: Calendars are frequently used and provide the ability to schedule publishing content in advance. Be sure to view when other planned content is being published to avoid problems like sending out multiple newsletters to the clients on the same day, or putting out multiple tweets during the same hour and then nothing else for the day.   
  • Lifecycle Planning and Management: These features can help automate rules around content throughout its lifecycle; for example, by moving promoted news articles down to a lower spot after they’ve been live for a day, or by automatically removing and archiving a page that encourages people to register for an event that is now past.

Web-friendly Features:

  • Digital Rights Management: For sites that either use a lot of third-party content or encourage others to purchase or share their content, digital rights management capabilities help protect copyright and ensure content is only used in accordance with set policies.
  • SEO Support: Web content management systems typically help web pages improve their placement on search engine results through features like fields for meta titles and descriptions.
  • Web Experience Customization: Some more advanced systems can provide a customized experience tailored to a site visitor’s behavior and preference; for example, by showing items previously browsed on a shopping site and recommended similar items.   

Content Management System Advantages and Disadvantages

Now that we’re all clear on what content management systems are and what they can do, what are some of their pros and cons? There are a lot of great benefits to content management systems, but if you don’t implement them properly or choose the wrong system, there can definitely be negatives as well.

The Good:

  • Efficient Team Management: WIth their governance processes and role-based stakeholder support, content management systems can promote team collaboration. They can make it a lot easier for multiple people to work on a specific piece of content without worrying about version control or if everyone is up to date, and can prevent individual users from going “rogue” and changing things they shouldn’t.
  • Unified Design: The style guides and templates built into most content management systems ensure that you keep a consistent look and feel. They’re great for enabling a website to maintain a clear brand identity even though dozens of people across the world are contributing content to it.
  • Systemic Version Control: We’ve all wasted time wondering whether a specific document is the latest version — a particular problem when people email files and store them locally. Content management systems eliminate this problem by providing a single version that is always the most current, and in some cases enable audit trails so you can see who’s made what changes.
  • Reduced IT/Coding Costs and Needs: Digital content management systems are designed to allow business users to create, edit, and publish content without knowing a line of code. While you will certainly need IT support to set this system up and make major changes, a CMS can make life easier for organizations without a lot of IT or coder staff.

The Not So Good:

  • Less Design Flexibility: The flip side of unified design standards is that you can’t color outside the lines. If you have really varied and unique content, a content management system might be too limiting, and you may wish to look into implementing a more flexible content management framework.
  • Software Bloat: The all-encompassing nature of content management can get complicated fast and lead to a bulky system that can be too complicated for users or impact performance. In some cases, organizations might try to cobble together multiple tools to get the exact functionality they need but wind up with a mess.
  • Difficult Training Processes: While business users may not need to learn how to code, they’re certainly going to have to learn how to use the content management system and that process isn’t always easy. Using a popular system can expedite the process, but the more customization you do, the more training you’ll need.  
  • Less IT Efficiency than Planned: If your content management system is buggy or too limiting, you may find you still need to keep a lot of coders around to make fixes or create new templates. Perhaps the worst-case scenario, you may constantly have to call an agency or third-party vendor for unexpected damage control that’s not in your budget.  

Too Much Focus on the Tech: Technology can have a way of taking over, and some people might find that they end up with a great-looking website that’s perfectly within brand standards, but with content that’s totally boring since authors no longer feel empowered to be truly creative. Or, marketing teams might stop brainstorming new approaches and instead focus on pushing more stuff through the established channels enabled by the content management system. It’s important to select a solution that works for you, not one that leaves you feeling that it’s actually the one in charge.


Understanding Content Management System Tools

To help you get started with the process of evaluating content management systems and identifying the right fit, here’s a quick overview of some of the popular options, organized by ideal use scenario.

Good for Small Websites: These free and low cost systems should have all the bells and whistles smaller organizations and websites will need.

  • WordPress: The preferred choice of bloggers everywhere, WordPress earned its large following by making it relatively easy and fast to set up a slick-looking site. It’s based on PHP and MySQL and users can install it locally on a server or use it with a third-party cloud-based service. The broad range of pre-programmed modules and help resources along with the cost (it’s open source and free) further contribute to its popularity.
  • Joomla: Also free and open source, Joomla is built on an MC framework and is also written in PHP. It’s not as popular as WordPress, in part because it’s a bit harder to use, and that also means there are fewer ready-made components and add-ons. However, the tool is also more flexible than WordPress and can be a good choice for companies with more complex needs such as support for multiple languages and regions.
  • BackDrop: BackDrop is based on Drupal, the technology that’s the third-largest player in the open content management system space. It probably allows the highest level of customization and control, but at the cost of a more difficult setup. It’s a good choice for companies with more sophisticated needs who want a more flexible, higher-performance system and aren’t afraid of custom code.

Good for Document Management: For organizations that are more focused on internal collaboration rather than publishing content online, these options may be worth considering.

  • SharePoint: As you’d expect given that it’s from Microsoft, SharePoint is all business and makes it easy to store, share, and manage files in office environments. Here’s an article that provides more detail on how you can use Sharepoint for document management.
  • Smartsheet: As a cloud-based enterprise work management platform, Smartsheet enables teams to attach almost any kind of file to a user-friendly spreadsheet interface — it’s a quick and easy way to share and store content. You can also easily notify users about assigned tasks through Smartsheet. Click here to learn more about document management with Smartsheet.

Good for Large sites and the enterprise: Large multinational companies and major websites have needs that an open source CMS isn’t going to fill. Here are some options.

  • OpenText ECM: This company has swallowed up a number of competing content and document management systems over the years, including Documentum and Interwoven. Whether you have a ton of content, want to manage content from mobile devices, or need to adhere to complex regulatory requirements, OpenText can do it all. It’s available on both a cloud and on-premises basis.
  • Oracle WebCenter: This suite of solutions from tech giant Oracle can also do it all. It can manage content in one central place and share it across multiple applications, which makes it a good choice for enterprises with a strong centralized governance policy. Oracle also focuses on providing customized web experiences. In fact, the company likes to call these tools “user engagement applications” instead of web content management systems.

Good for Social: While some web content management tools may claim they offer social capabilities, the reality is that most social media managers will want to use a dedicated platform that’s designed for social.

  • Hootsuite: In addition to its owl avatar, Hootsuite is known for its dashboard view that allows you to see a number of different feeds of information simultaneously, via multiple columns arranged across your display. The web app allows you to assign different user roles, schedule content, and create landing pages so you can build complete social campaigns within the tool. Hootsuite is particularly strong in reporting features and interactions with third parties like LinkedIn.
  • Sprout Social: This platform offers many of the same features as Hootsuite, with a few differences: It combines all your different accounts into a single feed rather than separate columns, and it also takes all the available information about people who interact with you and stores it into a handy record for recontacting. Both Sprout and Hootsuite are cloud-based only.

Selecting a Content Management Software Vendor

Now that you’ve taken a tour of some of the common content management system tools available, how do you choose? There’s a few key factors to bear in mind as you develop your selection criteria and evaluate different alternatives:

  • How big and how dispersed is my organization? Think about how many users you need to support and their locations. Will you need globalization and multiple language capabilities? The bigger and more complicated things get, the more robust of a solution you’ll require.
  • What level of IT support can I provide? If you don’t have many or any IT people on hand, you may want to go for a popular, open source system where there are plenty of online help resources and low-cost contractors or agencies that support it.
  • What is my budget? This is an obvious factor, but fortunately there are a lot of choices across the budget spectrum. Open source solutions could be a good choice for people without much to spend, but might not be robust and reliable enough for people with an enterprise need and a budget to match.
  • How much content do I have? For people with huge amounts of content, a solution with extensive storage and archiving capabilities will be key. Meanwhile, those same solutions might be cumbersome and too expensive for companies that don’t have a lot of content and don’t really need to access older content.  
  • Do I want a cloud-based solution? Choosing between a cloud-based and an on-premises solution can be another big decision. Cost and resources can be big drivers here: If you already have servers that can host your system along with IT resources to set it up and maintain it, on-premises can seem like a better option than having to pay annual subscription services for the cloud. However, you can also get up and running faster and manage growth more easily with a cloud solution.  
  • Does my industry have special requirements? Companies in the healthcare or finance sectors might need to do a lot more to keep information private and secure, and also may need to generate specific types of reports for government agencies and other stakeholders. It’s definitely important to keep these requirements in mind when evaluating a content management system.
  • Do I like the system’s user interface? Like beauty, ease of use is in the eye of the beholder. A system that seems intuitive to one user might seem way too complicated to another, or overly limiting and simplistic. Make sure to have some of the people who will actually be using the system evaluate it before making any final decisions.

Tips and Best Practices for Implementing a Content Management System

You should now have all the information you need to create a content management strategy, and start choosing and implementing a content management system. But how can you make sure your initiative will succeed? These tips and best practices that should help.

It’s all about the people. While it’s easy to focus solely on all the technical details, no content management system will work without support from the right people. There are many stakeholders who might not be too enthusiastic about adopting a new system: people who aren’t tech savvy and are afraid of learning a new system; “gatekeepers” who are afraid of losing control; and creative thinkers who don’t want to adhere to any standards or style guides.

Getting these folks on board early will be critical to your success, as will ensuring those people are comfortable with their roles within the new system. For example, someone that was routinely cc’d on new content on a “nice to know” basis might not be too thrilled to find out they will be a required approver who needs to review content ASAP to avoid holding up the process. Once your system is set up, training is essential to smooth adoption. Even people who may not ever use the system directly might benefit from a training so they can understand the new processes their team will be following.

Take it step by step. When you’re creating a content management strategy, you have to think big and consider every current and future need you foresee your company having. But that same approach may not work as well when it comes to implementation — especially if, like most companies, you have limited resources and tight timeframes. A phased approach with incremental improvements may be a lot more effective than a “big bang,” as it will allow your company to extend their investment over time and also give the team a chance to gradually adjust to some major changes.

Test, test, and test again: When you’re behind schedule, the temptation to skimp on testing can be strong. However, launching on time with a buggy and unreliable system isn’t a good outcome. Make sure to budget enough time and resources for testing from the beginning, and verify that you have the flexibility to take even more time if necessary.

Pitfalls to Avoid: It’s great to understand best practices and sometimes even better to discover the common mistakes people often make. Here’s a few important ones to bear in mind:

  • “Boiling the ocean.” As noted above, a phased process will likely deliver a better result than taking on too much at once. Set a clear and realistic scope and don’t fall victim to scope creep.
  • Cutting too many corners. Implementing a content management system can be a major investment and there can be a lot of pressure to economize. However, it’s best to listen to your solution vendor and any other professionals who are helping with your initiative and pare down scope rather than skimp on recommended items — or push tasks to internal teams who may not be qualified or could be overloaded. One item that’s often neglected is the time it can take to move legacy content into the new system. When dealing with large volumes of content, automated tools can be used to help minimize the task, but otherwise it can be an extremely time consuming manual process. Make sure you’ve thought of everything in your plan and budgeted accordingly.
  • Thinking you can “set it and forget it.” So you’ve gotten your system up and running and now feel entitled to move on to another project after a long vacation? Think again! Even with the best possible plan, you’ll inevitably learn a lot over the first few months about how your system is working in the real world, and then you’ll need to make tweaks and fixes. It will take time to get it running like a well-tuned engine, and even then there will still be work to be done as your business changes and your content needs evolve. Make sure to budget time and resources for ongoing evaluations and system upgrades.      

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