University Content Management ;P

Reading .net today I noticed an article by Patrick Lauke comparing bespoke page production to framework or CMS based methods (“The artisan and the mass-producer“, p. 94, November ’07 edition). He uses the University of Salford as the example, which is entirely valid considering that’s his experience. Had I not worked in a similar institution and carried out the research section of a very similar project, I would have finished reading the article assuming this issue was the only major hurdle facing implementation of content management in a university (being the dolt that I am). In fact the issues are numerous and run deep, so much so that I felt the need to expand on his opinion.

To start, you may be surprised that every university doesn’t have a CMS already, this fact alone should provide some evidence of the wrangling that occurs when just trying to get such a project off the ground.

I totally agree with Patrick, a CMS should not represent loss of control. In fact, it offers freedom from mundane web editing for the downtrodden Web Provider (university speak for ‘person who edits web pages’). However I think discussing implementation of institutional content management systems by purely referring to how it changes the web doesn’t cover the whole story. Staff changes have to be considered too.

Traditionally the role of web provider within the institution could often be seen as that of hobbyist. The role would generally fall either to someone with good content or good technical knowledge (although people with both sets of knowledge did exist, I think they were in the minority). When the legislation changed in 2001, with the introduction of SENDA (Special Educational Needs and Disability Act), institutions across the country moved to introduce stronger regulation to their content production. Codes of practice were tightened, in-house training courses became a requirement; the age of the ‘hobbyist’ was coming to an end.

Welcome to the age of content management. On the face of it, content management represents a well-balanced system, it separates all of the aspects of web publishing, giving control to the various experts. The marketing department gets an overall control of branding, computer services gets control of the code output and the faculty gets control of the content. Just as it should be. However, by removing the coding function of the web provider role, the institution must guard against losing the pockets of excellent practice that have developed and (more importantly) losing good will amongst staff.

Downgrading a job by removing the technical aspect can have an effect on the job classification (and potentially pay scale) of an unexpectedly large percentage of employees. It is especially true in the divisional university that change on this scale is the only catalyst to finding out the true size and appearance of the web provider community.

Also, the web stirs up passionate arguments because it represents a window of communication, an identity, for even the smallest research project. Compromise (or dictatorship from marketing/computer services) must arise for change to progress when seeking to fundamentally alter the method groups within the institution use to present themselves on the web.

It has always been difficult for me to marry up the world of institutional web publishing and the world of web evangelist. I take both seriously. Although of course there is some overlap in their objectives, the evangelist’s main aim defaults to ensuring standards whilst the institution’s main aims are content, content, content – with a quick turnaround (as Patrick states). Good content management strikes a balance between both of these requirements. Therefore for the purposes of timeliness and compliance with the law, some form of content management is in the future of every university.

Implementing a content management system in an organisation as diverse as a university can be a detailed job. No matter what status quo you find in many parts of the institution, you’ll always find one section where content collection, storage or publishing requirements are vastly different to the rest. For example, the computing school wants to protect its ability to impress their tech savvy audience with tailored functionality and (b)leading edge features; the management school must meet the expectations of an audience ranging from post A-Level to business executive; central services such as finance all require tailored electronic systems (often with a web interface) that allow them to communicate with stakeholders. To each of these sections the CMS represents potential loss of control and change to business processes within the office. To some that’s scary stuff.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, all I can say is that I know this situation requires big helpings of change (and expectation) management. This is because in my experience one of the best ways to upset a group of people is to be perceived to be ‘taking away’ their website. I also know, to truly meet the business requirements of this kind of institution requires a good team of researchers and implementers. Generally the definition, understanding and solving of the issues that arise can only be achieved with the collaboration of experts, even if one of these experts is a lowly web provider.

Posted on Monday 5 November 2007.

Posted in employment/experience, marketing, politics | 2 comments »

2 Responses to “University Content Management ;P”

  1. Completely agree. Of course my article was using very broad strokes to only highlight one particular facet of the problem. Also, the CMS I have in mind is one that offers quite granular control/access levels, allowing the technically proficient authors to have far greater influence on the markup and behind-the-scenes code (creating sub-templates themselves, for instance, rather than having to use one centrally mandated template for everything; also the ability to actually write special modules that integrate into the CMS framework to allow for their very specific needs or special applications). I certainly don’t want to see anybody downgraded because their only reason for having the job was their technical proficiency … it’s more a case of freeing up those who have been burdened with both the technical and content writing / organising aspects. A CMS is, of course, not a panacea, and also can’t be implemented in a vacuum…it needs fundamental changes in culture and roles to go hand in hand with the (far easier, in comparison) technical roll-out.
    So yeah, this is all spot on.

  2. Thanks Patrick, sounds like you’ve got a very good system and the right attitude (IMHO). I’ve always feared the tendency of some system implementers/providers to lock things down as a matter-of-course due to a lack of trust in the users (in this case users being web providers) and extending from this, a lack of ability to oversee everything users post up to the web. There has to be trust, I suppose to get that users need training etc. and like you say, some of this requires fundamental changes in culture. Not impossible, but the last institution I worked for found that very hard in amongst the other normal politics. Still it’s good to know someone’s still pluggin away at it with good intentions intact, where I wimped out and decided to move on.

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