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Best Practices for Using a CMS

Higher ed web teams have to consider a variety of users and departments when managing web pages.
University Business, Jul 2007

There is simply no bigger challenge for any web team on the planet than that of managing a college or university website. Most college web management strategies rely on the "squeaky-wheel" approach, or employ various textbook triage techniques in an attempt to care for areas of the site that are suffering most. If this sounds like your institution, you're not alone. The web managers at even the most admired university websites are constantly struggling to keep their sites responsive and up to date. If you are planning to purchase a content management system (CMS), you might be surprised to learn that all your problems will not magically go away. Indeed, the real secrets to maintaining a great college or university web presence are leveraging your CMS with careful planning, and using best practices.

There is no shortage of web CMS solutions to choose from today. Assuming you've already gone through the proper evaluation process, you've (hopefully) got the tools you need. The question now becomes how best to use these newfound tools. Ultimately it's up to you to put a framework in place that ensures your website can be leveraged and is scalable and sustainable. If done properly, this framework will not only help manage the madness, but it will also create opportunities unlike any that have come before.

Employing "best practices" means choosing systems and using techniques
that have worked best for others in the unique environment of higher

This framework includes CMS technology, but perhaps more importantly, a process shift that involves the participation of additional stakeholders in the institution. Make no mistake, leveraging the human element is one of the most important success factors of deploying a CMS. Of course, all this must be done in such a way that the technology and framework do not, in and of themselves, become impediments for sustainability or growth. This is where it gets tricky.

To understand the dangers here, it's important to understand a little background on CMS vendors. Most web CMS solutions were designed initially for the complexities of media publishing and e-commerce sites. In the early days of the web, dot-coms drove the development of the CMS, and many of today's CMS vendors are rooted in the development of systems designed to satisfy the needs of transaction-based web businesses. Highly customized multimillion-dollar CMS solutions were all the rage in the late 1990s, and none of them fit the specs or the budgets of higher education. Since then, systems have evolved to be more user-friendly and less "custom," but without some careful planning up front, it's easy for your website architecture (and your content editors themselves) to become prisoners of a CMS that was not designed for the unique complexities of the .edu website.

With these factors in mind, the search for the proper framework of best practices is fairly straightforward. Look at what's working for other institutions that have already cut a path through the jungle. Employing "best practices" means choosing systems and using techniques that have worked best for others in the unique environment of higher education. Stay away from strategies developed by engineers who focused on the needs of e-commerce, news, media, or other highly admired sites. Just because "Google does it that way" doesn't mean it's a good fit for your university.

Whatever framework you settle upon, there are five best practices components that are repeatedly used by colleges and universities:

1. Avoid Building an Empire--One of the most tempting ways to build a CMS framework is to start at the product level and build an empire of resources to support it. This seems very logical. You've invested in a CMS, and it deserves a healthy foundation of resources such as technical personnel and hardware (perhaps some redundant hardware just in case). Yes, it's tempting, but dangerous. Empire building around a product or technology can stifle big-picture thinking and create an unhealthy agenda that includes protection of the very empire itself.

A CMS should be thought of as an enabling framework that's modular and scalable. Rather than hiring more programmers that understand the details of the CMS language of choice or widgets that can be built from its proprietary application programming interfaces (APIs), choose a more standards-based approach, allowing plug-and-play modularity whenever possible. For example, just because a CMS provides an API for building a blogging component doesn't mean you should reinvent the blogging wheel. Talk to the CMS vendor about its ability to publish to blogging standards (XML-RPC and MoveableType). Calendars, scheduling software, RSS, podcasting, and virtually any conceivable web application that's used today has a best-of-breed equivalent that's already been shaken out by numerous other institutions.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, or choosing a structural template
design that would lock them into any given technology, the Dartmouth
team chose a simple approach.

Building an empire results in the employment of resources that build rather than buy. That in turn leads to proprietary designs that might lead you down a separate path from the rest of the world--a path you might later regret.

2. Design for the Long Haul--One of the best practices--and one that worked for Dartmouth College--is to design for the long haul. Founded in 1769, Dartmouth has a history of long-term planning. Considered a leader in academic computing long before the web was popular, Dartmouth took the long-haul approach when it came to web design. As a part of its framework for web content management, the web team at Dartmouth stuck to a standards-based approach to CMS templates with the goal of designing once--once and for all.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, or choosing a structural template design that would lock them into any given technology, the Dartmouth team chose a simple approach that could very well guarantee long-term scalability and one that would "future proof" web architecture--regardless of design (look and feel) or technologies of choice (web applications). Using a simple combination of CSS and nested files Dartmouth has created a framework of XHTML templates that's table-less and compliant across the board. Best of all, the entire design of the site, as well as the look and feel of individual departments, is reconfigurable with a few changes to a small handful of CSS files. The CMS is used to manage content, but the architecture and design of the Dartmouth website is both future-proof and not locked into any proprietary technology or vendor specifications.

3. Avoid the Big Bang--Think evolution, not revolution. It's tempting to scope the project to solve all your problems at the same time. Redesign your website, include faculty pages, put every page of your entire website into the CMS, and then "go live," all at once--why not? Everything's connected. The vendor might not have your best interests in mind if they encourage you down the Big Bang path. It's time to think big, but start small. Decouple your projects and get your CMS up and running in stages. Most CMS systems will let you roll out parts of the site (departments, or groups of similar pages) one at a time. This can be a great way to offer training in stages as well. As a department is rolled out, train those responsible for its content. Thinking evolutionary allows you to work on a planning horizon that best suits your resources and helps mitigate the risks.

4. Form Follows Function--When Pepperdine University decided to redesign websites (each college within the university has its own site), its web and multimedia team understood the importance of designing around the basic needs of its audience. Knowing full well that RSS, rich media, and even blogs were going to play a big roll in how students, prospective students, and alumni would consume content from its websites, Pepperdine built the functional architecture that fit those needs and then designed websites around the functional model. Web content management was at the core of the framework that was settled on. Now the web team relies on the CMS to manage static and dynamic content, such as RSS feeds. For example, new articles added in one part of the site are re-purposed through RSS feeds and displayed on departmental home pages as well as other important landing pages when appropriate. The CMS is used to manage both pages and RSS feeds to create a seamless end-user experience for all users of the system.

5. Create Evangelists--Perhaps the single biggest criterion for success when rolling out a CMS is end-user acceptance. More product failures are caused by lack of use than by bugs or system incompatibilities. If users are not willing partners in the success of the rollout, they won't come to training courses, and they won't participate in the distributed content editing model most web content management systems rely on to succeed. Managers at State University of New York at Oswego in upstate New York knew the danger of this potential pitfall and designed a training process as part of implementing the CMS that supplied grease to the squeakiest wheels first. By doing so, they ultimately created web content management "evangelists" who, in turn, spread the gospel to those around them. Rather than simply "training the trainers," Oswego trained anyone who voluntarily signed up to edit web content. Those early adopters were eager to get their hands on the system; not only did they pioneer the training process, but they ended up helping to develop the course materials as well. These evangelists played a huge role in getting the word out that the system was easy to use, and they got others to "want" to edit web pages--even those who would have been otherwise reluctant. The end result was an overwhelming acceptance of the CMS on campus and a huge win for all the stakeholders in the website.

Higher education websites are unique, because they are not purely transactional or article based. They don't serve homogeneous content from a database--nor should they be forced to do so. They don't offer services to a cookie-cutter audience of consumers, or offer transactional services to businesses. They are not maintained by professional authors and techno programmers. These factors must be key considerations when selecting a CMS, as well as the unique human elements that characterize the institution's staff and various parties that provide content to the website. Usability is the key--or the killer. Acceptance and use is driven primarily by ease of use and familiarity. The return on investment of new technology is zero if no one accepts or uses it.

For example, don't choose a framework that forces a migration of legacy content into a proprietary database schema when a more straightforward CSS-driven page design is better suited to the long-term goals of the site. Web standards should be embraced to ensure long-term scalability.

But, most importantly, employ strategies that are brutally simple to adopt by end-users and administrators. Web content management is a framework that includes people as much as it provides technological solutions. If your people cannot, or will not, participate, then the framework is worthless. Adopt strategies that consider the diverse needs of your most valuable resource--the people who will use the system. Keep this in sharp focus, and you will succeed in implementing a CMS, together with fulfilling the primary mission of good web content management and, ultimately, the mission of the institution itself.

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