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9 Best Practices for Implementing a CMS

Giving people the ability to update their slice of the campus website doesn't sound like a revolutionary idea--at least not in an era ruled by mass participation in social networks, the sharing of mashups, and the craze to add widgets to personal websites. Yet, the easy road for achieving that--the use of a content management system (CMS)--is lightly traveled, according to software publisher OmniUpdate. It estimates that only 15 percent of colleges and universities have deployed a CMS to update the content on their  sites. Why such hesitation to deploy a solution that can help a school keep its site refreshed in a timely way?

According to Lance Merker, CEO and president, besides the obvious issue of budget concerns around technology investments, a major roadblock is change management--making sure that people are trained and will actually work with the new system. Here he shares nine best practices to help ease the transition from performing ad hoc Web efforts to adhering to the structure of a CMS.

1. Selecting and implementing a CMS isn't a project just for the IT group. Get other users involved early in the decision making process.

"Where we've seen projects fail," said Merker, "is when the IT department has the responsibility thrown to them: 'Hey, they're the smart ones. They understand technology. Let them figure it out.'"

That means besides the IT staff, a school should also engage marketing communications people, as well as those responsible for crisis communication and other end users. Why marcomm? They (presumably) understand the concepts of branding, messaging, content, and reusability. "The Web is not just about putting out a brochure," said Merker. "It's about communicating effectively to different audiences, whether that's prospective students, current students, parents, the community at large, or [alumni]."

The same is true for those who have a role in crisis communication. "There needs to be multiple channels of communication," Merker said. "These ... can involve the Web in such a way that it becomes a lifeline to those trying to seek information in near real-time." He cited the shooting incident at Virginia Tech as an example. "Those folks who made the biggest impact on the public and the news media and those trying to seek information about their loved ones were those who were involved in real-time rapid Web content management."

Finally, ordinary end users for the software can help decision makers gauge how difficult the system will be to learn, said Merker. "If the users don't want to use [the new software], it's going to fail."

2. When pulling together a short list of potential solutions, ask yourself: Who else uses this product--and for what?

CMSs have been around since the dot-com era, and many were built to sustain commercial endeavors on the scale of an Amazon or eBay. Several go far beyond the features needed in a higher ed environment, providing a fairly complex product or service that offers the wrong types of workflows and processes for campuses. They were "originally designed," said Merker, "to solve different problems."

A large part of the complexity of these systems, he explained, is that they're designed for massive transaction processing, which frequently requires that every element be maintained in a back-end database. That in turn can become a major bottleneck to performance. "It requires more hardware and firepower to make those systems equal to what traditionally works great and what has worked great for [most] of the universities out there," he said.

Where transactions do need to take place--for example, as part of an online bookstore--Merker suggested carving that piece out from the rest of the website.

Also, colleges and universities offer a greater diversity of users potentially touching the website--students, faculty, staff, some skilled, some not so skilled--than other organizations. To find a system of the right fit, advised Merker, check dedicated sites or discussion boards that cater to a higher ed community, attend conferences, and talk with colleagues at other schools. He said he believes a short list can be pulled together in a matter of days or weeks.

3. Only standards help ensure long-term sustainability.

Almost every CMS is going to offer its own set of cool bells, whistles, and widgets that you'll probably consider implementing as part of your solution, because they seem like quick answers to common problems. Merker said he discourages their use as much as possible for the sake of long-term CMS flexibility. Instead, he recommended following standards-based approaches.

As an example, a vendor might offer a process by which a printer-friendly page is created at that same time that the page is being created for viewing on screen. The problem, said Merker, is that "you end up with two separate pages that need to be managed over time." A better long-term approach might be to use cascading style sheets (CSS) and a CSS script that will replace the screen style with the printed-page style on demand. As changes are warranted with time, they can simply be made to the CSS template or script.

Two other important standards cited by Merker: the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the eXtensible Stylesheet Language (XSL). "Faculty directories, course curriculum--it's all being output by databases in the form of XML, whether it's coming out of a large course catalog system like Datatel or Blackboard," said Merker. "These are files that are output in an XML format, which can [then] be effectively used by designing an XSL file and embedding it in a web page automatically without having to touch the CMS beyond the initial template design."

4. Keep your pilot project short.

While Merker said he considers a "bake-off" a "great thing," he also advised that you keep them as short as possible. "We've seen a lot of pilot projects that last a year," he said. "In the end [the people participating] get involved perhaps in another project that sidetracks them or they lose their ambition or funding."

The most successful pilots have been those that lasted a week or two. What fits into that category? Perhaps a new section on the website or an existing department or section of the site that includes some highly visible pages. "Bring those into the trial," said Merker, "and test it out with different subject matter experts who are going to be involved with those pages."

5. Develop your change management plan upfront and then work it.

Getting people to change their work practices is one of the biggest challenges to success in most CMS initiatives. "There are far more implementation failures caused by lack of use than some system level incompatibility," said Merker. "If end users are not willing partners in this, they won't participate. The distributed content editing model, which is the promise of CMS, will ultimately break down and not succeed."

In the case of one four-year public institution on the West Coast, the leaders, who worked within the library department, created the role of evangelist to lead the charge. One evangelist, a "huge squeaky wheel," according to Merker, was recruited to do all of the training for the CMS. "Rather than coming in and apologizing for fact that [people] were going to have to learn a new system, they had this cheerleader out there, who was so excited about it, she embodied the enthusiasm of all of the best that the CMS could be," he said.

Another school, this one in New York, ran parallel site redesign and CMS selection projects, each kept on its own track so as not to influence the other. "By training their users to use a CMS on their existing website, they actually used it as a proving ground ... for hundreds of people," said Merker.

Once the new site was rolled out, these same people handled the migration work, which shortened the process to a couple of weeks. "In the end, they had these very experienced people who took accountability for this new content," said Merker, "because they had actually made it happen."

6. Prioritize who will get trained and how.

Training needs will vary depending on the level of work being performed by the individual. A CMS will typically only take a few hours to learn if the user only needs to know how to enter new content into the system, whereas an administrator may require several days of training.

On the user front, plan to hold several training sessions for end users, and spread those out over time, not back to back or one day after another. Merker suggested training the most enthusiastic people first. "Then they come out singing the praises of being empowered and help get more people signed up."

Beyond that, consider what types of pages people will be working on to prioritize training. One East coast Ivy League college took the approach of training the people responsible for the most important tier-two pages first. This excluded those who worked on the home page or pages that garnered the biggest amounts of traffic. Next trained were those responsible for keeping tier-three pages updated. This school reserved the top end for last, said Merker. "They knew that was the least changeable and the most potentially damaging should it be changed incorrectly."

As for those who will be administering the software, Merker recommends including funding and resources for keeping them trained at a much higher level and in a sustained way. That includes giving them the time and budget they need to participate in user groups and conferences.

7. Don't assume that your CMS vendor will or should help with the design of your site.

For that, bring in experts who understand the psyche of your students and prospective students--whether that's in house talent, outside consultants, or a combination of both.

"Most effective college websites out there are the ones that really get it," said Merker. "They're constantly moving, constantly updating. Those that get it do a great job, and those that don't have websites that look like they've been around for 10 years and haven't been touched, even though they have."

Where the CMS vendor can come in useful is in showing the CMS administrators how to develop the templates based on those designs.

8. Plan for variety. The use of a CMS doesn't mean the pages on your school's site will all look alike.

There's no cookie cutter approach that works for every college, said Merker. "You can't take somebody else's design and apply it consistently through your design, unless you really do want your college to look exactly like somebody else's."

Likewise, the same is true departmentally. You should expect variations to a theme. Yet, figuring out what how much variation is too much is tricky. Merker cites the case of one West coast client that had seven different colleges. The branding from one college to another was so different, said Merker, "undergraduates were graduating from the institution and going elsewhere to graduate school not even realizing their college offered the program they were looking for."

On the other extreme are schools that have two templates, one for the home page and another for every other page in the site. Ultimately, said Merker, there's a great benefit to having consistency throughout the site, but only as much as is required.

9. You don't have to boil the ocean with a new CMS. Use it to achieve evolutionary change with your site.

Forget about big-bang projects where everything will change on some far-off go-live date. Oftentimes, not only do those projects never meet their deadlines, but the participants become so frustrated, they abandon the work midway through.

A smarter approach, advised Merker, is to take CMS work at a slower pace. Rather than redesigning the website, simply evolve it, perhaps department by department. Consider training users and administrators enough to bring in a usable form of the website and migrate it piecemeal into the content system. "Ultimately we need to fix the core problem," said Merker, "which is to make the content reasonably up to date and effective for whoever the audience might be."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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