The Human CMS

Anyone who’s been involved in technology rollouts and training knows that there are not enough hours in the day to address every issue that will come up when the person finally sits alone at their computer using the system for real. As a result, you kind of take a chance and focus on the most critical skills: logging in, using basic features, finding documentation and help. In the world of Web training, the one thing that technology trainers lack both the time and the authority to do is to teach about understanding the nature of the content itself.

In the necessary rush to move University content online over the last decade, the issue of actual content in its meaning is probably the least addressed. Aside from the not-enough-hours-in-the-day phenomenon, there are other issues, to my mind, that complicate Web content creation and organization in the largely Web 1.0 world that is University Web communications.

The UMWBlogs project is a great indication of what happens when content is owned by the content creator and not the institution. Even pushing aside UMWBlogs inherent luxuries of the first amendment and personal expression, there is something else afoot in what makes UMWBlogs content more comprehensible than the stuff on the UMW Web site.

I would argue that it comes down to the motivation on the part of the person sitting at that terminal to post something on the Web. Posting to your blog involves understanding the nature of the post relative to the rest of a blog that you created. That’s a relatively small universe of content, and it’s content that you created, so you have a natural understanding of it. The result is a kind of narrative that builds over time, and the blog becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. It tells a story. The more personal investment that the content creator has in the blog, the more likely you are to want to follow the story over time as it unfolds.

When, however, your job is to post Web content within a container called “the University,” and you are only a small part of that universe, it is nearly impossible for the content creator to understand the context. We create organizationally-driven architectures with department Web sites simply because, for the individual author, that narrows down the context enough to be able to plan where content is going and when.

We all know the perils of organizationally-driven site architecture, and how difficult it can make finding things for the person navigating the site. It’s the kind of architecture that screams “go to the search box.” Indeed, Google’s home page may be the way every University site should look: One big search box with the organization’s logo. At least, that would be an honest response to user need.

The promise of content management systems is that, by making content, rather than pages, the focus, content can appear and re-appear in multiple contexts without being relegated to a page buried deep inside the organization. The problem with this promise is that those who have editorial control of the overarching site architecture are not organizationally positioned for an in-depth understanding of all areas of the institution. Usually, it is the folks in university relations and development that have ultimate editorial control over University Web sites. This area of competency is great for single-facing, targeted and mass media messaging to shape perceptions of the institution: talking to the press, news releases, public events calendars, development.

The trouble is that, at a community as diverse and complex as a University, the synergies that could possibly arise from all the things happening and being said at any given moment cannot be leveraged in any interesting way as long the University site is seen as primarily PR. So much of what happens at universities, from sales at the bookstore, to registration activities, to menus at the dining hall, to what-did-you-think-about-that-visiting-lecturer, live outside the scope of public relations. This is not a statement in any way on the myopia of university relations professionals. By and large, they are very good at what they do. However, what they have been tasked with doing vis-à-vis the Web is more complex than the print and media relations world alone. They’ve been asked to do an impossible task: taking an essentially modern approach (throw newer technologies at the problem) to what is in essence a postmodern problem: harnessing the collective by truly empowering understanding of the larger university context. That is, reaching in and creating meaning every time a person sits at their terminal to post something to the institutional Web site.

If we can define the problem as building meaning for the Web author, rather than selecting the “best CMS,” we can then begin to shape solutions to address THAT very human issue. When people feel as compelled to post and manage quality, relevant, and timely content on an institutional Web site, rather than throwing things up only because they were asked to by their supervisor, we will have advanced institutional Web communications further than any CMS technology, no matter how seductive and “robust,” can do alone.