The Visible University

Every time a University Web site is re-tooled, there is this tug of war between those who see it as a marketing tool, and those who see it as a part of their working environment. A couple of years ago, when implementing the portal, we debated whether internal policies and forms should be taken off the public web site altogether and placed in the portal, behind authentication.

There were two arguments against this, one philosophical, the other pragmatic. Philosophically, the notion of a public institution having its policies available for the public to see, and for colleagues at other institutions to refer to, seems to be philosophically correct. I know when I’ve worked in drafting or re-drafting policy, searching for other institution’s policies is a big part of that process.

Pragmatically, folks on campus set the UMW Web site as their home page out of habit, and may not want to sit and parse the difference between what is considered internal vs. external. What seems obvious to communications or IT folks may not be obvious to an administrative user who just wants to access something “off the web.”

As we discuss re-tooling the public site within a possible Sharepoint framework, a big part of that discussion has brought up this topic again. Once again, I am torn because of the considerations stated above. So, I have to wonder, if we are to fulfill both the philosophical and pragmatic concerns for keeping it all public, what is NOT working in the current environment to make it all seem so cluttered?

I believe it’s a matter of information architecture and presentation more than anything else. Keep in mind, I built the system that’s now a big blob of burgeoning content. Of that, I am quite proud. Visually, we absolutely achieved the questionable “Holy Grail” of design standardization, with every department page on the site looking, with little difference, identical.

There are two reasons for the lack of variety: Lack of time and resources. I was given two months to achieve full conversion of the new design throughout the ENTIRE SITE. All that was in my office at the time was me and one part-time PHP programmer. Second, I reported to IT and as a result did not have the official “authority” to advocate for distinction of design based on content. The University Relations position at the time was that EVERYTHING was to look the same. A rather literal interpretation of standardization, but I was not organizationally positioned to reason why.

The mandate for standardization was met by the solution, and the limits of standardization, as a result, are pretty obvious: There is no real visceral distinction that tells someone we are in a different universe of content now, a universe that pertains to your needs in the workplace vs. you visiting our site to learn about us.

So, I’m wondering if these divergent needs of clean marketing tool and public policy-wonk transparency can be addressed using a middle-ground approach. Does the “internal” environment as we are discussing it, need to necessarily be protected via authentication? Can it merely break off and be another public Web site (visually and navigationally) populated by internally-relevant content?

There is bound to be content that is relevant to both internal and external audiences. Matter of fact, it’s kind of mathematically impossible for that NOT to happen: a 50/50 chance over 20,000 unique URLs? I think it might happen once or twice…Where do we tell folks to go when it’s in a gray area?

The advantage of using Sharepoint with a public and private face seems to me to be that we can decide along a continuum of content which is absolutely confidential, to content which is most relevant to internal audiences, to content which is absolutely relevant to external audiences. But it’s a continuum, and I don’t want to draw the line any further along than the line of confidentiality — which is really what authentication is for. Authentication is about declaring yourself authorized to see something. It’s not a cheap fix for information architecture and intelligent, complex Web design.

Where I understand the “clutter” argument of keeping the internal content in a separate place, and even advocated for it years ago, I’m now converted to the other side. Not only am I convinced that making such distinctions is not scalable or enforceable, but I am convinced that we owe the Citizens of the Commonwealth access to how we conduct our business and spend their money.

In the 1980s, I worked as a Building Code and Zoning consultant in NYC. I became fascinated with how the zoning came to be, how the codes evolved, all the different versions, how some buildings got “grandfathered” and variances were granted. One of my favorite things was to be assigned to research the history of a building undergoing alterations. They NYC Department of Buildings kept everything on microfiche in those days. Anything older than 1978, and you’d get the original blueprints.

Aligning the construction standards with the prevailing codes at the time gave me a window into how the city was constructed (organically, really) and when things got SO out of hand in terms of density that the codes needed to be overhauled to keep the place from going up in flames.

All this is to say, even something as mundane as a travel and reimbursement form is some future window into how business is conducted in this day, this time, in the Commonwealth. I’m not sure it’s up to me to make a decision that I want to hide that from the public.

The University’s public Web site IS a marketing tool. But, the larger Web is a community, and the Web site of a public institution is part of government transparency, and, however mundane, part of history, just like those old microfiches and dusty building codes. Thinking of it another way, in the absence of all the “man behind the curtain” kind of day-to-day policy stuff, our public Web site will make us look like a product rather than a place. It’s subtle, but I think it would strip us of some of what makes public institutions so cool.

There is a way to have both. We just need more time this time to develop a more complex information architecture, and get away from the frantic, simplistic notion that design standardization is paramount. When it serves to confuse, it ain’t pretty anymore.

Day on the Death Star

We spent the day with a consultant specializing in MS Sharepoint. Yes, after a meeting about open source social networking tools, I climbed out of Luke Skywalkers X-Wing fighter into the heart of the Death Star.

My tongue is firmly in my cheek. The longer I do this kind of stuff, the more I realize that I can’t count anything out. The religious wars in which I’ve been a part — open source vs. proprietary environments — seem to be entered into with large blind spots based on myriad agendas.

I’ve spent two months having trouble accepting that an enterprise Web authoring and document management solution, much less one from Microsoft, could ever be a viable alternative to the PHP-based solutions we have now. But, I’ve come to a point to have to open my mind or feel shackled by my own biases.

Solutions like this seem more attractive when you’re dealing with a now-dated environment of manually-managed shared drive directories, an unrelated homegrown open-source Web environment, with a loosely-related portal/ERP frontend, and a completely unrelated totally cool academic and personal Web authoring platform where the stuff that IS the University online is happening.

And the answer is, it depends.

I’m more squeamish about Sharepoint CMS than the collaboration and document management features. I fear a lock-down in creativity that could result. I fear training and staffing continuity issues for proprietary platforms like .NET, programmers for which are highly paid in relation to folks who churn out PHP. I worry about vendor lock-in, about the ability to migrate in the future when the inevitable happens and a new tool is invented.

But, in keeping with the notion from yesterday’s post that the institutional Web site has to offer clarity, functionality, and easy access, along with creative charm, the locus for creativity seems to shift from the pride in the clever code backend/snappy graphics thing (which is always fun, in a narcissistic developer kind of way), to managing and delivering CONTENT. Imagine that.

Perhaps, then, the backend of the enterprise need not be super, duper open source, but rather stable and supported, able to read and serve RSS, which Sharepoint does. And it sure would be great to have ready documentation instead of spending hours debugging something that the last guy wrote. That kind of open-source, roll up your sleeves, we got the barn let’s put on a show is essential for creative, academic and personal authoring, and I love doing that stuff. Gladly, we are living in the end times for the FrontPage and Dreamweaver hegemony. Free open source, no coding needed unless you LIKE that kind of thing, is the ultimate barrier-reducer in the personal Web publishing context.

For most Universities, the content on the Web site begins and ends in the public Web environment. Now, I’m starting to be persuaded that enterprise Web site environments (organizing and delivering audience-aware content) no longer need to OWN the content. In that context, I’ll climb out of the X-Wing for a while, but, I want the keys back 🙂