Every Site a Unique Snowflake: Content Management Platform Proliferation

Content Management's Greatest Hits

Working with Higher Education clients, I’m constantly reminded of the problem of platform proliferation. Every school, department, college, lab, faculty member, research institution, club, organization, program, library, and building needs its own unique content management platform, brand, and experience. In the land of higher education, one is never talking about “the site” but rather the collection of sites – typically including some combination of known, official, supported platforms and a whole sprawl of “grey area” sites in various states of “not supported” limbo.

This is compounded, of course, by the reality that new sites are created, but old sites don’t get archived or retired, just orphaned and left to (metaphysically if not in reality) rot. Of course this is not unique to higher education, or even to education – plenty of large corporate entities end up with different platforms for different brands, products, divisions, geographies, and operating units.

Which brings us to this week’s entry in Content Management’s Greatest Hits, the Pretenders’ 1979 classic “Brass in Pocket“:

Chrissie Hynde cuts right to the core of what every CMS implementer (in house or agency) will recognize as stakeholder management:

I got brass in pocket
. . .
Gonna make you, make you, make you notice
. . .
Cause I going make you see– there’s nobody else here
No one like me.
I’m special, so special.
I got to have some of your attention, give it to me!

Why do so many different platforms get implemented?

In short: because someone has brass in pocket (budget) and sees themselves as special.

The real trick, of course, is what should organizations facing platform proliferation do?

Should they mandate a single CMS platform for all to use, issue a deadline for getting on that platform, and penalties for failing to meet the deadline? (I think of this as the “One True Ring” strategy).

Should they focus more on carrots than sticks, and make a centralized platform available to all those stakeholders free or at greatly reduced cost, making the centralized platform more attractive than the alternatives? Maybe even offer / require training in that platform as a way of ensuring its widespread adoption?

One strategy we’ve seen meet with broad success is a kind of middle ground. Accept a small number of core platforms (say one in .NET, one in PHP, one in Java) but provide support and training for best practices to try to manage the sprawl. Then focus on standards for things like content strategy, information architecture, branding, and usability. Provide standard layout templates (with of course some flexibility in design) that can be adapted to various platforms, and shared (or open source) components for typical integration points.

Even this strategy can hit its limits when a “well funded” department, school, or institute decides to go off on its own and ignore the best practices, but at least you can reserve centralized control only for cases where folks have really gone outside the normal bounds.

About the Author

Formerly the Managing Director of Boston Connective DX office, John's passion for technology and the role of CMS are clear in his point of view.

More articles from John Eckman


2 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. Jeff Eaton says:

    Excellent post — As you pointed out, I don’t think there are any magic answers that will satisfy every institution at this point. So much ends up depending on the degree of autonomy required by (or granted to?) individual departments, instructors, etc.

    In most of the institutions we’ve worked with, the pressure to consolidate comes when two of the factors you describe coincide — the need for branding consistency, and the need to reduce maintenance overhead and duplication on a cloud of similar but incompatible platforms. In some institutions the technical team has the resources and clout to pull off a pure “technical/maintenance needs” justification, but more often the need to apply new, consistent branding and messaging is what tips things.

  2. The strategic benefits of improving customer experience can be a motivator to centralise.
    If the project is delivered successfully, the savings made from centralising can be ploughed into improvements in usability and functionality until the central official platform outperforms all the others in cost of creating new content (by using existing templates), support for a broad range of browsers, mobile support, user satisfaction, accessibility, SEO, reliability, speed, ongoing cost, support available to staff, and functionality, then anyone running a DIY solution has little grounds to justify their approach. “Because we can” may be their only justification, and then it is only a matter of time before someone senior thinks that is not a good reason.

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