Warning: Physical Memory Dump – WCMS conflicts detected

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There have been times over the last 18 months while working on projects associated with my fledgling consultancy business when the input of new information has conflicted badly with stuff I know from experience, particularly concerning web content management systems.

In some cases a physical memory dump and reboot or a quick zap from an MiB style memory eraser would have been welcome in order to take fresh look at things and experience that buzz of discovering something new and exciting.

In a post titled ‘Ten hopes for the Tens’  back at the end of 2009  I expressed a ‘hope’ that “Web Content Management continues to thrive and prosper and evolve in many exciting new directions”

Four years into the decade I am still trying out new breeds of WCMS on a regular basis and cross referencing them with evaluations and results from previous projects to see if, how and where they could have been a better fit.

The main solutions that have come onto my radar over the last 12 months are Apostrophe, Concrete5, Pyro, Weebly and Squarespace and using them has raised these main conflicts …


Conflict 1 – Open Source and the GitHub generation

On a project to develop a new flagship website to promote my home city of Southampton I was asked to evaluate the technology approaches being proposed by the prospective suppliers.

In the first instance I was surprised by how many provincial agencies were proposing their own proprietary CMS solution. It would seem that implementation crews will still try to lock clients into their own homegrown technology given half a chance and smaller agencies seem happy putting all their eggs into the basket of a ‘star developer’ who the client should feel ‘very fortunate’ to have access to.

This type of pitch is guaranteed to ring alarm bells for a dotcom dinosaur like me particularly if there is no transparency around how these homegrown solutions have been created or how these ‘star developers’ operate. It screams dependency, volatility, vulnerability and lack of flexibility. But is this strictly fair?

This recent MIT article describes the increasingly popular developer destination of GitHub as …

a social network where programmers get together and get work done without bosses, e-mails, or meetings.

Having experienced how well agile programming approaches can work, I like the sound of this – and given the sheer volume of code that exists for undertaking the majority of content management related tasks, seemingly a talented developer can knock up a bespoke CMS that is the ‘best fit’ for a client and other developers can build on that via environments like GitHub.

With GitHub now doing more to make licensing clearer the activities of young talented developers ‘without bosses, e-mails or meetings’ potentially pose less risk to agency and client alike. My advice to those pitching such approaches is to be transparent about them, otherwise you risk being tarred with old brushes by those who have had their fingers burnt by homegrown proprietary CMS in the past.

Conflict 2 – structured content and WYSIWYG

I am delighted to say I am currently working with a former boss of mine on a new project. He was one of the founders of Immediacy, a web content management system well known in the UK in the mid noughties for its ‘word-like’ interface and What You See Is What You Get editing experience.

Ten years on from when the likes of Immediacy started challenging the complexity of bigger CMS beasts, the arguments for and against WYSIWYG editing experiences still rage.

This recent insightful article examining the pros and cons of WYSIWYG and ‘in-place editing’ in the context of the importance of structured content presents the debate and potential conflicts very well.

In identifying the exponential growth of multiple form factors as a fundamental element of modern web design, the article makes this key observation …

We have to make sure that our content is structured and has enough metadata to successfully reuse the same (structured) content for different content consumption form factors. Without having to edit each piece of content again.

To me, content reuse has always been a major differentiater in web content management  which is why I am typically drawn towards systems that have strong and flexible content typing and excellent taxonomy management capabilities.

However, while I have experienced the efficiency and effectiveness of the type of well conceived content strategy approaches illustrated by the article it continues to be the toughest aspect of project implementation to get right because it often comes at the expense of editing ease-of-use.

There have been many occasions over the last 15 years when participants in web content management deployments understand and appreciate the logic for doing things in a structured way only to then bemoan having to tick a few more boxes in the publishing processes to ensure the content is delivered to the relevant places.

Conflict 3 – ‘best fit’ and different perspectives

Over the last year I have been privileged to become acquainted with some excellent digital talent in the Solent region. The south coast lifestyle, with its boating, wind/kite surfing heritage and – for this year in particular-  ‘sun’, continues to attract designers and developers away from the bright lights of the big cities and makes the region a vibrant area for tech innovation.

One comment I received recently from a young CTO I respect really got me thinking …

“we keep toying with Drupal because of it’s high usage but always walk away, there is much better out there.”

My dotcom dinosaur brain latches on to phrases like ‘much better out there’ and immediately adds the line ‘fair enough – but in what scenarios?’

On face value I think that as a peusdo-techie, I have enough experience and knowledge to compile a system that’s ‘better than Drupal’. Given enough time and opportunity, I’m sure I could pull together strands of emerging development that address some of the key pain points I experience with Drupal. I could probably tap into many years of tech marketing experience to drum up some publicity for it and get some buzz going. Then I think – “perhaps that effort would be much better spent helping make an existing solution better rather than re-inventing the wheel?’

If I was building a young, cutting edge web design business I doubt I’d give Drupal a second look. The overhead of learning curve, performance expectation, peer review and ubiquity makes it potentially harder work and provides less opportunity to differentiate. From a risk averse client’s perspective however these are potentially very positive elements.

Conflict 4 – Social Media and WCMS redundancy

I have wasted many, many hours wrestling with unfriendly and unproductive software solutions for marketing tasks over the last 15 years and I really don’t want to force such experiences on to others.

If contemporary information management environments such as Twitter and Facebook are the ones in which marketing folks feel the most comfortable my inclination is not to discourage this and force them to use unfamiliar content technologies to disseminate information.

On one level you could argue that this makes Web Content Management Systems somewhat redundant. Why bother with your own branded web experience when social media makes creating and sharing information easier and in many cases more fun?

However, when you look at web content management approaches holistically and at other such conflicts mentioned here, the arguments for creating a branded WCMS hub become even stronger today than at any other point in web history.

Conflict 5 – complexity and flexibility

Complexity Triange copyHere are three ‘balanced’ triangles from Google searches that I have superimposed on each other.

In the middle is the classic project management ‘iron triangle’ of ‘Time’, ‘Cost’ and ‘Scope’ that I have commented on regularly on this blog as being relevant in many website developments I have been responsible for over the years.

Above that is the need to balance user needs with business and technical requirements and lastly is the ultimate software development challenge of balancing flexibility with simplicity and scalability – often no easy task.

The pace of change I have experienced since first entering the workplace in 1987 has been phenomenal and continues to accelerate.

The often over-whelming challenge this presents to project managers is ensuring that the systems and processes they source and  implement remain useful and relevant throughout the predicted lifecycle of operations. If this seems an unlikely outcome then the ability to migrate such systems and processes to other solutions and providers with a minimum of cost and effort becomes a higher priority too.

Resolution 2013

There are times over the last year when experiences with emerging CMS solution providers and/or those who have the current industry buzz have had me wavering as far as the established proprietary and open source systems are concerned.

Ultimately though, in addressing and resolving these conflicts I am still drawn back to one solution that I have seen ‘fit best’ in many more scenarios than any other currently available across the global web development community – and that is Drupal - its high usage has very strong reasons and the development roadmap looks set to reinforce that …