Expanding Web Content Management

I can’t remember the first website I ever saw. But I bet if you saw it today, it would be hilarious. I don’t need to tell you that comparing today’s Web* to that of eight years ago is like talking about pre-Cambrian turbellarian worm fossils (don’t bother looking; there aren’t any).

But did you ever wonder how the Web became so advanced, so quickly? I did. So I called up Larry Bowden. Larry’s the vice president of the "portals and mashups" (really, no kidding) division of IBM. He’s a big-deal guy, an old acquaintance, and he took time out of his busy schedule to school me about Web content management (WCM).

My first question out of the box had to do with the shifting ownership and stewardship of business websites over the years. I basically said: It’s well-known that first-gen WCM was more of an IT initiative than a business one, and neither side was very satisfied. Is that an accurate historical evaluation? To what degree has WCM begun to satisfy BUSINESS needs? And how do the IT guys feel about it these days? Are they playing nicely in the sandbox?

"In the old days, IT was required to implement Web content management, because of the complexity associated with it," began Larry. "No line of business could possibly have implemented it. But there would have been either a corporate communications or marketing team that was going to be doing the quote/unquote ‘publishing’ that had the final say."

So even back then there was a rudimentary, at least, partnership between IT and business. Maybe you could even call it a budding romance. But as we’ll learn, it’s a full-on love affair now. Hot stuff, too.

"This is what every WCM initiative over the years has been about: The communication or marketing officer was the decision-maker, but they wanted to move at a pace that IT couldn’t even fathom," said Larry. Realizing that might come off sounding a little harsh, he quickly added: "That’s maybe not the exact quote I would want to use, but let’s face it, back then it could take a week or multiple weeks to update information on a website. There were approval cycles, first of all, then a lot of IT management and control."

And he’s right, of course. First of all, a lot of Web content management in the early days was manual...you had to know how to physically go into the belly of the beast and type in the changes you wanted. There were no clever GUIs or scripts or wizards; it was hard-core programming, pretty much. And probably as a result, those approval cycles stretched out over time because of the inherent disassociation—and perhaps misunderstanding—between the lines of business and the poor IT guy trying to interpret what they meant. Imagine a marketing officer saying, "Our messaging has to be more on-point with our target demographic." And the IT guy muttering, "That’s gonna be a couple thousand lines of code. Better get another can of Jolt."

Nowadays, it’s possible to inhabit the other extreme. "You don’t even know IT is around, because you can go out to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider, buy the amount of WCM you need, and start publishing to a website right away. You can update a website in minutes now," he said.

Larry, reasonably, thinks the majority of businesses today is somewhere in between those extremes, but we’re rapidly moving to a transparency that we couldn’t have imagined eight or 10 years ago. "Now, line of business has enormous control, and that allows IT to do what they’re good at: manage the infrastructure."

There are reasons why the world hasn’t rushed into this second extreme Larry mentioned. One of them being: People can mess things up. In a great article in KMWorld (May, 2009), Stephen Powers and Tim Walters, Ph.D., senior analysts at Forrester Research, wrote: "Some of the problems that plagued first-generation WCM are inherent and will not automatically be solved with the technology advances of second-generation WCM systems. Most of the problems earlier WCM initiatives faced still exist today—because of people and processes, not WCM feature sets."

Sometimes there’s a difference between what you can do and what you should do. "The technology allows anyone with authority to go in, change a paragraph and there—you’ve changed the website," said Larry. But in practice, he thinks, it comes down to how you manage that level of end-user control and flexibility. "Some sites need very structured and procedurally oriented approvals. Some sites, you don’t care. A recipe website... go ahead and change it all you want. A Federal emergency website... you want to control the authority to change that!" he said.

Of course, today’s WCM systems allow for any level of access, authority and approval. All WCMs have a built-in workflows that, depending on the nature and the level of risk associated with the content, can be routed through an approval cycle or to a content reviewer(s).

But Larry also feels that that the "governance" of Web content does not necessarily always need to be so strictly, under-my-thumb, controlled. "Here at IBM, we don’t have a 100-page document that says what you can and what you can’t publish to a blog or a wiki, for instance. We simply remind people of the business practices of IBM, to be truthful, to make sure your information is accurate, and then you can go ahead and publish. But you’re taking on the responsibility of representing IBM; make sure you do it in a professional manner. It’s not exactly a procedure, and there’s no one approving it...but there is a set of expectations."

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