Doing your Due Diligence

By Nina Shariff, Web Content Report

Dartmouth College is close to two years out from a new Web Content Management System (CMS) — a painstaking project whose success can be attributed to identifying internal needs and finding the right vendor to match them.

That’s the most important thing when selecting a CMS, says Jay Collier, associate director of Web Publishing Services at Dartmouth. “Finding a solution to match our clients’ top-priority needs, as well as our resource levels, was most important, regardless of whether it was open source or proprietary,” he says. Indeed, open source is not necessarily an alternative to commercial solutions; it’s simply another option to consider as you identify your needs and find a solution to match them.

Consider Dartmouth’s approach to selecting a vendor: Several years ago, a team of staff responsible for Web publishing services at the College managed the sites of more than 40 departments and offices — and each time a change had to be made, one of those team members had to be contacted. What resulted was a “Webmaster bottleneck,” says Collier.

At that time, he and his team were charged with what Collier calls a “discovery project,” based on a process used by MIT, that evaluates internal (or, in Dartmouth’s case, “client”) needs and matches those with potential solutions or CMS’s.

The discovery team gathered a large list of features and requirements from current and potential constituents via focus groups — and ranked those by importance. The top internal needs: simple page authoring and editing, simple site administration, standards and accessibility, separated content and presentation, workflow management, scalability, and speed of implementation.

Collier and his staff then perused dozens of vendor materials, both commercial and open source, and evaluated them against the criteria. “Our general requirements made it pretty easy to narrow down that first group,” says Collier — from about a dozen down to four.

The discovery report’s team members then requested demos from sales and marketing representatives from the final four. “We wanted deeper information about subtler requirements and capabilities,” Collier says, including firm longevity, long-term development, and openness to contacting current clients. Collier also made a point to invite focus group participants and clients to join his staff for both the demos and hands-on trials.

That entire process made the final decision an easy one. Collier says it took only one month to migrate his first clients’ content into the new system, where all new sites are developed. The new system locks in information architecture and design, while giving content experts access to add and tweak content at their discretion.

“Clients have taken to the system quickly without a great deal of training,” says Collier. In fact, his team had planned extensive group training, but the tool is so simple to use that most users learned how to use it during their site’s migration or development.

Within 18 months of implementing the CMS, “we have doubled our client roster,” says Collier. And that’s without any promotion. “It all came from word-of-mouth or pent-up demand.”

The decentralized approach has paid off in spades for Collier and his staff. In addition to eliminating the bottleneck, which has spurred a great deal of activity from users, “we have been able to focus more on overall quality assurance and less on word-for-word updates,” he says.