Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hosted CMS and the University: A Winning Solution

by Bob Rose

In an era where digital content continues to grow at an exponential rate, organizations of all shapes and sizes struggle to manage and create content. Much like large corporations, Web sites play a vital role in the marketing and communications strategies of higher education institutions. As college and university Web sites grow more complex, it is crucial to have a site that is properly managed, easy to navigate, and powered by flexible, mature content management technology.

With the right Content Management System (CMS), universities can help optimize communication with students and faculties, enhance student recruitment and retention, and maintain relationships with alumni. Content management technology is already at the core of many higher education Web infrastructures; one of the most rapidly adopted technologies, in fact. A CMS can provide a number of benefits by facilitating the efficient creation and management of Web content (news and events, course catalogs, faculty profiles, and more) throughout the entire content lifecycle. This enables content to be published with greater speed and ease - making staff more productive, operations more efficient, and content more relevant and up-to-date.

CMS: Addressing Web Challenges

While the content itself might be different, the content needs of an educational institution are not very far removed from that of a corporation. A good university CMS must provide:

- The ability to maintain consistent branding across campus-wide sites.
- The ability to decentralize content management to enable individual departments and offices to manage content.
- The ability to empower non-technical users (i.e. administrators, faculty, and staff) to easily create and publish content through an intuitive interface.
- The ability to deliver timely, targeted, up-to-date information to various audiences such as prospective and enrolled students, alumni, faculty, staff, corporate partners, and the media.
- The ability to easily integrate with external applications including Course Management, Customer Relationship Management, Enterprise Resource Planning systems, and portals.

Typical challenges with university content management

- Dreamweaver culture
- A hodge-podge of sites
- Varied branding
- Varied accessibility levels and content
- Finding the right CMS/CMS vendor to deliver the right solution

A recent survey conducted by the University of California, Davis, brought forward some interesting facts. Highlights include:

- 60% of the institutional respondents are already using a CMS.
- Open source, custom developed and hosted solutions are more popular than traditional installed products.
- There is no clear leader in terms of which CMS product campuses are using.

Does the installed CMS do the job?

There are several reasons why a traditional CMS might not be the best fit for institutional requirements. Consider:

An installed CMS is usually very expensive because you have individual costs for the software, implementation and support. With the latter two typically costing two to three times the initial software investment, educational institutions seldom, if ever, have the budgets to afford them.

Implementation of CMS architecture across campuses is generally haphazard, and the level of customization is either very low or nonexistent. Given the complexity of a traditional CMS, it is nearly impossible for institutions to use a CMS on more than a quarter of their Web sites.

Support and Training
Most educational institutions have very few staff (if any) supporting the CMS. There is also a large number and wide variety of non-technical users, reluctant to change or any formal training. Not many CMS vendors offer technical training to users, especially so for users who might have no technical knowledge whatsoever. These factors invariably put traditional CMS at the bottom of the requirements list at university campuses.

The case for a hosted CMS

In the academic environment, a CMS must not only be cost-effective, it must also be quick and painless to implement, manage, support, and run. It must be kept in mind that universities also have a greater diversity of users connecting with the Web site: students (current and prospective), faculty, staff, parents, the community at large, alumni, and so on.

With a hosted CMS, infrastructure burdens are minimized. There is no hardware to buy, or software to install; you simply access the application through a Web browser. Hosted solutions also provide a set of standard modules and design templates, customizable according to organizational needs. Non-technical users will appreciate the convenience of this; they can focus on the content and its presentation rather than the underlying technology.

Universities have a gamut of user types, and getting them involved early in the decision-making process is an important step in choosing a CMS. Given that hosted solutions make it much easier for users to actually adopt the system, success rates are predictably higher. Most CMS successes can also be attributed to a "CMS champion": someone really motivated about using the technology, and telling everyone else how easy it actually is to use. Finding this "champion" can be easier if the CMS is actually fast and simple to learn.

A large part of traditional CMS complexity is due to fact that these systems are designed for large transaction processing. With a hosted solution, the institution can have the option of using only the CMS components it actually needs. Hosted CMS can also be up and running much quicker, with lower training requirements. The vendor has dedicated staff deployed to handle technical issues, and the institution does not have to take on the burden of finding or employing support personnel.


It is important to understand the role of content management in higher education to help define and prioritize requirements consistent with system-wide objectives. From schools to colleges and universities the right CMS can have a powerful impact by enabling users at all levels.

However, it is equally important to choose a CMS with the best combination of flexibility, control, and ease-of-use for the successful operations of institutional Web sites. Together, a CMS and a sound content management strategy can combine to address the complex, everyday Web challenges of higher education.

About the Author

This article is contributed by Rob Rose - Vice President of Crownpeak. It is important to understand the role of content management in higher education to help define and prioritize requirements consistent with system-wide objectives. From schools to colleges and universities the right CMS can have a powerful impact by enabling users at all levels.