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Not Content to Wait

Not Content to Wait

Content is King (But only if it is managed).

With just six departments - Chief Minister's, Education and Community Services, Health and Community Care, Justice and Community Safety, Department of Treasury and Urban Services - the ACT government is just big enough to be "gangly". Certainly its Web content management headaches are nothing compared with those of the Victorian government, whose Internet domain comprises approximately 300 Web sites all doing their own content management thing and running on at least 23 different content management systems. Even so, the need to cut down on the work involved in redevelopment of Web sites and to find ways to reuse content between departments gave the ACT quite enough of an incentive to implement a whole-of-government automated Web content management system.

So it is easy to see why at Multimedia Victoria a whole-of-government Web content management system (CMS) is at this stage looking more like an imperative. To date, management of the content of the state government's 300-odd Web sites has remained the responsibility of the entities using the domain - that is, the departments, agencies and statutory bodies within Victorian government. Glenys Reid, project manager e-Government: Strategy and Policy Multimedia Victoria, says with the proliferation of Web sites has come a compelling need to introduce a range of policies, standards and guidelines to those providing information and services electronically under the government's badge.

The comparatively behemoth Victorian government is considering emulating its tiny ACT cousin by introducing a whole-of-government Web CMS to help it tame the Internet beast. Reid says such systems are recognised as an integral component of good electronic service delivery management. They have also become increasingly sophisticated over the past two years and now offer a range of options and scalability not previously envisaged. The Whole of Government Online Content Management Working Group (OCMWG) is thus reviewing the role of content management across government in light of the state's need to integrate its information and services to be more customer-centric.

"The [OCMWG] is about addressing the issue that the emphasis originally was on getting services online, and there was not a lot of standardisation in place in relation to advice to departments about how to go about that in relation to content management," Reid says. "The Content Management Working Group has been gathering information, and we know at a minimum we've got 23 different content management systems out there. We wanted to educate ourselves about what options we might have."

Reid says the working group is focusing on the use of meta data as a way to harvest the information scattered around government. The group has looked at the products of nine recommended suppliers and is now considering whether to recommend key Web content management software suppliers to government departments, or alternatively, to impose a single whole-of-government supplier.

"In the best of all possible worlds the chosen solution should allow better coordination of content and some financial cost savings and efficiencies while providing a very easy distributed authoring capability within departments, allowing them to author once and publish many places," Reid says.

A Fresh Outlook

The Internet's not-so-dirty little secret is just how much published content screams "created by a rank amateur".

Web sites full of wrong information and broken links can only create frustrated and dissatisfied users. Worse, Web sites sporting outdated, incorrect or misleading information can expose a department or organisation to legal action. And staff forced to bear the brunt of customer complaints or spend fruitless hours making changes to Web sites will inevitably be frustrated.

Yet online content creator and trainer Yvette Nielsen of Brizcomm says there are an alarming number of large government and private Web sites - on intranets, extranets and the Internet - that do not realise the benefits of a content management solution.

"Five years ago, when many organisations uploaded their first Web sites, few people considered the ongoing financial and human burden of keeping their content fresh," she says. "These days, it's crazy to be outsourcing basic text changes to your Web developer or IT department. My workshop attendees, mostly corporate communicators, are constantly frustrated by having to beg their IT department or Web developer to make the simplest edits at $85 or more a pop. Programmers and designers are frustrated at having to waste their time on "basic" tasks. Add the time it takes to have the changes approved further up the food chain - then reviewed, altered, sent back, and approved yet again - and you can see the inefficiency of a manual content management approach, not to mention the increased potential for errors and inconsistencies along the way."

For the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) eliminating the manual approach translates into real business benefits, according to Web producer, Information Technology, Kelley Johnson. "The benefit is that we don't need to employ Web developers to build simple content pages, so for the everyday content that's always changing - we always like to keep our Web site fresh - it's been fantastic," she says. "We don't have to have a room of developers on board, using the lower end of the skills, when they should be developing the big applications."

The AGSM saw the need for a new Web solution in the context of enhancing its reputation as one of the world's top business schools. It was important for the site to promote a modern outlook, enable regular content updating and integrate effectively with internal systems.

Johnson says during the analysis phase it became clear staff and students wanted to be able to update the Web site by themselves, without relying on a centralised department, and without employing a Web developer in every department.

Such ambitions are becoming increasingly common.

"In the past in various organisations the Webmaster came out and developed an expertise and became a very strong central island of expertise," says Carlo Bonato, manager Planning Strategies, Victorian Department of Human Services. "We're moving away from that to trying to get much more user involvement in the authoring side. You need to separate the authoring workflow from the technology and the electronic publishing side. In our experience there has been a reaction away from the Webmaster-type person, and I think that in a sense while it was okay while you had small Web sites, when they suddenly got into thousands and thousands of pages, literally the Webmaster-type model became a resource limitation."

The Cost of No Reuse

UK studies suggest it costs approximately $850,000 and takes 400 person days to republish and edit 5000 Web pages manually. With an automated Web content management solution that cost can drop to just $80,000 and 100 person days. GIGA claims an automated Web content solution can slash maintenance costs by one-third over a three-year period. Assuming a drop in labour years of two years over a three-year period, that can mean a saving of $US240,000. A larger implementation cutting 10 labour years might expect to save $US2.4 million!

"The true cost of ownership of a Web site comes in many guises including the cost of publishing and updating content, site development and enhancements and the ongoing management of the site structure and branding," says Powerlan sales and marketing manager Vince Lee. "While less tangible, the ability to easily enhance and innovate a site's design in order to keep pace with changing business needs should not be underestimated."

The issues are nowhere more important than in government. As more government services become available online, sites become increasingly complex with the addition of more and more text, files, images, scripts and so on. The National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) says ensuring that the content is managed appropriately is a growing challenge - especially in organisations with extensive Web sites or where a range of areas may be responsible for different parts of a Web site.

Presence Online director Tim Birdsall says if the government hopes to take full advantage of its online investment, it will have to give serious attention to how it automates its Web content management. "Creating content centrally, replicating it to standardised local Web sites and reusing it can cut the number of full-time employees responsible for creating content by half," Birdsall says. "Assuming the number of employees involved goes from six people a year to three, the cost savings could be $US1.08 million over a three-year period."

ACT government Web architect Kerry Webb says reuse of content between departments was a prime motivation when the ACT government chose its content management system.

For example, there are three separate sites where Canberra dog lovers can find information about registering their pets - the government's entry portal, the Environment ACT Web page, and its parent Department of Urban Services page. "The content is same, the look and feel is different," he says. With an integrated system in place, a change by owning agency Environment ACT is automatically propagated to the other sites. And the software helps the government present a standard "feel" across government sites via a set of standard templates. "These templates allow a certain amount of branding, but they ensure pretty well that if someone is used, in other sites, to finding the search window at the top right, that's where they'll find it on all of the sites," Webb says. "And we've done usability testing and we've found that's really important."

The templates also ensure people do not forget to include major content, including contact information, site maps and an "about us" section. "By using consistent templates across different sites using the system we can get a certain amount of standardisation but still allow people enough flexibility to create sites that are as attractive as they want them to be," Webb says.

Time to Get Professional

Accountability and a good CMS go a long way to addressing the "rank amateur" status of Web sites.

According to Deborah Hamilton from Government Online NOIE's, Web content management needs are best assessed in the context of agency business requirements and better practice issues.

In principle, CMS systems are designed to make site management more efficient by automating the site content production and maintenance process, she says. Most CMS systems achieve this by treating site content as a separate resource from the structure and presentation of a site, essentially "unbundling" the content of a site from how it looks and how it is delivered. Web site content becomes in most instances database data, able to be manipulated and presented in a variety of ways, making big Web sites far more flexible and easier to maintain than if the content were hard-coded into static HTML pages.

Hamilton says agencies must choose a CMS carefully, with the choice reflecting an agency business case that takes into account agency operational requirements, budgets and service priorities.

"If an agency Web site is small and features static content that does not change for long periods of time (for example project information) then the content management issues are different, and much simpler, than they may be for an agency with a large site with many resources on it that need to change or be updated every day. Therefore the technology an agency may need to deploy into their site management arrangements will also need to be different," she says.

Since investing in some types of CMS systems can be both expensive and resource-intensive, NOIE recommends agencies ensure: (a) they have accurately and realistically defined their online publishing requirements, and (b) if they choose to implement a large-scale CMS system, that they have careful management arrangements in place to oversee it. Without tight project management, large CMS implementations can become troublesome, NOIE states.

It also says agencies should be aware there is a variety of ways they can usefully introduce automation into their online publishing environment without needing to commit resources to a large CMS system. A variety of simple tools and management approaches can be implemented to solve specific site maintenance issues, for example through the use of style sheets, standard templates and server side includes, that can achieve useful levels of site automation without a CMS.

Nielsen says if a CMS is required, ease of use should be a prime criterion, focusing on the hunt for an intuitive browser-based interface which does not require HTML or complex Web-scripting knowledge. This frees content creators and managers to get on with keeping the site fresh while IT and Web design professionals can concentrate on enhancing usability, infrastructure, functionality and other technical issues.

Powerlan's Lee says the key requirements that a content management system should include are:l Distributed authoringl Approvals workflowl Content life cycle managementl Rapid site design/buildl Centralised site managementl Securityl Managing site communicationl Personalisationl IntegrationPerils and PitfallsAll departments should be aware that giving end users the power to control their own content inevitably has its perils.

Johnson says AGSM has found giving such tools to non-technical people who do not quite understand the ramifications of producing to a public environment has created some issues with testing and other matters which must be rectified. "We've put some policies in place - we've learnt from the past what we need to do to fix that, so we make sure the information that is going out onto the Web site and being published is quality," she says.

In Victoria, the OCMWGhas been examining the issues associated with legacy systems and the possible undesirability of forcing agencies to adopt a mandated product. "We've got a lot of legacy systems," Reid says. "There would need to be cooperation and agreement within departments and agencies to use the system that we selected. There would be a transition period if we forced them down a road, which is not our bent. There would be a lot of customer relationship work needing to be done with departments and agencies, if we set a standard to apply.

The other possibility is that technologically, potentially, with XML etc, if information can be harvested and published many places using technology, then the need for systems to be interoperable is not so great.

"We've also got some agencies who are suggesting they can't afford a content management system and would like one, so the advantages in relation to having a content management system that they could access would be optimum." It will be up to the OCMWG to decide.

The ACT's Webb says departments need to be aware that a whole-of-government content management solution can tend to "corporatise" the business of Web content creation and management. "We're finding that Web content management and Web creation is now being treated much more like a standard IT project in which you do your analysis, get your specifications, work out your design - that sort of thing, and to a certain extent that's fixed in place."

Webb says while his department is aware of the potential for imposed standards to limit creativity, it is examining ways to overcome that.

Any improvement to maintaining Web sites will not only benefit the site's creators and owners, but will make it easier and more reliable for the users, who after all, are the reason the sites exist. FTime for a Makeover!

The phrase Web site makeover often implies a dramatic, brand-new look for a Web site. But take a tip from leading companies: Redesign is an ongoing journey, not a final destination. The big sites are always freshening up their design features, and whether the project is big or small, there are some universal rules to follow.

First, start by asking these three questions: Will the change benefit customers? Will it produce revenue? Will it reduce costs? "That's where having the biggest bang for the buck is - having that conversation," says Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering. "The next-biggest bang for the buck is figuring out how to measure that."

Freshening up a stale Web site is a process of identifying what would make the site more useful, evaluating the result and then trying again. The following are some tips from the experts:

Tip 1: Choose Compelling Artwork

Ditching stock art and choosing more appropriate images is a sure way to enliven a site. "You can put human faces on your site, but it's so much more impressive if you have real employees, real customers," says Marie Tahir, director of user experience at Intuit.

For transactional sites, show what's for sale. "If you have a real product to sell, show the product," says Tahir. "It makes people feel good and grounded and in the right place when they see the product they're looking for."

Keeping images appropriate usually means keeping them simple. Amazon.com is a good example: Its book section shows images of books, not people reading books.

Tip 2: Make the Writing Easy to Read

Want to quickly freshen up a site? Start with the writing. It's a sure-fire way to improve usability, which in itself is a great goal.

"Rather than just putting more lipstick on the pig, I always urge people doing redesigns to invest in really good writing and editing skills," says Tahir. "People think design, and they separate it from content."

Tip 3: Simplify and Consolidate InformationAnother way to quickly freshen up a site is to consolidate. "Group all the company/organisation information in one place, rather than scattering it," says Tahir. "People's minds try to group things, and if they don't see it in the place where they think it should be, then they'll think it's not there."

The natural tendency when freshening a site is to give users more - more features, more options. Yet too many entry points can make a site look stale and may suggest that its designers added features without rethinking the old.

Tip 4: Be Selective When Copying Design IdeasWhen eliminating stale site features, avoid going on a freshening rampage. When borrowing, "you always need to consider the context and why it works," cautions Tahir.

Tip 5: Give Visitors Fair Warning of ChangesFreshening changes might seem small, but that doesn't mean users don't need to be warned. Transactional sites, as opposed to corporate or informational sites, need to be especially cautious, announce changes in advance and move slowly.

- Mathew Schwartz

Capitalising on Automation

As corporate and government Web initiatives mature into dynamic efforts incorporating multiple content sources and transactional components, an overarching structure to manage how content is posted becomes ever more essential.

Content management helps assure information provided is correct, of a high quality, consistent and up to date, that links and navigation elements function properly and that material is appropriately stored or archived.

IDC analyst Mark Gilbert says about 45 companies currently sell Web content management tools. "The basic functionality enabling content contribution, review and management has become a near commodity," Gilbert wrote in a research note published in December. "Look to other areas of distinction such as personalisation, [support for wireless devices] and application server integration as differentiating factors."

A good content management system (CMS) helps maintain a consistent structure and site design by separating content from presentation format, for example through templates. A CMS also enhances security and can help enforce organisation style and rules. And if the system is dynamic it can even personalise content by serving up specific pages for different audience needs, in other languages and for multiple devices like WAP phones and palm pilots. It can also ensure continuity even in the absence of the content creators.

Yvette Nielsen, Brizcomm, claims content creators with control over their own updates are more empowered and motivated to focus on creating new content rather than playing tug of war with the techies. Staff in remote offices will also be more likely to contribute if they have direct access to the site. Changes are in real time, giving the content creators the instant satisfaction of seeing their words on the Web as they intended, when they intended.

"An automated workflow can improve productivity and quality considerably through tracking content through its life cycle, from creation to revision to publishing to archiving," Nielsen says. "Version control and an audit trail avoid the problem of old pages being uploaded over new and encourages content writers to be accountable for their words. Site scalability, centralised information, scheduling and meta-tagging of content (to categorise and trace elements) are other benefits of a good CMS."

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More about AGSMAmazon.comAustralian Graduate School of ManagementBrizcommCMSIDC AustraliaIntuitIslandNational Office for the Information EconomyNielsenNOIESpoolUser Interface Engineering

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