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Have we got how we view the web wrong in Universities?

I've had the pleasure this week of attending the Institutional Web Management Workshop in Edinburgh. Whilst it's only the first day, I'm fascinated by the topics that we've already covered and the subjects that we're still to cover. It's great going to these types of events and hearing the successes and trials of institutions from all over the country. However I can't help feeling that our view of the web is still somewhat stuck in the previous decade.

I should preface this by saying that this is not a new feeling, but something that has been niggling at me for some time. However I think yesterday confirmed a growing belief that things need to change if we are to place ourselves properly to deal with the challenges and opportunities that the evolving web is throwing up.

During session B5 yesterday (, we talked at length about the problems that we face in rolling out a centralised content management system. The ideal of many a CIO is that it would be a 12-24 month project, when in reality many of us are still plugging away many years on. In addition there was a growing feeling amongst the participants that running a single behemoth resulted in them being unable to react quickly enough to emerging trends, and that the companies supporting these CMSs were unable to meet the ever changing opportunities that the web was throwing up for their institutions.

In the last decade we were sold a vision by CMS companies that should we invest in their product, it would manage all our content, our costs would go down and life would be rosy. But it just hasn't worked out that way. The simple reality is, they don't manage out content, they manage our pages. In that I mean that we focus on publishing pages of text with a few pictures thrown in direct to a browser in a nicely structured navigation. The days of this model are fast disappearing. What we need are systems that manage our data and can stream it to whatever medium is required. Be that browser, app, tv, etc.

One of the problems we have with trying to find a single system to do everything, is that very often such a thing doesn't exist. We end up either trying to shoehorn solutions in, or bolting on extra systems that can sometimes be a hack at best. One of the models that we need to shift to can be seen in the popular app stores of various mobile phone makers. They don't have one single app that does everything under the sun. What they do have are lots of small apps that do one specific thing, and do it well. What ties it altogether is the phone's OS. It provides common interfaces so that no matter which app you go into, you should hopefully be able to navigate around it without too much problem.


This is where we should be focusing our efforts on our CMS. However in order for this to happen we need to shift our CMS from being simply a web publishing platform, to being a web applications platform. One in which it can be moulded to whatever use is required, but more importantly, capable of outputting data to whatever medium is required. Kevin Ashley in yesterday's plenary captured the future perfectly when he said that our data needs to be findable, reusable, visible, searchable and linkable.  To me, that's the future. It's a scary one, and one that requires a seismic shift in perceptions both within the web team and at a senior management level. However unless we're bold enough to embrace it, I fear that we'll be getting pressed more and more into the outsourcing model.