How (not) to pick a CMS in higher education

So I missed this rant last night from Michael Fienen but it started with this tweet.

This thought and the subsequent tweetstream left me standing up and clapping from my living room this morning. None of his proposition was controversial from the perspective of the people who actually have to do the work on the web for educational institutions. I’d argue that even people who work in other large, hierarchical companies organizations would agree with the line of thought that technical people should be make technical decisions.

My personal crusade

I’ve spent the past ten years at different colleges & universities around the country having these conversations. I’m talking almost a dozen institutions, hundreds of committee meetings and four end-to-end implemetations at a variety of different sized colleges & universities. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you end up somewhere else and they’re doing it a totally different way.

There’s no blanket way to solve these issues, because we’re dealing with people. Constraints like limited resources and time end up pushing decisions that are compounded by CMS vendors who will sell you the world — or make an integration for it, only for a small fee — so long as you entrust them with all of your content.

If Only If It Were Simple

Fienen’s line of thinking assumes that most institutions have one person in charge of making decisions — with a line item budget — to make decisions about what to do with things like content management systems, analytical tools or other such web-related things. The truth is, most colleges & universities do not operate this way in the real world.

More often than not, the web is distributed across departments, teams, silos and responsibility groups. There usually isn’t one person empowered to make decisions about what CMS to acquire based on their wide knowledge, expertise and background of what the needs of the institution are. Even in cases where the web is housed in one area, cross-functional committees are needed because the demands are complicated.

Problem 1. You get a CMS that’s too hard to use.

Works great from a technical standpoint, but no one on the content editor/author/manager side can get themselves around getting content into the thing. People eventually play ball and after months of training, the IT team hands off the website and expects people to use it.

Instead what happens? People start creating Wordpress sites, Facebook pages and other such things to avoid having to put content into the CMS because it’s too hard, too difficult or frustrates them. There isn’t always a rhyme or reason for what’s deemed difficult or confusing. For some people, it’s the mere idea of having to login. For others? They’d prefer someone else do it.

It’s just a mess, so you need to have these people involved early or else you’re gonna set yourself down an expensive rabbit hole implementing a tool that no one wants. Because there is rarely a web person with enough administrative authority to make people put stuff on the web, the web falls behind and everyone stares at the web group and wonders, “Why isn’t it working?”

Problem 2. Technology decisions aren’t seen as technology decisions at a lot of colleges & universities

As technology becomes more ubiquitous, a turf war has emerged on a lot of campuses. Technology people want to manage the tools and choose them, they want everyone else to use them. On some campuses, they’ve won the war. On other campuses, marketing departments have sensed the problems — and lack of relevance — that rendering the decisions related to digital tools to other departments can have on their dwindling budgets and have decided to rebrand themselves as digital experts. While most marketers don’t know the first thing about web development, implementing CMS or anything of the sort, they’re often the locations on college & universities campuses that have been defaulted to making the final call on what to use since they’re managing the websites day to day.

While they might have a technical person or two within their aegis, that person might have a philosophical preference that’s in conflict with what the technology team proposes for different reasons. This debate usually comes to a consensus and so long as there aren’t underlying problems with the internal politics of that university or college, you can usually find some common ground about what CMS makes the most sense compiling the information that everyone has.

After all, in most cases you’re dealing with people who have the best interests of the university at heart. But not always.

Problem 3. Survival outweighs the need for practicality.

Institution hires a developer whose only skills are Coldfusion. Magically, college gets a coldfusion CMS and sticks with it years after that makes any logical sense. The problem with leaving the decision solely in the hands of technical people is assuming they’re the ones managing it. As I outlined above, in the case where the responsibilities are distributed, getting something too specific to one person always being employed with that college & universities is a real risk. Spending too much time trying to figure out where the content is going to sit when we don’t know 1) who is going to write it 2) maintain it 3) insert it into this magical new tool that we propose technology selects in a vacuum is an exercise in insanity.

Bottom line, you can’t trust developers not to make themselves irrelevant by choosing technology that might be better for the university, but not as good for them. You can say “well, if they can’t work on it, shouldn’t that play a part?” Sure. If switching to something that’ll save 000s of dollars per year would be good for the institution, then you should do it. Even if it means proposing yourself out of a job.

Problem 4. Consultants who have a vested interest in steering people towards a particular technology over others.

This one is where a lot of colleges & universities fall. Consultant has a preference, doesn’t always have a real grasp on the internal needs — even after doing an assessment — and leaves the institution in a lurch on a bad CMS that they’re now stuck with after blowing the proverbial wad of cash on said consultant.

Be wary and get second opinions.

Problem 5. Trying to explain technical things to non-technical decision-makers who really don’t care, just want to know what’s going to cost and how it’s going to work.

That one is a mouthful. My personal favorite is the deal where we try to compare web infrastructure to things that are in the terrestrial world.

Here’s the problem with this metaphor. Forklift comparisons are fine because each one works pretty much the same. Maybe they do need a golf cart, but the bottom line is, it doesn’t take 1000s of hours of code practice to understand how any of those things work. Even little kids basically get the idea. The difference with content management platforms is choosing them is a lot like trying to decide whether to get a diesel, electric, natural gas or regular gasoline vehicle.

Each has their own benefit, problems and associated concerns. All are wildly different in price and it’d be easy for someone who is an expert in all of them to tell you why one is better than the other. Those people are few and far between. Everyone else is just a partisan bringing their preferences to the meeting room.

The difference with content management platforms is choosing them is a lot like trying to decide whether to get a diesel, electric, natural gas or regular gasoline vehicle.

The other problem is while choosing a vehicle is largely a personal (or family) decision, choosing a CMS has wide-ranging implications that affect lots of people, man hours and assorted issues that no one really figures out until after the new site launches within whatever platform your committee decides.

Deciding what matters

This whole conversation came out of a tweet from January that Chris Coyier sent to the world.

This is a typical question. I’ve been helping people with it a lot lately and what we come back to are the same things. How much is too much? Should we hire more developers? We can’t afford any of this. Shouldn’t it be easier? It’s 2015, right?


Last year, my 3am keynote and subsequent Medium post, The CMS is A Lemon proposed that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods on the idea that content management systems are going to solve all of our problems when the issues that most enterprise web infrastructures have are people problems, not technical ones.

I totally agree with the thesis behind Fienen’s original post. It just occurred to me that most colleges & universities aren’t equipped to deal with these matters because of a lack of personnel, in-house expertise or something else. Throw in internal politics to the mix and you get a powder keg of a decision that ends up being very little about technology and everything about power and resources.

Choosing a CMS should be in the hands of as few people as possible, who actually have the background to make an informed decision for the college & university.

What are your thoughts?

Send me a note at ron [at] or follow up with me on Twitter @ronbronson