Death to the CMS Pt. 1


This post is really a more fleshed out reprise of my ‘3am keynote’ from #psuweb and thus is primarily focused on higher education websites. But if anyone is using a CMS, it applies.

Most colleges started with a webmaster. One person in a room someplace updating a web “page” until said webpage grew to become this unwieldy mess where lots of people wanted their own webpages to update. This became too difficult for one webmaster, most places didn’t hire a full-time web person to begin with and that’s when it began to make sense to employ a software platform that would enable you to manage lots of pages by giving the people who control those “pages” access to edit their content and then the web “master” becomes the web editor.

Except, it didn’t work out that way.

People are not usually inclined to sign up for more work. Rather than view managing web content as an opportunity, end users have come to see it as a burden. This left the onus on managing this content on web editors who generally do not have uniform job titles, responsibilities and who largely owe their continued existence to the confluence of internal politics & the fact that a bevy of people had little desire (or time) to learn what they were doing with the website.

For all of the organizations who manage to figure out digital communication and get it right, things have evolved well beyond those quaint days of managing hundreds of pages. Our sites have grown. While some teams have grown with those sites, in higher education, it’s not unusual to have teams just as small as they were a decade ago; with just one or two people responsible for managing an entire institutional web presence. Social media has just complicated matters. More and more CMS vendors promise the stars in the hopes of capturing your vision and then locking it into a tiny box. The box is their CMS playground where you’re not allowed to bring other toys to play. They promise integrations, offer workarounds or ignore you if you’re not paying enough in annual licensing fees.

There must be a better way.

Graphic Credit: Scott Brinker of (

The real problem is the direction of web structure, strategy and vision is often fueled from 1) outside the organization via consultants or 2) led by people who aren’t trained in the practice. Would you give the keys to your car to someone without a license? Just employing people who presumably understand the web isn’t enough. It’s time for digital strategists to have a seat at the executive table, to advise CEOs and presidents on the way forward in an increasingly complex landscape.

Our problem is the CMS. We’ve entrusted our content for too long within a construct that was supposed to liberate us from the terror of old, outdated information. Many organizations, frustrated with the status quo will undertake the task of building their own platform. While this can be a preferred pathway, not everyone has the resources to undertake such a gargantuan task.

We live in a modular world where employees can work from anywhere. Our information can sit thousands of miles away and be replicated cheaper than ever, ensuring the kind of redundancy that wasn’t possible a decade ago. For higher education web content, we need modular systems that free content beyond the walled garden of a particular system. We should be able to deploy content across networks and when it’s time to leave a system, we should be able to pack up our content and move freely. Rather than adapt our methods, we’ve accepted that the only way forward is one where our content is trapped inside of proprietary systems that are inflexible & locked down.

We need a new way forward that doesn’t involve being locked into six-figure solutions that don’t achieve our goals. For too long, our content has been locked into systems that make the work of our institutions more difficult and present structural challenges that no one is prepared to fix once they’re foisted on us. It’s time to envision a web content world with better structure, strategy & people working together to develop platforms and systems that reflect the evolution of digital communications, with web people inside their organizations leading the charge to move us forward.

Looking for more suggestions? Follow me here & on twitter @ronbronson. This is Part 1 of a conversation that will be evolving in the coming weeks & months.



User advocate. Information architect.

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