Having been a part of a few Content Management System (CMS) selections for universities both as a committee member and as a vendor, I’ve learned a bit about selection committees. The typical process for selecting a CMS in higher education is:
- Define needs and wants
- Locate vendors that offer a solution that matches
- View demonstrations and/or presentations
- Ask questions
- Get a hands on demonstration if possible
- Select the CMS that best matches.
- Negotiate the contract and SLA
This is admittedly a very simplified version of the process but it’s close enough for now.
Of the committees I’ve been a part of or worked with, more often than not several of the voices in the room have no business being in the room in the first place. Why? Because they don’t have the right experience. Here’s a story from my friend Tom to illustrate this.
As it turns out, at my new job, I am getting ready to move us from an antiquated [CMS] to Sitecore. This decision was made way before I got here, but I know a little about how it happened.
They hired a consultant to compare Drupal vs Sitecore and the consultant recommended Sitecore. I asked for the name of the firm and when I looked them up, guess what? They’ve never worked with Drupal in their lives. They are a 100% Sitecore provider.
I mean, just think of how lucky they were. A client asked them to evaluate two systems, the one they use and one they don’t know at all and, their lucky day, it turned out the one they use was the best fit for us. What are the odds!
Tom is a pretty sharp fellow. He’s not one to take things at face value. We’ve gone round and round about Drupal versus WordPress with tangents into a handful of other topics so I know he’s pretty thorough in his understanding of capabilities and future needs. While he’s not criticizing the ability of SiteCore, he is pointing out the conflict of interest – something the CMS selection committee either didn’t uncover or didn’t care about. Likely because someone wasn’t thorough in their review of the vendor.
And this where most higher ed institutions make their biggest mistakes. They either don’t have someone with the right experience and awareness or don’t trust who they have with making the decisions. Quite often the university believes they have the right people on the committee but often they don’t.
CMS selection committees aren’t an opportunity to exercise democratic choice and they should never be run by someone that doesn’t have experience with technical vendors and CMSs – or at least systems administration. Managers, vice presidents, registrars, deans, and department heads are not necessarily the people you want to lead the committee and be the final decision maker.
Decisions need to be made based on a lot different needs and considerations. You need someone with technical experience and the ability to think strategically about what the university needs. The committee must consider current needs to solve an immediate issue but also to be forward thinking to provide for future needs. The CMS may need to integrate with other systems and will likely be used by a wide variety of people with varying skill sets. Understanding how the CMS functions, the infrastructure requirements, ongoing maintenance and expansion needs, resource allocation, training, as well as the technical capabilities are key to making the right choice. The input from laypeople is very important to the process but laypeople should never be decision makers when it comes to choosing technical solutions.
So who do you bring to the table?
There is no one list of people you need to have around the table in the CMS selection process. It’s not a guarantee the CIO and Director of Web Services should be involved because titles don’t matter. What matters are the skills and experience that each person brings to the process.
At a minimum you need people with knowledge and experience in key software, systems and processes in use around the university such as:
- Admissions process for undergrad, grad, doctorate, transfer, military, international, etc.
- The course catalog
- Alumni communications
- University communications
- University information desks and way finding
- Emergency alerts
- Events calendar
- Events registrations
- Event ticketing
- Room scheduling
- Class scheduling
- Faculty & Student Research
- Dissertation defenses
- Bursar or whoever accepts money on the university’s behalf
- Networks and technical infrastructure (hosting, network & system integration)
- Network and information security
- Programming & Databases
- Accessibility Compliance
- User interfaces
- Experienced end users – especially power users
- Technical and online strategies
- SEO & Analytics
The ideal leader of the committee is someone with technical experience and is a good strategic observer. A strategic observer is someone that’s good at listening for opportunities to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Someone that can see how multiple systems might be combined or made to work together. Someone that has the experience of working with large projects with many moving parts because they need to foresee as much of the workflow and potential issues as they can. And to do this, they’ll need the expertise of the people that know all of the systems and processes the CMS will touch or could become a part of.
In most cases you’re not likely to get all of the skills and experience you want around the table. If that’s the case, choose people who are thorough, critical thinkers, and you trust. The committee has to work together and share and discuss and each voice matters but make sure you have as many of the right people as you can get.