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Key Content: Summer Storm or the Next Big Wave?
2006, Q2 (March 04, 2007)
By Bill Albing, Carolina Chapter Past President

Bill Albing
Bill Albing

When it rains, it pours. Three times this month, I have had conversations with groups that are considering the limitations of their current Web site and are considering a move to a more interactive and easier to maintain Web portal. They all face similar challenges, and all see a similar solution: a portal to a virtual community. Maybe that phrase is too silly or too loaded, but a portal nonetheless. Basically, the Web site must move beyond being the usual HTML pages (whether static pages or a databased site with generated pages). SharePoint services can also be used to handle the site. Today there are many content management system (CMS) packages that can be used for a Web portal. Many of these packages are open source, free, and easily installed on a server.

As our discussion continued, they realized that the benefits from a wiki or blog (or other CMS-based) Web site included more than simply the evident joy of playing with a new and popular technology. Besides having responsive pages with relevant content, the site can be more easily maintained because the Web manager does not have to handle every page. By giving ownership of parts of the site to those who own the content, the Web manager can enjoy relief from constant demands on her time and effort.

By giving ownership of parts of the site to those who own the content, the Web manager can enjoy relief from constant demands on her time and effort.
For example, for the STC Carolina chapter, having the program pages owned by the person in charge of programs and the career pages owned by the person responsible for the job bank means that they don't have to go to the Web manager every time they want to post new content. And the chapter president can simply add an entry to his or her blog rather than having to send an e-mail to the Web manager to post the latest announcement. By having syndication feeds (such as RSS), they can provide information to chapter members without having to send out an e-mail. In fact, instead of uploading resumes as documents or static HTML pages, members can have their own editable wiki pages and edit the content of their pages from their Web browsers. Because CMS packages now come with so much functionality built in, many of these features are available right out of the box with just a little setup required. If you'd like to be involved in this new effort, please contact the chapter leadership.

Beyond the Carolina chapter, I also spoke with a very active church group that posts a lot of information for members who are mostly busy professionals like ourselves. By moving the site to more of a wiki-based site, the volunteers in charge of technology could step out of the loop and let the members post their own content, whether worship material and prayers, or facility management issues, or social outreach ideas and contact information, as well as event information. In this case, the group is looking for a hosting service that provides the wiki hosting as well as the site hosting. The plan has met with approval from all those involved.

The third group that approached me was a group of colleagues at work. Several technical support people wanted to post information for the others in the team to see, internally, and wanted to be able to edit it quickly. Our IT expert setup a wiki within an hour (he used the popular MediaWiki) on a local server behind the firewall and the tech support experts were posting content that afternoon. Now we use it to communicate suggestions for the documentation and all sorts of information about the product that may or may not end up in the product documentation. Because we all have easy access to it and can each edit it, there is no learning curve and the information is updated immediately. While not the same as a database in the formal sense, the content on our internal wiki is searchable and easy to navigate and requires next to nothing in terms of maintenance. The IT expert figured out how to back up the server regularly and gave me the administrative responsibilities.

Whether you host it yourself (pick the CMS package and go with it) or choose a hosting service that can host the wiki or other CMS solution for you, going to this new form of Web site is the big decision. Architecting the site is no longer figuring out what pages link to what, but selecting the types of interactivity you want and letting the many volunteers you have recruited automatically now, in a sense, create the pages they need. There are packages that provide wiki (Web-editable) pages, blogs, calendars, surveys, forums, galleries for photos, etc. The Web site is not so much a destination to find information as an activity and a way to participate with others.

Which brings me to the point of this article. I sense that it is not just pouring rain; perhaps we are directly under the curve of a wave that is about to crash on all of us, unless we learn to rise to the top of the wave and ride it. What these all have in common is the phenomenon that now is being referred to as "Web 2.0." The common solution these three groups are exploring—that of a CMS-based portal to provide interactivity and involvement—is an indication of the movement to Web 2.0 by many groups.

This information might sound like marketing hype, but there are real changes going on, perhaps incrementally, and technical communicators can ride that wave and lead the way. The three groups that approached me are proof that this isn't just a drizzle but a real wave that is affecting all types of collaborative groups.

For more information:

Bill can be contacted at bill dot albing at keycontent dot org. End of article.

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