CMS- Proprietary or Open Source?

HigherEdWebTech has a series of excellent suggestions in response to Karine Joly’s call for cost saving measures for higher ed websites. One suggestion was to go open source. I think that’s an excellent idea- one grounded on social media principles of harnessing the power of crowds. I imagine many who read that last phrase would nod in agreement. Unfortunately for my school, it seems open source is looked down upon specifically because it’s open source- there is no big company (or small for that matter) behind it. This is all speculation on my part as I’m just a lowly designer who’s not privy to the information, discussions and pressures of those above me who are making these kinds of decisions. Nonetheless, I’ve been in the web world for a long time, worn many hats, worked in diverse environments and have dealt with a wide ranging set of clients. So I feel I can make educated guesses about such things and, let’s face it, I’m not shy about pontificating my views.

In terms of niche uses, deep within the bowels of sprawling higher ed sites, open source can take hold, though mostly because it’s out of sight, out of mind. Butin terms of larger, more conspicuous efforts, like a CMS, open source doesn’t pass muster. I think the reason for that is precisely because open source isn’t proprietary. There’s no company or person to hold responsible if and when things go bad. In a highly CYA environment like higher ed, this is a killer characteristic. Now, there is a warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with a proprietary solution, which is the flip side of the coin. Accountability for something as crucial as a CMS is needed and for officials, this safety net is a needed given. They don’t want to worry about who is minding the store, because that service came with the price tag. So, OK, peace of mind is surely nothing to belittle, but c’mon. Open source only means that you’re relying on your own people to mind the store, which is their job anyway. If they themselves get into a problem they can’t get out of, then there’s a universe of contributors that can be tapped- nothing wrong with that. The in-house team should give back as well as part of their jobs, but this would certainly come at a smaller cost than some proprietary CMS vendors.

Beyond authority and responsibility concerns come the lure of lofty promises. When a proprietary CMS maker visits for a sales demo, things are rosy. They present a tidy world, crafted to sell (and where everything, of course, works as advertised). It’s a CMS, it’s a document repository, it’s workflow, it’s collaboration, or maybe it’s all of the above. Why not pay for one solution and kill many birds with one stone? The tech people will figure out the details and make it all work, right? Right. 

The issue I have with all this is not proprietary vs. open source per se, but rather that none of the problems the new tool is supposed to solve are technical in nature. Most problems have an institutional basis that technology won’t solve. Do you have an editorial process? CMSs don’t provide those. Do you exist in a transparent culture where people can, in their good judgement, post what they feel is necessary to get their job done online? Probably not and a CMS doesn’t come with the authority to allow this. Are the right kind of people in place and are they given enough time to adequately participate in the social media scene that has engulfed schools? A CMS doesn’t come with extroverts out of the box.

in the end, I side with the open source approach. I’ve certainly drank the “social media is the future” Kool-Aid which heavily impacts my stance, but aside from that, I think an open source approach has the best chance to accommodate user needs instead of the other way around- bending people to work within a proprietary system. That’s just good sense.

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1 Comment

  1. As someone who works with an open source CMS named Drupal, I think they’re pretty cool myself. And if a university needs someone to be responsible, there’s now a company named Acquia that’s trying to fill that need.

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