There’s A Happy Medium Between Centralization & Decentralization

One of my main points of advice for higher ed websites is the idea that operationally, a decentralized management approach to the web does not work well. The opposite–centralization–does. But that doesn’t mean some aspects to a decentralized approach can’t or shouldn’t be employed. It just shouldn’t be the foundation for how to manage the global operation of the site. That spells trouble.

So where does decentralization make sense? The obvious answer is content. Higher ed sites are large, if not huge, relative to many websites and the thought of centralizing that amount of content into a few hands doesn’t seem practical. The sheer workload would jeopardize the distribution of time sensitive information. Plus, no content person wants to work in a sweat shop environment were quality takes a backseat to simply getting the work out. And beyond even those practical concerns, will a content person be as passionate about every subject that comes across their desk as the people who live and breathe it?For those reasons, content ought to be unleashed.

This isn’t anything new Mike

OK, so a decentralized content scheme isn’t a new idea, but my point is that simply because it’s smart to decentralize content creation doesn’t mean ALL aspects of the web effort should go along with it. This includes strategy, information architecture, visual design and functionality. There’s no credible reason that I’m aware of that would cause me to believe that every dean, vice chancellor, and director at the university should control how their part of the website works or functions. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be at the table to discuss matters that affect them, but neither should they be allowed to dictate needs on a per site section basis either. This is how workloads get out of hand.

Give me an example

If group A wants to promote news, group B wants to promote events and group C wants to promote both, what happens in a decentralized world? The web team gives each group exactly what they want. But if information architecture is centralized, then you would look at all groups in totality. You would take all wants and needs into consideration en masse. Only then can you create a solution that can be sustained over the long haul in an efficient manner. In our example, you might come to the conclusion that lots of groups across campus will want to promote news and/or events. So instead of building standalone news and event solutions plus one that handles both, you could merge news and events into a single steam called what’s happening. Any group on campus could then tap into this single solution. Group A doesn’t have events? No problem, no events populate their content, but the “what’s happening” label still makes sense. Same goes for group B in reverse.

Technology folks will of course try to build solutions with modularity in mind, but this only goes so far. News and events is an easy example since we all know those ideas will port across many departments. But what about requests that have limited universal appeal or practicality? Do you build it? The answer lies in your overall strategy. 

You may not have a global strategy precisely because of the decentralized environment. But once centralization occurs, that all changes. You should have a basic understanding of what your site is supposed to achieve and for whom. In that light, a request for a specific feature that is only useful to a certain group or for a particular, somewhat rare occasion should be looked at suspiciously. If your site is supposed to communicate with prospective students and entice them to apply, then there may not be a good case, for example, in building a Blackboard login function. I’m not saying Blackboard doesn’t have utility, but not for your prospective student audience nor to achieve your goal to drive applications . The correct answer in this case would be a polite “no.”

Instead, I see many sites, our own included, take on projects to fulfill any and all requests without much critical thought as to their strategic value. So more projects enter the queue, timelines stretch out, both clients and customers get frustrated over the slow progress, staff morale suffers and the website becomes ever more confused. I would imagine that if you looked at your institution’s workload, you’d find a significant amount to be, at best, tangential to your main goals and, at worst, unrelated at all. Kill those projects and focus. Centralize the high level, strategic functions your group provides while you decentralize the ground level content that gives visitors localized flavor.

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