Controlling content

Knowledge grows like an amoeba. It absorbs bits and bites of information continuously, digesting and swelling until a critical mass is reached. Then it splits up and grows in new areas.

Web site content grows in this organic fashion, and some companies are finding they’ve already reached the critical mass point and outgrown the confines of their initial content management (CM) systems.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario (ICAO) is a case in point. The ICAO is the qualifying and regulatory body that oversees Ontario’s 40,000 chartered accountants. It is responsible for disseminating information to a diverse audience consisting of members, students, foreign-trained professionals, educators, employers and the general public.

In 2002, the ICAO implemented a CM system to manage information communicated to its audience. “Our Web site has become our prime means of communication, and we have an increasing amount of content to create and manage,” says Perry Jensen, associate director of media relations at the ICAO. “When we first purchased Web Impact’s Prism system, it met all our needs, but over time we found it couldn’t keep pace.”

After a mere three years, the ICAO went back to the drawing board to find a new CM system. In addition to enhanced workflow and performance, the ICAO was looking for greater editorial control over the development and publishing of new content, and a system that would enable contributors to publish content direct, without going through the IT department.

The ICAO settled on Woburn, Mass.-based Percussion Software Inc.’s Rhythmyx after doing a competitive review of seven CM systems. Rhythmyx offered a number of features that addressed the organization’s emerging needs.

The ICAO wanted to give its contributors greater editorial control, and this meant overriding some of the automated features in the original system that seemed useful at first but proved to be too inflexible as the site matured. If a new press release is issued, for example, it may seem a good idea to automatically reflect the change on the home page — but the ICAO needed a system that would allow human judgment to override that if other content was deemed more important.

“The ICAO wanted some automation but also the flexibility to change different aspects of the site independently and still have some connection between them,” says Vernon Imrich, CTO at Percussion.

“A general trend in knowledge management is that reliance on metadata fields, be it based on date or alphabet or some other taxonomy, never seems to work well. You get into battles over whether you can re-rank fields. We’ve seen some companies basically re-do their sites, because the first wave was completely automated based on metadata.”

The flip side of granting content owners greater editorial control is the need to equip them with the tools to see and understand the impact of a change, says Imrich.

“The ICAO wanted to get IT out of having to be a bottleneck, but the price for that is that you have lots of people putting out new content and re-using existing content, and if you don’t have something like impact analysis, you’re going to end up with a mess,” says Susan Challenger, vice-president of marketing at Percussion.

The impact analysis feature allows users to preview the impact of a change. “It allows you to see a tree view, upwards and downwards, of all the pieces of content you used, plus all the pieces of content that use you,” says Imrich. “When you start having content reuse within reuse, it becomes important to see this.”

The ICAO also needed to fortify its CM infrastructure to prevent a single point of failure. If any part of the system — the CM server, Web server and anything in between — went down, the whole Web site went down. “That’s because the previous system was coupled to the CM system, so the same server that people were using to update and approve was also supporting visitors to the Web site,” explains Imrich.

“We’ve pioneered decoupled delivery architecture, which allows multiple tiers. The delivery tier, which is the Web server, is separate from the CM system. This is a better performance model, as it can handle a greater load. There are far more people visiting your Web site than there are authors modifying content, so you can have much higher scaling of Web and application servers, and you can scale that up more cost-effectively than buying 10 more CM servers,” he says.

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