Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Open-source CMS challenges

I talked previously about a running your website using a content management system. While these kinds of tools aren't new, what is new is the accessibility and power of open-source, free-to-download CMS systems like Drupal and CivicSpaceLabs, and the large online support and development communities built up around them (for the most part, I'm going to focus on Drupal and CSL, two front-runner packages that we are working with at CM). But if these kinds of systems are so powerful - and "free" - then why isn't eveyone already running this software?

  • Lack of awareness: As is usual, one sphere of the Internet - including a sizeable portion of nonprofit techie folks - already know all about Web2.0 technologies and open source technologies. But I get out quite a fair bit, and there is an even more sizeable portion of the world that thinks I've forgotten the rest of the word "Quad" when I say Drupal. And to be fair, there's also a lot of activie criticism and questioning of these tools; and other open source tools like Joomla, PostNuke, PHPFusion, etc are also competing for the spotlight.
  • Planning inertia: Regardless of whether you're building a website with HTML tools like Dreamweaver or FrontPage, or you are using a CMS (open source or commerical), you still need to figure out how your site structure, audience, goals, etc. These questions are not answered by these new tools - and it will always be difficult to convince people to invest in planning as opposed to just a magical technological solution.
  • Technology know-how: Make no mistake - while maintaining, updating and running a website on a day-to-day basis is much easier with Drupal (for example), installing and configuring it still requires a fair amount of niche technology know how. The online support communities favor the "learn it yourself" approach, which is fair for the tech aspects of day-to-day website operations - but what nonprofit line staff really needs to learn about setting permissions on an Apache server or configuring MySQL databases?
  • Design know-how: These tools are very powerful and flexible - so much so, in fact, that unless you stay with the confines of the established design templates (and look very similar to many other sites), you'll want to find/ hire a designer to help you create something unique.
The first issue CM is trying to address in venues like this blog and the NetSquared event. The second issue has been CompuMentor's bugaboo for the last 20 years, and we'll just keep trying change things little by little.

The last two issues speak to my current work challenge: Where can you find hands-on help for these tools? Sure, you can get "remote" help from the online forums; you can even find and hire a consultant (if you have the money). But I imagine that for every in-demand consultant, there has to be a couple of people who are willing to volunteer to build their chops or their portfolios. But is there an (online?) venue for this kind of discussion? I admit, I might have just as big a blind-spot as those "Quad-drupal" folks I talk to....

I mean, that's what CompuMentor was originally founded on - techies who want to volunteer their skills for social benefit (and to also build their own skills). I don't begrudge a dime from the people who can get paid good money for their skills, but at CompuMentor we are still working with a lot of organizations who don't have enough good money to go around. Volunteer community anyone?