Enterprise Software

How a CMS can enhance online operations

Creating a dynamic, robust online site means having the right interface and development tools. Learn why a CMS is the integration point for vital third-party applications, and get tips for making the effort go smoothly.

When Workforce Magazine, an 80-year-old trade publication geared toward HR professionals, launched its site in June 1995, it set out with the belief that the site should not be a mere online rendition of its successful magazine but a unique collection of content and functionality that made the best use of the Web for its more than 250,000 registered users. Recently acquired by Crain Communications, Inc., Workforce is a Costa Mesa, CA-based premier destination for HR professionals, concentrating on HR trends and tools for business results.

Three years later, it redesigned the site from the ground up and decided to custom-build a content management system (CMS). While the proprietary CMS worked well at first, by early 2001 it became apparent that the system was hindering Workforce’s efforts in growing the site to meet the expanding needs of its readers and its own editorial team.

The proprietary code base of the CMS and peripheral systems prevented developers from extending functionality and, more importantly, from fixing bugs in the system—specifically those that occasionally erased all the content within the site. Usability was also a big headache; many of the screens presented long, unmanageable lists of assets, with no ability to sort or filter the results.

The organization had little choice but to basically tear everything down and radically overhaul the existing technology architecture.

CMS is all about the process
Workforce wanted a sophisticated publishing system that could handle a high volume of content, but it didn’t want to build a custom system again.

“With the installed CMS we had, we found that its problems quickly became site-wide issues,” said Bob Dortch, VP of production at Workforce. “Because the system lived in the same environment as our live site, if the CMS went haywire and locked up the Web server, both our CMS and our entire live Web site went down at the same time.” The problem with the installed solution was that it had created too great a codependency between the main business needs: serving our live site and building new content, he explained.

“We knew that selecting a new CMS would be a major undertaking, and based on our past experience, we knew a hosted solution would provide the separation and business security we were looking for.”

Because Workforce had a limited budget, it didn’t want to invest heavily in software and staff to support and manage a complex application. It also required an application that could integrate with other applications, including ad serving, bulletin boards, user authentication, and a search engine. And the organization wanted an implementation partner that could perform the customization it required, and that could (cost-effectively) continue to modify the application as requirements changed.

Workforce chose CrownPeak Technology and its Advantage CMS solution because they “know the people behind it and their track record of both innovation and success in this space,” said Margaret Magnus, publisher and president of Workforce Magazine.

“CrownPeak provides literally all of the features we need today, along with other capabilities we will grow to need, at a much lower cost than anything else we've seen in the marketplace."

CrownPeak Technology is a content management ASP that provides content management as a service. The Advantage CMS solution delivers a complete set of features in a 100-percent browser-based interface, including source control, versioning, spell checking, link checking, comprehensive workflow, security monitoring features, multilingual interfaces, database management, and wireless compatibility.

“The experience and knowledge of the individuals at CrownPeak; [the] high level of trust that, if they said they would deliver, they would; and their ability to listen to the client and understand the client's business were the key reasons we selected CrownPeak,” added Dortch.

A cost-effective solution
Workforce used the CMS rebuild opportunity to also completely redesign back-end systems. Workforce removed the proprietary CMS (which was doing double-duty as an application server), and discarded the supporting but aging Oracle database. It moved to PHP as the application server and MySQL to handle database needs.

This strategy streamlined support needs and gave a standardized platform on which to base future development. CrownPeak also agreed to provide Web hosting for Workforce, via a partnership with IBM.

“It's a totally outsourced solution that's given them a world-class application for a very reasonable figure,“ said Jim Howard, CrownPeak’s CEO.

Advantage’s open architecture made it relatively painless to integrate the CMS with other key technology components of the site, like DoubleClick's DART Ad Management system, DoubleClick’s e-mail system for their newsletters, and PicoSearch for the search system.

No time for downtime
Because Workforce relied on the CMS to run the day-to-day business, CrownPeak had to implement the new CMS with effectively no downtime for Workforce.

The CrownPeak project team defined an implementation process that allowed them to reconstruct Workforce’s key templates in Advantage, create their users, groups, and workflow, and perform thorough testing of the new CMS, all without interrupting Workforce’s ongoing content management process.

CrownPeak used a staging server—essentially, an exact replica of Workforce's live site—to test the new CMS system, leaving the live site and existing CMS untouched. When they completed the development and the testing, CrownPeak used its automated data import utility to bring in content from the legacy Oracle database.

Before the site went live, teams from CrownPeak and Workforce did a final system test to verify that everything was operational in the staging environment. This configuration made going live as simple as literally hitting a switch and publishing content to the live server.

Workforce was surprised at the relatively short learning curve for the new system. Based on their requirements, CrownPeak implemented a new online publishing process, which took a little getting used to. But by the time the testing period was complete, the Workforce staff was fully up to speed on the new system.

“When Workforce went live, it was really the most anticlimactic moment of the project,” recalled David Hudson, director of production at CrownPeak. Because CrownPeak and Workforce teams had completed extensive testing with the staging environment, Hudson knew the launch would actually be quite easy. “With literally one click, we deployed all the CMS content to the live site, and once that was complete, Workforce began using Advantage to manage their content.”

The ROI is strong
The new CMS seems to have paid off handsomely in several ways, according to Workforce.

“Thanks to the robust feature set, our staff has been able to work much more efficiently than before,” said Dortch. “The intuitive user interface means that navigating to almost any content item or performing a modification are a simple mouse click away.” Workforce also likes the fact that Advantage is able to publish out to multiple servers at different stages of workflow.

“This has allowed us to have a staging server that is always up to date with content, which makes it easier to do accurate development work for new features,” said Dortch. It also means that Workforce is able to better leverage existing hardware assets—something it couldn’t do with the previous system.

Lessons learned
Workforce IT leaders learned several lessons during the effort, and they offer these tips on how to make a CMS work best for the online scenario:

Pick the right partner. “We always knew we had a sizeable amount of content on our site and in the CMS,” said Dortch. “However, we learned that given the right interface and tools, that content doesn’t have to be daunting to interact with. The process of migrating to Advantage has made us really grow to enjoy and benefit from the degree of control the system gives us. CrownPeak worked diligently with us to ensure that any problems that arose were properly handled, and they made the configuration changes to tailor the system to our exact needs.”

Tomorrow’s changes are as important as today’s requirements. “I can’t stress enough how important it is for a CMS to move as quickly as your business,” noted Howard. “Web sites change. Processes change. Any CMS has to be able to change rapidly to enable a new look and feel, a new site section, adjustment to workflow, or permissions. And it has to be able to do so without a staff of experts on standby to make that change. A reasonable cost for modifying the system is absolutely critical.“

Integrate to win. “Running a successful online publishing business means having to offer a wide range of functionality—typically provided by third-party applications—to satisfy clients, employees, and partners,“ said Howard. “The CMS usually becomes the integration point for all of these third-party applications. Because of our commitment to Web services and other connection methods, it was straightforward for us to extend the CMS to give the Workforce team the ability to handle these various applications via a single interface.”

Importing content. The size of the content repository was an interesting challenge, noted Howard. “Moving that much content over, even when it was already in a database, required significant effort. We've built some strong import tools, but nothing replaces a visual review of each page as part of the QA process.“

Usability is as important as functionality. It was critical to keep forms and control panels as simple and understandable as possible for nontechnical users. “By reviewing the interfaces of their proprietary CMS, and through discussions with Workforce’s content creation team, we identified several areas where we knew an improved interface could yield operational improvements,” said Hudson. “Our CMS provided the flexibility for designing interfaces and processes that are clean and efficient, while providing enough structure to maintain a cohesive experience throughout the system.”

Outsourcing can lessen the load. CrownPeak's ASP model provided major performance boost to the site: By decoupling the CMS from Workforce's live serving environment, the server was no longer burdened with the overhead of serving Web pages and running a CMS, which greatly improved server performance.

Focus on your core business. Outsourcing the CMS meant that Workforce no longer had the responsibility for managing and ensuring the availability and reliability of the solution. It was free to concentrate on its core business—providing world-class content to HR professionals.

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