One of the challenging things about doing strategic planning / user experience design for the mobile technology industry, is that things are in constant flux. The industry moves so quickly, with so many new players popping up and dying out, new social networks growing rapidly or shrivelling away to obsolesence, shifts in mobile platforms, a booming ecosystem of open-source applications … it can be difficult, at times, to keep track of all this.
Thankfully, it’s not just me doing this; there’s a whole team devoted to this task (several, depending on who you ask ). And one of the best ways to stay on top of this tidal wave of new developments is to be able to leverage the collective knowledge of the team, each member contributing their own $.02 on whatever topic of interest, from which, when taken together, one can get a rough sense of where’ the industry is at, and where it’s going. To do this, though, requires a robust, flexible system to manage and categorize this constantly-updated stream of information, and I’ve found that the legacy corporate, Web 0.2 system we currently have in place was just not cutting the mustard. In fact, it was hurting our team, and thus, by extension (IMHO), our business.
So I spent some time poking around the interwebs to see what a viable (hopefully, free) alternative would be. I took a look at several open-source content managements systems – Plone, Drupal, Joomla – and found them to be very powerful, but with a somewhat steep learning curve, and probably overkill for what I needed. I didn’t want to spend weeks just getting up to speed with a system, when I knew, in the back of my mind that there was one tool out there – one dead easy to use, robust, flexible, jack-of-all-trades, all-around awesome tool that could fulfill about 80% of functionality I was looking for. I’m talking, of course, about of Wordpress.
To make a long story short, after a couple weeks of back and forth with our internal tools and IT teams, a bit of convincing on the part of my manager and others in our organization, I finally have a working Wordpress blog running behind our corporate firewall; it is – albeit slowly – being adopted by my colleagues (a team of about ten), and has, after a trial period, fully replaced our previous blog (which was powered by our massive company-wide dinosaur of a content management system).
I’d like to spend a bit of time talking about some of the challenges I faced and the workarounds I found, for anyone who hopes to do the same:
Convicing People of Worth
Time == money, and with ROI being the acronym on everyone’s lips (well, WTF is on mine sometimes), it’s important to have some good reasons why a blog is worth the investment in time and effort it takes to set one up. Though, seriously, with Wordpress’ famous five-minute installation, unless you’re making serious bank, this can’t take more than a couple dollars of your time! What enabled me to sell others on it was the fact that it could be used not only as a blog but also as a powerful content management system, in which posts can be tagged and categorized, and then later retrieved at the outset of a project. So figuring out what anyone ever said about, say, social media is as easy as clicking on the Social Media category.
This is, of course, assuming that everyone does a good job of categorizing their posts. But a little work up front can pay off a lot down the road when it comes time to draw on this accumulated corpus of knowledge. On this note, it’s really important to come up a priori with a suitable taxonomy of categories which suit the breadth of topics relevant in your industry. You can always change them later, but a good starter set is important so that no post gets lost in the mix.
Wordpress is free, you say (it’s GPL-ed, which doesn’t restrict its commercial use). There is no cost. Well, there are costs, but they’re not immediately obvious. It costs money to run servers, to pay for service contracts, to back up your data. I thought that running a blog would be as easy as plugging a Mac Mini into a port in the wall, but it’s really important to make sure that the server you’re running it on is maintained properly. So while Wordpress itself is technically free, it’s worth plunking down whatever is required to avoid having a server crash and losing months of valuable links and insights.
Barriers to entry
People, much like large corporations, are slow to change behavior, and it is an awful lot to ask of people to change everyday behaviors to accommodate a new technology, especially if the value of that technology is not immediately apparent. One way to mitigate the negative side-effects of technology upgrades is to make the new system feature-for-feature backwards compatible with the old one, so that no additional work is required to get an equal level of value. Kind of like snapping out the table cloth from off a table without disturbing any of the place settings.
For example, our old blog was really convenient in that you could register for email updates whenever a new entry was posted, and it was also possible to post new entries via email. Wordpress does not come out of the box with a subscribe-via-email feature (I like using one called Subscribe2 ) but, assuming you have a mail server at your disposal, you can set it up — with a little bit of effort — to handle posting via email. I never was able to get this feature up and running, but I found that the Press This posting bookmarklet, which comes out of the box in Wordpress 2.6, makes posting a pretty painless operation, as it integrates right into your browser toolbar.
Even with these backwards-compatible features in place, there was still some attrition when we moved from our old blog to the new one. So the moral of the story is, make it as easy as possible for people to post.
Also, as a corollary, go out of your way to help your co-workers become familiar with Wordpress! It’s definitely user-friendly software (and fun!) but some features are not immediately obvious on first use. Helping show people the ropes is an effort that will definitely pay off in the long run; if people are frustrated or confused from the outset, they’ll be even less inclined to get on board.
Security is always an issue in big corporations, and there were definitely a lot of questions as to the security of Wordpress. We’re running the blog behind our corporate firewall, so that definitely helps lock it down some. There are also Wordpress plugins available to help with LDAP authentication if that’s a requirement. We never were quite able to get this plugin to work with our LDAP server, and eventually gave up, but with a bit more work, I think it would be possible.
While by default, anyone can read a blog you’ve set up with Wordpress, in order to be an author, Wordpress requires a user to have a login. There is a setting to allow people to register themselves (and the admin sets the default privileges of self-registered users – i.e. can they publish posts or only contribute content?). What I found well, though, was to manually create a login for everyone I knew I wanted to be able to post to the blog. I felt that by taking this initial step (as opposed to asking people to register themselves), it would make things that much easier for everyone to try out Wordpress.
One other advantage of a single person creating a username for everyone at once, is that it affords a consistency that could make certain things easier down the road. For example – Wordpress is flexible in that you can change almost anything about your account except your username. Once you create that username, the only way to change it is to delete your account and create a new one. So, by explicitly choosing a certain username for each of my teammates (specifically the id which is used on the company wide intranet), I have left open the possibility to leverage LDAP authentication when we get that plugin working. If everyone were to create their own username, with no enforced format, there is no guarantee that this username would be compatible with another form of authentication if it became a requirement.
As discussed above, because Wordpress is only nominally ‘free’, there was some question as to whether it was worth the investment if this tool was just meeting the needs of a single (i.e. my) team. In general, I would imagine that corporate IT is looking for solutions that can scale, and is not interested in investing time, effort and money in one-off solutions that just serve a small subset of their serviced population.
Case in point: as I was discussing setting up a Wordpress blog with our tools team, there was another team within my organization who was talking about tweaking and contorting our corporate CMS to fit its needs of a dynamic, update-able site where they could publish their perspective on design trends. After sitting down and determining what their needs were, I suggested that Wordpress is just the tool for them. As it turns out, it was.
Fortunately, once you have a Wordpress installation and database set up, it is dead-easy to set up additional blogs. We have three running off of the same database. And each one is its own unique identity, fully autonomous and administered by a different person on a different team.
This article by Cory Doctorow about the inherent tension between corporate IT and tech-savvy users really struck a chord with me, as it echoed a lot of the feelings I had and challenges I faced while working on this project. I agree with it completely, and think that it is a sad state of things when the users of corporate IT (specifically those who are advocating change) are seen as “heretics”; they should be seen as scouts, out there in the trenches scoping out new vantage points and competitive edges.
I think that tools like Wordpress can provide that edge. And this is just one example of an ecosystem of incredibly powerful, free (or cheap) tools out there. Especially when compared with the unusable legacy systems that cost orders of magnitude more money to operate, train and maintain, the benefit of these tools is self-evident, and the potential they have to positively impact practices in the workplace is limitless. Policy may come from the top down, but change has to come from the bottom up.
No related posts.