Project Year: 2006
We would like to express our gratitude towards the following people who participated in this project and provided incredible amount of help, courage and support:
Bernie Van Spronsen
Premier School Agendas Ltd. is a student success and education services company with offices located in Langley, BC, Canada, and Bellingham, WA, USA.
Premier’s main speciality is manufacturing and distributing large selections of customized Student Success Agendas and Character development resources. Their goal is to meet the unique needs of every school and their students in USA and Canada.
Like many businesses, Premier is using their corporate website to market their products and services. This is specially critical if client schools are located in remote areas that are not easily accessible to Premier’s army of sales people.
Prior to winter 2006, Premier’s corporate website was operating using a combination of static and semi-dynamic pages. Their corporate website lacked the required flexibilities to effectively deliver their products and marketing information. This was in fact affecting the merit of their online presence.
Premier had previously hired a well known Graphic Design and Advertisement agency to design the page layouts for their corporate websites. The design agency had used web authoring tools such as Macromedia Dreamweaver to design their web pages. Those pages were later on somehow mashed with a set of Perl scripts written by the Premier’s Technology Solutions team.
The produced web pages consists of many nested tables and unnecessary graphics. Web pages had large file sizes and the text content was literally trapped under layers of poor quality HTML code. Web pages also did not render properly according to the W3C standards, and it was difficult for the Search Engine bots to read and index the website content.
A big portion of the content was fused with the website HTML code and Perl scripts, as a result it was very difficult and time consuming to update the website. For every request placed by the marketing department, Technology Solution’s team had to dive into a cluster of bloated HTML and Perl scripts to make updates. This could have taken days or weeks to accomplish.
Website layouts were done following a restrictive corporate guideline based on obsolete web design practices. In addition to that, each content update had slightly damaged the layout of pages, so after a series of updates within a year, the visual consistency of the corporate website had been decaying.
Crude Website Architecture had also taken away the integrity of presented information. For example the relationship between marketing material and related products, or the relationship between a products and their customizable components were depicted in a somewhat obscure fashion.
In the early stages of the project, several face-to-face meetings were conducted with the Premier management and staff in the MPD ( Marketing/Product Development ), Sales, and Technology solutions Departments. During those sessions we had the opportunity to further understand Premier’s business model, their product-line growth pattern through previous years, and Premier’s overal future vision.
We were not really interested in the detailed specs of each product, in fact our goal was to understand the growth and relationship patterns of Premier’s products or services. This was also a good self discovery process for the stakeholders and the company in general to play corporate anthropologists and view themselves from an outsider’s point of view.
Using the gathered information, we managed to develop a Data Model and Work Flow diagram that better represented Premier’s business model. This was an essential part of our project.
A company’s data model is the DNA of that business; getting it wrong during the system analysis process, results into a software that is useless.
We also figured that what Premier really needed was a solid, easy to use Content Management System (CMS), where multiple people could maintain the integrity of the content in a collaborative fashion.
We had to convince the Management on benefits of using a CMS, and collaborative site administration. This wasn’t easy since management were still residing in the mindset that:
There has to be a Web Master responsible for maintaining a website, other employees wouldn’t want to do “more work”.
Having multiple people maintain the websites could have decentralized the power hierarchy of few individuals who’d decide what content should be published online.
They also had to reconsider hiring their Graphic Design company to do their website layout design. Designing layout templates for content management software is often beyond the knowledge capacity of many Graphic Design and Advertisement agencies.
Joomla! CMS, was the application suggested to Premier. Joomla is one of the best Open Source content management systems existing today with a very modular architecture, that enabled us to extend Joomla’s basic functionality by developing a customized eCatalog component within approximately 9 weeks tailored to Premier’s business model.
A Joomla template was also designed according to Premier’s identity guidelines. This template would create a consistent look & feel throughout their website. This means people, who now administer the website content, are less likely to damage the look and feel of the web pages, since content is now separated from the website code and instead it is stored in a database.
Marketing and Technology Solutions Management were also trained on maintaining and updating the content using the CMS administration panel.
Premier’s corporate website now takes significantly less time to get updated. Marketing and Technology Solutions management can now sign into the CMS and update the content almost instantly, or maintain the data integrity in a collaborative manner as a part of their everyday operation.
For example product information are first entered by the Marketing agents, then they are reviewed by the Technology Solution’s team for possible technical mistakes, and then they are reviewed once again by the marketing and product development team. Interesting enough that Marketing team is located in US, and Technology Solutions team is across the border in Canada.
Web pages are now rendered mostly in CSS, and the number of HTML tables has been significantly reduced. Current layout is more search engine optimized (SEO); in fact it has boosted the website’s rank on Google and Yahoo search engines.
The new template also enforces a consistent look & feel throughout the website. Content is now separated from the presentation layer, meaning that content is now stored in the database, and page layouts are handled by the CMS. That means later on we can change the look and feel of the website without affecting the content integrity, or the other way around.
Customers can now view a marketing description and the list of all products associated with it on the same page. Some products could also belong to more than one marketing category. The eCatalog component can dynamically figure out the relationships and business logic on the fly.
A marketing category could contain many products, or a product could belong to one or many categories.
A product could be associated with many customizable components. For example a school agenda, and a list of available Covers, Supplements, and Enhancements that comes with it.
Product descriptions are also available in Printer Friendly formats. There is a feature so users can email a page link to their friends. This feature is specially useful for Sales people who are making a deal over the phone, or email.
The following notes could be common to all the organizations who make the transition to use a web based CMS or other types of web applications in their workflow.
Corporate identity guidelines are often very focused on the printed material, and how the company logo ought to be used. Guidelines dictated for the online material are often borrowed from the printed material, with the mindset of viewing web pages as static documents, and not as interactive information portals.
This approach might have worked in 1999 when web pages were indeed mostly online static html documents; however, today in the era of online Content Managements and Web Applications, these identity guidelines need to be updated by people who are specialized in both Graphic Design and User Interface Design for information systems.
Maintaining large amount of content using a CMS, demands a collaborative work environment where every team member has equal authority to be responsible for a sub-section of overall content in a large website.
Collaborative work environments are more horizontally distributed, and the management style is mostly supportive and not directive, because every team member is aware and educated enough about their responsibilities.
This concept often goes against traditional corporate structure where an organization consists of smaller pyramids of power with a middle management on the top of each unit who supplies orders to the subordinates.
These organization’s often prefer to have a “Web Master” figure responsible for maintaining their website according to the orders coming from the upper management. Problem with that approach is that maintaining a content dense website is no longer a one-person job where information has a higher degree of growth and interrelationship.
Corporations need to adopt more collaborative style work groups in order to improve the quality of information they produce and publish on the web.
A Collaborative work environment could mean decentralizing the authority of middle management in a Power Pyramid, so basically part of middle management’s authority and responsibilities are now given up to the team-members who now get to work in a more democratic fashion.
For example a marketing strategist who used to orchestrate Web Masters, Graphic Designers, and Content Developers is now going to give up a portion of that control to the team, and perhaps better focus on the Product, Price, Placement, and Promotion (4 Ps of marketing!).
This could easily create a resistant point within an organization who is in favor of protecting the status quo and job descriptions. (Who would want to give up the glamour of playing design director after all? ) This type of resistance could slow down the process of adapting collaborative technologies such as online Content Management Systems within an organization.
Upper Management need to be open minded about the change, and all the benefits that new working structure could bring into the organization.
Stakeholders often need to be educated on many aspects of newly introduced technology. There is often an initial resistance to adopting new ideas.
For example, it took more than half a year for the Marketing and Technology Solution Management to be convinced on benefits of using CSS over tables for their web pages. It was partly lack of knowledge, and the fact that they probably had to reconsider their long term relationship with their Graphic Design and Ad Agency they were working with, and take their web projects to a different company who could design HTML templates using W3C compliant HTML and CSS code.
Fortunately, Premier’s in-house team of developers really welcomed the new approach on the CSS based layouts, because it would save them days of unnecessary work trying to brute force table based page layouts done in Dreamweaver on top of a Web Application or Perl script.
The idea of having a template engine and CMS enforcing a consistent theme, and user navigation pattern throughout the website was first received as taking away authority and flexibility from people who used to tell web masters where to cram more hyper-links in every available white space. Despite those, signs of acceptance and satisfaction finally showed up. Staff were pleased with the new possibilities that using a content management had provided.
Learning more about Joomla! CMS they have started coming up with their own set of creative ideas to improve the usability and information flow of the website.
We were aware that adaptation of CMS in a large organization is often a very slow process, as a matter of fact it wasn’t an overnight success, but with a dose of wish-full thinking we managed to have the project successfully launched and used. This was clearly an improvement over the past corporate website for Premier.