Community Portals and Platforms

Aug 01, 2006

Where does content management end and community management begin? For some IT diehards "everything is content," including human resources data that tells all about every member of an organization. For others, content is about text, whether online documents, structured XML files, posts to weblogs, or attached multimedia files, like audio and video podcasts. Stuff about people does not belong in a content management system (CMS).

IBM's excellent "Blue Pages," (developed at Lotus) with company photos, contact information, interest and expertise profiles which allow "expert location," is clearly just data to those who maintain the huge database. But to the members of the IBM community, it is a portal that looks and feels very different from their content management systems.

Ecommerce systems, customer relationship management, and sales force automation seem to be huge collections of transactional data, involving people, products, and services. Aren't we stretching the idea of content management to include them?

Even AIIM's definition of enterprise content management system (ECM) seems to draw a line (strangely at unstructured information):

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is the technologies used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and documents related to organizational processes. ECM tools and strategies allow the management of an organization's unstructured information, wherever that information exists.

Whatever distinction we might make here, it is blurring in the increasingly sophisticated web-based tools for managing virtual communities--as well as physical communities with a major online presence.

This can be seen best in open-source content management systems which are typically developed by collaborating communities, who are naturally adding in tools to manage the people themselves. The most powerful of the open-source CMS, like Zope and its out-of-the-box cousin Plone, think of themselves as "platforms" on top of which anything can be built, including community management.

Drupal has gone farther than most in the community direction, primarily because of its use in the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign. Out of Howard Dean's "Democracy for America" blog came CivicSpace and its relatives, CiviCRM and CivicMail, all built on Drupal.

Not incidentally, IT books publisher Packt has announced a contest for the best open-source CMS ($5,000 first prize) and it is likely that community management features will be very strong in the winner.

But can any one portal or platform tool provide all that a community needs today? Will there be a "one system fits all" solution or should we look to "loosely coupled" systems, each with its own special applications and databases, all connected together with the RSS feeds and AJAX user interfaces of Web 2.0?

Weblogs are the most compelling reason for communities to work with multiple CMS's. Often the most prolific writers in a community have their own weblogs and blog aggregators (Drupal is particularly good at this) can bring in their work to the community website.

Another reason is Wikis. It is so easy to create a new knowledge base in a wiki that the central community website needs to reach out and treat the wiki as a service-oriented application (SOA) providing feeds as needed.

For my own skyBuilders clients I find the best solution is often a combination of "best of breed" tools which we stitch together via web services, often custom built.

The CMS Glossary is a collaboratively written wiki (based on the open-source CMS TikiWiki) whose definitions are packaged up as feeds to several CM-related websites. These single-source gloss definitions are then reused by different members of the wider community. Updating information is done in just one place for all.

CMS News aggregates bloggers (using Drupal) from several CM-related disciplines including content managers, information architects, interaction designers, and taxonomists. It can then turn around its content and provide custom blog feeds to CM Professionals, for example.

Most communities offer one or more mailing list serves to their members. Instead of expecting the main CMS to provide email services and also to present emails as web content, List2Web is free software that can feed the individual email postings from an open-source list serve program like GNU Mailman to a web page in the main CMS.

All these loosely coupled applications point to a future in which the most interesting content on the web, including bookmarks, Flickr photos, etc. can become an integral part of your future community content management system.

At the recent Collaborative Technologies Conference in Boston, John Seely Brown, the former Xerox Chief Scientist and guru of Social Networking, described his use of Second Life as a collaborative community platform in a university seminar. Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its chatting avatar residents. Now three years old, it has grown to over 350,000 people from around the world.

For purists, all these avatars instant messaging one another may not look like the kind of content in a typical publishing operation, but it is the stuff of community portals in the future.