Sitecore Implementation Notes

Le kiosque de Sitecore
Image by Frédéric Harper via Flickr

I’m coming up on 2 years of working with Sitecore, a .NET Content Management System (see my post titled “Some Thoughts on Sitecore CMS” for previous thoughts on the subject).  These two years have been interesting, challenging and exciting and educational.

Since I’ve written about Sitecore in the past, I wanted to take some time to circle back around and share some additional thoughts on Sitecore CMS implemention.  While my experience has been with Sitecore, these are general types of CMS questions, thoughts and strategies and could be applied to any other platform.

Before I get into Sitecore, let’s look at CMS implementations in general.

CMS Implementation – 4 questions

For a few minutes, forget about the technology.  Don’t even think about tthat until you can answer these questions:

1.) Why do you want or need a CMS?

This seems like a simple question…but if your answer is to ‘manage web content’, you haven’t completely thought through the strengths of a CMS. Content Management Systems provide much more than just content management; they provide a means to push content ownership out to the subject matter experts.  This holds true for all CMS platforms, whether Sitecore, Ektron, Umbraco, Interwoven, Drupal, WordPress (yes..it is a great CMS) or one of the many others.

2.) How will you allow content owners to actually own the content?

When you get your CMS in place, how will your organization push out ownership of the content? What processes can you put in place to allow you to open your CMS to the all content owners. And…yes…i used the word ‘process’.  Don’t overdo it though!  🙂

3.) Who “owns” the CMS?

This is a loaded question.  While the CMS is a content platform, is it owned by the IT group?   Sure, the platform itself is an IT platform and needs IT services to keep it running, but should the IT group ‘own’ the platform?   {My answer: No – the business unit(s) should}

4.) Do you have a web & marketing strategy?  Who “owns” this strategy?

This is one of the questions that seem easy..but it isn’t.  Does your marketing department own the web?  IT?  PR?  Who sets your web strategy?  Do you have a strategy?  How does your CMS driven web fit into your marketing strategy?

Answer these questions before you move into your CMS implementation program and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.  I’m working on another article that addresses these questions (and others) that should be part of an organizaiton’s technology selection strategy plan…look for that article in the future.

Sitecore CMS Implementation Thoughts

Now, its time to look at the technology. For those that don’t know, Sitecore CMS is a .NET platform.  If your organization is a Microsoft shop, Sitecore is a great fit for you.  You do have other options (Sharepoint, OpenText, etc) but my experience has me recommending Sitecore over all others in the .NET world.

Pre-implementation

Prior to selecting Sitecore (or any CMS), you’ve got to take some time to think about your processes & workflows.  Determine who will have the ‘final word’ on how content is published and where it lives.  Set some web standards (if you don’t have them already) and determine your content architecture & strategy.  Will you be reorganizing your content?  How about a new design?  Easy decisions right? 🙂

You’ve answered the four questions above and figured out the high-level stuff…that was easy right?  Not really…its harder than it seems but determining this stuff up front will help tremendously once you start implementing Sitecore CMS as it will driving your implementation strategy and plan.

If you’ve got the budget, hire an outside consultant to help you with this step in the project.  If you bring in the right consultant, they could also act as the overall CMS Program Manager (more on this later).

Implementation

Now that you’ve worked through the pre-implementation phase, what now?  Time to get your Sitecore CMS platform implemented.

What’s the first step?  Grab your development staff  and get some Sitecore Training to get certified.  This certification is much more than just a piece of paper…it gets your team to a point where they can understand the Sitecore terminology and best practices. This often overlooked step in CMS implementations tends to come back around and haunt the organization at a later date.  Spend the money up front and you’ll save money in the long run.

Implementing the basic Sitecore CMS system is a fairly straightforward process.  The hardware requirements are well documented and installation is straightforward.  Sounds easy right?  So far, it is.

You’ve found the hardware, configured it and run the Sitecore CMS installation program. Now it’s time to look at splitting your CMS implementation efforts into three parts: Development, Content & Training

  1. Development – Developing for Sitecore CMS platform isn’t too different than any other .NET development effort. Using .NET best practices, development isn’t too difficult, but the architecture of the platform is extremely important.  Take some time to think about your content and IT infrastructure at this point.
  2. Content – You’ve got a Content Management System (or at least one that is being implemented). Time to start implementing your content architecture plans and filling your sitecore tree with content.  This initial Content work should be done by a single content team…do not leave this work to your content owners.  Take this opportunity to reorganize your content as necessary.
  3. Training – In addition to developing out your website, applications and content, you’ve got to start introducing Sitecore CMS to your organizations’ users.    This means lots of meetings, training and discussions of what the CMS is and how it can help them.  One of the often overlooked pieces of a CMS implementation is end-user training.  Not only do you need to train the organization in the use of the platform, but also in the organizations web & content strategy.

As you can see, implementing a CMS platform like Sitecore is quite a large undertaking even for a smaller organization, but with proper planning and knowledge of Sitecore CMS, you’ll do fine.

Managing the Implementation

CMS implementations are much more than a ‘project’…you’ve got a Program here.  From my experience, an implementation in a medium to large organization requires a Program Manager to lead the different projects with project managers heading up each of the main thrusts of the project (Hardware, Development, Content, Training).

There are many different pieces to an implementation. You’ve got to worry about IT Infrastructure,  Software development, web design, web content and other topics. Spend the money upfront to get a good Program Manager (use an external consultant if needed) and Project Managers (you could use internal PM’s for this). If you approach this right (and have the budget), you can bring in a consultant to help throughout the project (from technology selection through final implementation).

While a CMS implementation is a large undertaking, it’s fairly straightforward if you have some knowledge in web strategy, technology, content, marketing and Sitecore CMS.  While there are a lot of technical issues to work through, the most difficult part of a CMS implementation is really the content strategy, user education and user adoption aspects…this is where experience and thought leadership comes into play.

If you’re looking to implement a CMS (Sitecore or otherwise), forget about the technical aspects of the CMS when you start out…look at the business first to make sure it is capable of sustaining your web & content strategy.  Understand the business needs first then find your CMS and implement the proper workflow and content architecture to meet the current and future needs of the organization.  This is a common sense stuff, but often overlooked when it comes to CMS projects.

There are many people & organizations  that can help…I know many of them and would be happy to help you find the right person or organization to help with your Sitecore (or other platform) implementation. Give me a call or email and I’ll do what I can to help.

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Time for a Mid Year Review

2009 is half over and its been a pretty good year so far.

What’s transpired this year?

  • In February, I put my consulting practice on hold to join the Boy Scouts of America full time after working with them for 1.5 years as a consultant.  Previous to starting full-time, I’d been leading the Sitecore Content Management System implementation and since going full-time have been involved in some major technology and marketing initiatives.  It’s been fun and an education in how non-profits are run.
  • I’ve just finished year #2 in the Doctoral program.  Only X number of years left (i have no idea what X actually is…probably 3 to 4 more years).
  • I’ve held up my resolutions for the year fairly nicely. I used the ‘three words’ approach (I learned this from Chris Brogan).  My words were: Create, Think & Lead. I’ve written more important stuff (at least to me) on this blog than I used to and I kicked off another blog focused on my photography.
  • My wife’s photography business is starting to see a bit more life.  The economy has taken its toll but we are starting to see a bit more traffic and interest from potential clients.
  • I’ve disconnected from a lot of things that were taking up way too much of my time.  While this has been hard to do, it’s been necessary to allow me to focus on those things that will bring the most benefit & value to me in the future.

What does the rest of 2009 hold? I’m not sure…but I’m positive it will be a good 6 months.

  • I’m anxious to kick off a few projects that I’ve been thinking about and can’t wait to see the results.
  • I’ve got a couple interesting side projects that have been brewing for a while…they are looking like they might show some signs of life later this year.
  • I’ve submitted a few articles & papers to academic journals & trade publications…hopefully I’ll hear back on whether they are accepted for publishing.

How has the first half of 2009 been for you?

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Leading IT Transformation

In November 2008 I was asked to take a look at Leading IT Transformation: The Roadmap to Success from Oulette & Associates (O&A) and thought the book sounded interesting…so I agreed and Oulette & Associates sent me a copy of the book to review.

It took a while to get to this book with the holidays and other things on my ‘to do’ list, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

This is a good book, with a lot of relevant information if you are willing to put the time into reading it. The book was written by Dan Roberts, President of O&A, and nine O&A Consultants…and you can tell it was written by consultants.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t believe ‘written by consultants’ is necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, I like the content of this book and the writing is clear and thorough.  The consultants who wrote the chapters in this book and noted O&A consultants that have been practicing what they preach in consulting engagements and workshops for years.

But (there’s always a but), sometimes we consultants can say much more than we really need to. This is the only complaint I have about this book…each chapter has a lot of extraneous information that isn’t necessary to get the point across.  This is the only flaw I see with the book.

The book has 10 chapters, each with a different topic written by a different person.  The chapters are fairly short but packed with information (and sometimes extraneous info as previously mentioned).

Some sample chapter titles:

  • Creating your 21st Century Workforce and Culture
  • Transforming your IT Team
  • Building a client-focused IT Culture
  • Marketing IT’s Value
  • Sharpening your political savvy

All interesting chapters written by people who’ve been involved in IT for a while.

So…now that I’ve critiqued the book, let me tell you that, if you are an IT Consultant or IT leader, and you have a chance to pick this book up, you should do it. There’s nothing ‘new’ in this book, but there are some interesting ideas and points of view that make it worth picking up.

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Successful Technology Implementations

I recently turned a six month consulting project into a 1 month project…and I couldn’t be happier. The client saved ~$1.5 million and they were able to turn around ‘failed’ software implementation.

Why I’m telling this story

Before I get into the back-story, I want to share the reasons for telling the story. It isn’t to talk about how I’m a great consultant or how well I work with clients. I’m sharing this to provide an insight into how technology implementations can easily be deemed a “failure” and how easy it sometimes is to turn that failure into a success story.

Technology can be used to help an organization succeed…but only if implemented in a seamless manner. The ideal implementation would be to allow all processes to work in the exact same manner after the technology is implemented as before.

Of course, there are very rarely ideal implementations, but you can minimize the effect that new technology has on an organization during planning phases.

When poorly planned, technology implementations can wreak havoc within an organization. If technology is thrown into an organization without any thought to that organization’s processes and operating model, there will be a lot of headaches for the users of that technology.

Implementing technology isn’t an easy, step-by-step process that follows a predetermined task list. There must be a considerable amount of thought put into how the technology will integrate into the organization and how that organization can best use the technology. Without this type of planning, technology implementations will fail.

The “back-story”

The project supposed to be approximately 6 months of assisting a client with implementing a new HR software package. The new package was replacing another package that they had been trying to implement and use for more than a year.

The CIO who contacted me told me that they had gone through 3 different consulting companies while attempting to implement the original product and didn’t feel as though they had been successful.

The HR software package was originally implemented by the services arm of the software vendor. The implementation plan was their “standard” plan that had been used with many organizations with varying levels of success and failure. With this implementation, the software vendor didn’t provide any customizations (perhaps they weren’t asked to) and after the implementation was complete, the end-users didn’t feel that they could use the software to do their jobs.

After the software vendor failed, my client then hired a large consulting firm to come in and “redesign the HR system and processes” to make changes to the organization to fit the HR software package. This firm proceeded to fail miserably due to not understanding their client’s needs & expectations. My client then hired another consulting company and realized quickly that they would have the same problems.

After the fiasco with the previous implementations & consultants, the CIO contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in coming in to discuss their problems and help point them in the right direction. I’m not an expert in HR software at all…but I do understand technology and the need to adapt technology to meet business objectives….and apparently, that is exactly what they needed.

The company was on the verge of buying a completely new HR software package because they were tired of dealing with the old and thought the new system would make everything OK (this is rarely the case but it happens all the time).

The CIO asked me to come in and help select the vendor and help oversee the implementation to ensure that all requirements were met. I visited with the client, took a look at the original implementation plans and started talking with some of the key stakeholders. I quickly realized that the plans for the new software package were no different than the original plans.

The plans called for the organization to change their processes to match the new software rather than the software being implemented in such a way as to accompany the processes in place. This is usually a step in the wrong direction because you are asking your organization to change very rapidly with a new software package AND new processes.

I asked the CIO for 2 weeks to study the current system and see if there was a way to salvage it. He agreed and the HR team and I set about looking for a way to save the company ~$1.5 million in software licensing and implementation fees (on top of the almost $2 million already spent on the previous package and implementations).

I spent a few days with the HR team and realized that the old software, whose implementation had been deemed a failure, would work quite well for them if a few modifications were made to allow them to follow their original processes.

After a few days of discussions and thought, the HR team and I sat down with the CIO and shared our plan with him. I told him that the original implementation was handled fairly well but the original idea for the use of the new software was flawed. Instead of forcing the software and process changes on the organization, as the original plan called for, they should have implemented the new software and customized it to fit the needs of the HR team.

A new plan was then presented that called for the already implemented HR software package to be customized to match the requirements of the HR team. This work could be performed best by the software vendor instead of farming it out to another consulting firm.

Once the customizations were complete, the vendor would then train the HR staff on using the tool and spend a few more weeks working with the team to ensure they were able to use the software in the manner in which they required.

The plan was approved by the CIO and the software vendor. The vendor, who was happy to be back in the client’s good graces, agreed to split the cost of the customizations and to provide training and additional consulting services at a discounted rate.

Conclusion

I didn’t do anything special with this client. I think the biggest value I provided was an independent set of ‘eyes’ to look at the problem and evaluate the issues.

Instead of a spending six months on a project managing a large scale implementation of a new HR system, the project ended in 4 weeks. The client saved a considerable amount of money (~$1.5 million) while regaining the use of an underutilized software package that had been considered a failure. The software vendor was able to repair a relationship with a client, which seems to be something the vendor likes as they’ve called me to help them with a few other projects.

Successful technology implementations require a little common sense, a little thinking and some consideration of how the technology will affect the business. Project planning and management tools are also require, but if the upfront thinking hasn’t been done, there project may start out on the wrong foot.

[tags] Human Resources, Technology, information technology, technology implementation, HR Software [/tags]

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