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Why did the Department of Veteran’s Affairs choose Alfresco?

“Because we had a content problem,” Michael Ward, Alfresco implementation lead for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, told an audience at a recent technology conference. “In my experience, many sites have a content problem because they are often feature-driven and overlook dynamic content management.”

The agency struggled with its web portal, a myriad of self-service portals with various users and multiple levels of access that made it difficult for users to find the content they needed.

Among the VA’s many content issues was the fact that content embedded in HTML or code could not be tagged, categorized or queried. They needed a way to use taxonomies and metadata to find content based on business rules.

“We needed a way to get the content out of the mark-up and page structure and describe it as such that it could be retrieved based on business rules for the site,” said Ward.

Another issue was how content was actually delivered to the site.

“I once belonged to an organized where a single content change to a page required a two week delay until the next change control meeting,” said Ward. “For the VA, we have SLAs that require content to be delivered almost immediately. Accounting for cache resets, we can deliver content in some cases within 15 minutes of the change.”

When it comes to standards, Ward explained that overall, this is an issue for everyone – not just government agencies.

“I’ve seen websites fall into the vendor lock-in trap where when that vendor fell behind in terms of technology, the owner of the site was faced with major rewrites,” said Ward. “With the VA, we were faced with such a problem when our underlying portal required upgrading. Because we used the vendor’s APIs for content retrieval, the upgrade broke our code base specifically with how we used their proprietary CMS.  Since then, we’ve adopted more of a separate layer whereby the standards give us an approach to reduce this risk.”

Ward also warned about the opportunity costs associated with content management and how organizations should not underestimate the key positions needed for supporting an enterprise content management system.

“In the case of the VA, there are subject matter experts needed in areas such as operations – with content delivery networks based on load balancing and smart switching to determine the best source for retrieving content,” said Ward. “You absolutely need expertise in business process modeling and the associated language for building complex workflows. Enterprise CMS systems need support as there are potentially content changes being requested all of the time.”

Ward said that Alfresco’s open source community was a big draw when considering a solution.

“I am a fan of open-source community editions, such as Alfresco Community, to get the ball rolling with at least a proof of concept,” he said. “The VA has acquired licensing for Alfresco, which provides for both support and a true clustered environment.”

Another common challenge when implementing a content management system is buy-in, Ward explained. Sometimes it is unclear to stakeholders more interested in a platform’s features that those features may require dynamic content and that use cases and processes must be in place to support content management of that feature.

“I often see this as an afterthought,” said Ward. “At the VA, with our use of Alfresco, our CMS team is often tasked with dynamic content management, so they are used to what it takes to get changes in place using Alfresco, but does the program as a whole understand the CMS process and what it takes to support those features?  Under the hood in Alfresco, we’ve developed complex workflows, content taxonomies and models, delivery mechanisms and other tools. The CMS team must ensure there is buy in to support these tools in processes as a critical part to delivering features.”

To begin the implementation process, the VA first performed a content inventory, then established a taxonomy, modeled content and metadata, and created reusable templates.

While the initial Alfresco implementation was for the purpose of isolating a content management system but still publishing content for runtime retrieval, as time allowed the VA to inventory and begin building a new taxonomy and models, the agency began migrating content to Alfresco using Alfresco Share as a CMS.

Today, the VA uses Alfresco as its primary content repository. With Alfresco, users can interact with content in real-time, as well as – through workflows – approve and publish content from one region to the next either as part of an overall release or as needed.

“Probably the most important aspect to a winning combination is a clear set of processes for delivering content,” said Ward. “Can the users fast track content changes and preview them directly in the portal?  Can developers rely on complex workflows which advance content from Integration to QA?  Can content be changed within minutes or does it take hours or require a release? Lastly, do the business and technical teams collaborate to understand that an enterprise content management system consists of more than features with content shown on a wireframe?”

You can view Michael Ward’s presentation at: http://www.slideshare.net/alfresco/brian-campo-content-gov-slides-20140127

About the author

Jean Cameron

Jean Cameron

Jean Cameron is the Field Marketing manager for the Americas and ANZ. Located in Detroit, MI, she is passionate about technology and helping companies become more efficient and productive. She is an avid hockey fan. Go wings!

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