Founded in 1830, the University of Richmond is a private, highly selective liberal arts university located just west of downtown Richmond, Virginia. It enrolls approximately 4,400 students in 57 majors, 42 minors, and several graduate curricula, including business and law. Its School of Arts & Sciences is home to 2,829 students and over 175 faculty members representing 20 countries. The university is consistently listed in the top 25 of the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the best liberal arts universities in the nation, and counts Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright scholars amongst its recent graduates.
Prior to becoming a Cascade CMS customer, the University of Richmond’s web operations were fraught with inefficiencies and faced a huge modernization problem – many of the school’s websites hadn’t been modernized in 4 years, they utilized Dreamweaver, and Front Page, and a homemade CMS to manage multiple sub-sites, and there was very little consistency between the university's marketing message and the writing and imagery on the sites themselves.
Utilizing a small IT team and collaborating with the university's School of Arts and Sciences, which strongly supported the endeavor by providing volumes of content, Richmond’s Web Services Office, led by Eric Palmer, completely modernized and migrated 50 sites to Cascade CMS in less than 3 months. Despite considerable differences in content between each department's or office's site, their shared navigation and consistent marketing messages allowed for a relatively straightforward and timely migration.
In planning and executing this undertaking, the Web Services team worked to make site construction work like a factory – keeping a careful eye on precisely what worked and what didn’t, and spotting and correcting inefficiencies along the way. Essential to this task was identifying bottlenecks in the site development and upkeep process – who was waiting on who – and quickly formulating solutions to alleviate them. They also worked very closely with the university's Marketing Communications department, and Palmer also brought SCRUM, an iterative incremental project management process, to Richmond, and used this innovative approach in building out the sites.
From the beginning, one of the objectives of Palmer and his team was to create "repeatable work in a repeatable fashion;" modernizing and creating sites is much easier with a CMS that can function as an orderly, easy-to-operate site factory. While creating their first site, for Richmond's Robins School of Business, was "painful," as Palmer described it, it was a tremendous learning experience. After completing that first site, Palmer's Web Services Office team completed 8 more in the next 2 months, and then 10 in the following month-and-a-half. Using multiple servers for staging, development, testing, and production during their 50 site marathon, Palmer's team created websites at an average of one every 2.7 days -- an astounding feat made all the more impressive by the quality of the sites.
In the midst of this process, Palmer and his team also used Cascade CMS to create a news and features facility that allowed them to aggregate the latest news from individual sites and present it as one continual newsfeed on their homepage. Features on recent accomplishments of students and faculty are also used as site shareable pieces. Additionally, the School of Arts & Sciences, the Law School, and the Business School all use Cascade to publish their course catalogs, a single controlled repository for all undergraduate and graduate catalog information, for online and print access. As a testament to Cascade CMS's adaptability, Palmer noted that "…we couldn't have done it without Hannon Hill's product."
Through a centralized coordination of efforts, Richmond's Web Services Office now oversees a network of websites that relies on the adaptability of decentralized content ownership and that broadcasts a consistent marketing message. Their Cascade sites (92, at last count) now boast default content headings, meta-tagging, strong Google Analytics statistics, smart abstraction of contents, and the ability to share news and breadcrumbs and switch between load-balanced servers. "The target was to become a factory; we had to learn how to make Cascade work for us," says Palmer. They achieved many of these impressive feats by relying heavily on templates, checklists, lightweight processes, and closely controlling how destinations were handled, and the consistently low learning curve of XSLT as opposed to Java.
Tasks that at first took a month now rarely take more than day and a half, and new sites may take 3-4 days to construct in the content management system. This amazing pace was kept up partly through the use of the Web Services office’s branded "content parties." Depending on the particular specifications of each site, their skeletons were made from scratch in anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days, along with template sets and style sheets, with imagery supplied by Marketing Communications. After completing a mandatory training to learn the basics of Cascade, groups of users and selected tech-savvy students would receive specific instructions and input all content into the sites, which would be published after a quality assurance process.
Palmer credits the university's new president, Edward L. Ayers, for recognizing the importance of the university's web presence and for showing the Web Services Office and the Marketing Communications Department a great deal of support. Both Ayers and Palmer want the the University of Richmond's web presence to be 'best of breed' and lead the way in utilization of Web 2.0 technologies. Ayers has charged Marketing Communications and Palmer’s Web Services team with conveying the strong sense of community that permeates Richmond by creating a web presence that impresses technically and resonates emotionally. "We're made up of five distinct schools, but all of our students feel apart of one – the University of Richmond. And we've got some really great stories that, thus far, have been untold," says Palmer. Palmer adds that due in large part to the university's support and the power of Cascade CMS, the Web Services Office has achieved one of the primary goals it set out to accomplish, "the ability to rollout strategies and marketing communications quickly." Next steps in the university's strategic plan include becoming more closely involved with the local community, and attracting a greater number of students from Virginia, both tasks which rely heavily on Richmond's web presence.