The attempts of Johnston Press, a publisher of local news in the UK, to implement a new content management system have spectacularly backfired. How can the selection of a CMS lead to a vote of no confidence in the managing director and a ballot on strike action by employees? That’s a pretty colossal project failure by any measure.
Johnston Press selected the Atex content management system. Atex, whose product is based on the acquisition of the Swedish CMS Polopoly, has carved itself a niche in the newspapers vertical and Johnston Press would no doubt have been reassured by their client list. However, the company imposed the choice of CMS on employees at a number of its titles and more importantly, inextricably linked the CMS to changes in working practice. The Guardian provides more background to the dispute.
So where did it all go wrong?
No stakeholder involvement
It’s truly crass management to push through a project without consulting those people who have to live with its consequences. Johnston Press wanted to cut costs with an integrated cross-channel publishing environment and employees were right to fear that this would put their jobs at risk. So the CMS became an enemy, rather than a product that would help staff to work better and secure the company’s future. There may have been no way to get around job losses, but if there had been consultation about the reasons for the CMS, how it was going to work and the benefits that it would have, there could have been a more constructive dialogue and a greater chance of a decent outcome.
No content strategy
One reason why Johnston Press thought the CMS would bring cost savings was because they thought they could replace the role of sub-editors, getting the journalists who’d researched the stories to also place the stories and create the headlines. This may well have been possible, but it doesn’t look to have been that well thought through. The journalists were interested in gathering stories and information gathering. The sub-editors were interested in promoting the right messages and maintaining editorial standards. These objectives can conflict.
Again, had the management approached the project by identifying a content strategy issue – positioning the kind of tasks they wanted from their readers and establishing relevant journalistic and copy-writing processes to support these tasks – they would have stood a better chance of selling the benefits to their employees and having a successful project.
I would hope that your content management project failures haven’t been as extreme as this one, but I wanted to take two highlights from this project.
Firstly, it demonstrates the importance of an inclusive and transparent selection process. You need to involve the people who’ll receive business benefits from the system, the people who’ll support the system and the people who’ll use the system. And you need to communicate the business case to them transparently so that they understand the purpose of the CMS and don’t feel threatened by it once it’s been implemented.
Secondly, you still need people to assure content quality. The CMS can certainly help you build in those processes that assure quality, but you need real writers to write good content and achieve your business goals.
There’s a lesson for the supplier too. This publicity hasn’t been great for Atex. When a project goes so spectacularly wrong, it’s easy to assume that the software is the root cause. But there’s an onus on the supplier to deliver against a clear brief and ensure that the client isn’t being stupid. You may have got your commission, but at what cost?
If you have a more spectacular case of CMS failure than this, I’d love to hear it.