Use Linux! Use Windows because everyone else does and Microsoft isn’t going to go away. Use Java because it runs everywhere. Use Plone/Zope. Use Drupal. Use Open Source. Use commercial products because they’re well-supported. Use Freeware.
On and on we go, extolling the virtues of the various software systems we might use to build a new web site for our particular community of practice.
It’s a fun discussion for geeks everywhere. Promoting our favorite systems. (Mine is Java and ODBC databases.) But, where does it get us in the NPO world?
Well, frequently we build our fancy systems and “nobody comes to the party.” The system is up and running (perhaps except for some small component that “I’ll fix next week”) and the community never arrives or starts using the wonderful tool we’ve put in place.
What happened? Was this a waste of time for us, or did we benefit from all of the learning about the new software system? (I did one of these last week where I learned how to install an SSL digital certificate – it took me alot of time and I learned a lot, and now something really wonderful, all transmissions to and from the computer can be encrypted! – but will anyone use it?)
How can we avoid this terrible waste of time? If such it is.
Well, I contend that the solution is called “analysis and planning.” The analysis portion involves getting your community of potential users together and asking them “what do you really want to do, or what do you expect this online system to support your doing in the real world? Think about and answer this question from the human standpoint.” Are you expecting the system to support an interchange of ideas among a community of 50 people? If so, then are all those people online? Are they all willing to check the web site every day? Are they talkative and knowledgeable and will they contribute to the common store of knowledge that will be accumulating at the web site?
The planning portion involves looking at the “workflow” of the process. That is, determining who will be in charge of suppling the information needed by the system, how that information will flow thru drafting, writing, approval, publication, maintenance/updating, and eventually deletion. What’s the use of having a big powerful content-management system, for instance, to manage the creation and dissemination of newsletters, if you dont’ have someone who will reliably create the newsletter? And someone who will be there to edit them and polish them and make them readable? And to send them out to the population of users when the time is appropriate?
So, let me stress that this planning activity, and the examination of the human systems that will surround your technology-based system once it’s in operation, is probably even more important than the choice of software tool.
[Note that I’ve include a number of reference to WikiPedia in this entry. It’s a great place to explore some of these concepts, get some ideas, and then branch out to more detailed explanations.]
[Minor edits 2009-04-16]