Reader Feedback To Predatory Practices

A fascinating comment came in yesterday in response to the post from 9/22/2011 titled A Predatory Practice That Is Sucking This Field Dry. The reader, arts blogger and fellow TEDx Michigan Ave. presenter Gwydion Suilebhan, takes issue with some of the points in the article. And since Gwydion’s observations are so thought provoking, it seemed more appropriate to address them in a dedicated blog post as opposed to a comment reply.

You can read Gwydion’s full comment here, but let’s examine each the points a little at a time.

[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Gwydion Suilebhan; 10/10/2011 comment to A Predatory Practice That Is Sucking This Field Dry” quotestyle=”style05″]The fact that a CMS [Content Management System] might be open source does absolutely nothing to elimiate [sic] or reduce the potential development costs of a website design. All it does is eliminate the licensing fees associated with software. Even then, my experience has shown that ongoing costs for handling the changes associated with “upgrades” in open source platforms are roughly equivalent to the costs associated with licensing. There is *no* free lunch. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]

Certainly, there is no free lunch; however, the notion that developing on top of an open source CMS does nothing to reduce development costs simply isn’t the case. In Gwydion’s example, it assumes that a developer is using a licensed CMS as the basis for programming work. There’s no doubt that happens but it’s worth understanding that there are still a number of developers who design a proprietary CMS.

Either way, using an open source solution eliminates those costs whether they are in-house or licensed because they are expenses which shouldn’t be factored into overall project development costs.

As for ongoing expenses, I agree with Gwydion but the costs related to the open source platform are going to be less than what licensed solutions typically charge or the costs associated with maintaining the in-house platform.

To help illustrate this point, here’s an example using The Venture Platform. We use two open source solutions and each time one or both update, we run tests with our proprietary framework to ensure compatibility and make related adjustments as needed.

But here’s the important part, the work associated with the open source updates is provided free of charge. As such, Venture’s maintenance costs are factored into the annual license fee but the amount of time and treasure it takes to perform those tasks is substantially less than the upgrade fees or in-house platform maintenance costs related to non-open source solutions.

In short, Venture’s business model capitalizes on those reduced costs and incorporates those savings into a user fee that is lower than traditional expectations.

[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Gwydion Suilebhan; 10/10/2011 comment to A Predatory Practice That Is Sucking This Field Dry” quotestyle=”style05″]Another way to say it: whether a CMS is open source or not has no relationship to whether the website requires bespoke customization or not. One can customize an open source CMS as much (or as little) as one can customize a licensed CMS. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]

There’s nothing here to disagree with, but this is precisely where the discussion tends to get muddied by focusing on the wrong elements of the overall cost structure. It isn’t as much about one off custom development costs as it is about the long term cost structures for the entire framework. Moreover, focusing the conversation on how that design mitigates the need for custom development work in the future is the direction arts groups need to focus.

Capitalizing on a framework, such as those built atop a high quality open source platform, that brings down those common custom development costs thanks to an ever improving and efficiency driven architecture provides a one-two punch to the overall user cost.

[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Gwydion Suilebhan; 10/10/2011 comment to A Predatory Practice That Is Sucking This Field Dry” quotestyle=”style05″]There are good CMS platforms and bad CMS platforms. There are those that are more and less well-suited to the tasks of arts organizations. There are options that require licensing fees and options that don’t. The variability in pricing comes from a) How properly aligned a CMS is to the needs of the organization that’s going to be using it, and b) How thoroughly it needs to be customized to meet those needs. The only predatory practice I have noticed, in my experience: agencies recommending the CMS solutions they’re comfortable with, or those they have some stake in selling, rather than what’s best for a client. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]

I would subscribe to pretty much all of Gwydion’s sentiments in this section. But at the risk of covering the same ground too often, all of this comes back to the inherent costs of that CMS platform and the related impact on development overhead plus ongoing maintenance expenses.

But the point about the very nature of CMS platforms is where things have been changing most. The notion of one CMS being better suited for arts orgs over another certainly isn’t incorrect but it is increasingly outdated and immaterial. Meaning, the discussion isn’t about whether Ford or Honda makes the best four cylinder internal combustion engine; it’s about hybrid and alternative fuel technologies.

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[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Gwydion Suilebhan; 10/10/2011 comment to A Predatory Practice That Is Sucking This Field Dry” quotestyle=”style05″]Venture may be great; knowing you, I’m sure it is. But I’m sure you’ll agree it’s not right for *every* arts organization, of every size and scale, with every unique need. Because no CMS can be right for everyone. That’s why there are thousands in the market, each occupying a different niche and offering different benefits (and different annoyances, too, if we’re being honest). A good consultant will help his or her client sort through the landscape and identify the solution that’s both cost-effective and right for the organization… and that’s not always the cheapest product in the market. In fact, from what I’ve seen, it rarely ever is. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]

First, many thanks to Gwydion for the very kind words about Venture, I’m honored. And to be very clear here, my replies in this section may be based on misinterpreting some of his sentiments; if that’s the case, I hope (and invite) Gwydion to post a comment so as to dive into this in more detail.

Having said that, I think Gwydion’s approach is more or less representative of the way a number of technology professionals approach working with clients and all things being equal, it’s a traditional approach that has worked out more often than not. But what’s different at this point in time is the fundamental shift in how users need to perceive what CMS platforms are, how they are used, and how they impact the business models related to technology providers.

The days of hundreds of platforms competing in a market, each with unique attributes and geared toward certain tasks and functionality are beginning to go extinct.

Instead, the very concept of a CMS is rapidly changing into one that is so flexible that it has the potential to meet the needs for a much broader swath of users while requiring minimal customization in order to be geared toward specific fields.

Granted, this concept is arguable and the debate will certainly continue into the near future so long as there are firms reticent to embrace these changes, but in the end is unavoidable; the need to pick and choose between wide swaths of solutions becomes obsolete.

To expand on this, I’m going to use Venture (which can be extrapolated to leading CMS platforms in general) one last time in this post as a reference example.

Venture was designed with a set of guiding principles; two of which are:

  • create a platform that even the lowest budget organization can use off the shelf to build an effective website and manage email marketing without the need to invest any additional out of pocket expenses for development (programming and/or graphic design).
  • use the same platform to design custom solutions for mid to large budget size orgs that have greater needs and resources; regardless if they use Venture programmers to perform that work.

These guidelines have allowed us to design a framework that is substantially more cost efficient, meets the needs of a much more diverse cross section of users, and benefits from an economy of scale business model.

As a tangible reference of how profound this change is; take a look at the User Portfolio page at Venture’s sales site. It divides examples into four categories: those with no extra custom development costs and those with light, moderate, and extensive custom development costs.

Within the examples of those with development costs, we drill down into greater detail by examining how those costs were distributed: provided by Venture, provided by a third party provider, and accomplished using the respective arts organization’s internal resources. For instance, Venture’s latest user, The Austin Lyric Opera (project details), opted for one of the most common combinations to date by utilizing a combination of in-house resources and custom work.

To that end, their project meets the goal for Gwydion’s apt advice of helping clients sort through and identify the solution that’s both cost-effective and right for the organization.

And to a larger extent, it demonstrates that thanks to the design approach adopted by Venture, it can be customized to meet unique needs for individual arts organization because just like the open source solution it’s built on, it is extensible to such a degree that it reduces custom development costs without compromising capability.

Better still, it does all of this without penalizing smaller budget organizations which traditionally those organizations which can’t afford those luxuries. Just take a look at the Baroque Band’s user portfolio page, which highlights a user designed end product accomplished using nothing more than Venture’s included support structure. There are no added charges to ask questions or make layout changes, that capability is built into the system.

Of course, this sort of system isn’t designed from the traditional approach of maximizing vendor profits by nickel and diming users for changes or support requests. Instead, it focuses on long term relationships and rewarding users for becoming increasingly capable and capitalizing on their creativity.

What’s important to note here is that none of this would be anywhere as efficient if it weren’t for the combination of open source resources and a sustainable business model that embraces sustainability over blind profit margins.

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Conclusions

Ultimately, the price of technology solutions does matter but the paradigm shift taking place is how those costs are determined; that’s the part which turns this into a whole new ballgame. In essence, the notion of “cost-efficient” and “cheapest” don’t intersect at the angles folks expect. Steve Jobs perhaps put it best with Apple’s ad campaign from the late 90s which encouraged users to not only think, but think different.

So on one side, the professionals needed to perform custom development work (programmers, graphic designers, project managers, etc.) don’t cost any less than they did several years ago. But what has changed is the overall cost structure of which those professionals are only part of the formula, and that’s where the discussion circles back around to the original article.

In short, the very nature and variables involved behind how technology solutions are designed, priced, and delivered is changing; not unlike the way Henry Ford introduced assembly line techniques of mass production to the automobile industry. His approach provided the sort of “exception to the rule” catalyst that helps any industry revolutionize what it does and benefits those around it.

On a personal note, I’m indebted to Gwydion for his willingness to jump into this larger discussion and I look forward to continuing it in comment threads and hope it will be picked up in cross blog posts by other authors.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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