The 8th Institutional Web Management Workshop provided an entertaining mix of new ideas, challenges, controversy and debate, this year in a Birmingham setting. The sub-title for the conference - Transforming the Organisation - was well chosen. The Web is now 'mission critical' in all of our organisations, and the workshop gave us all ample opportunity to reflect on how the Web is transforming our organisational and working practices and changing every aspect of our professional lives.
A number of key themes emerged from the workshop over the 3 days.
Web professionals are increasingly finding themselves at the centre of organisational change - often in the position of driving change. As a result, the value of cross-institutional partnerships is increasingly being recognised, and Web professionals are finding themselves drawn in to (or in many cases initiating) project networks and teams across the campus in order to deliver enterprise-wide services. David Supple described how his role in developing the Web-enabled campus increasingly involves him in a juggling act between institutional politics, technology and relationship-brokering in his plenary session on the Trials, Trips and Tribulations of an integrated web strategy . Heidi Fraser-Krauss and Ester Ruskuc described their roles at St Andrews University as acting as the human interface between the techies and the users in their session on E-business: Why Join In? .
The Web community is growing and maturing all the time, as evidenced by the large numbers of first time attendees at the workshop. A new development this year was the presence of large teams of Web staff, evidence that the Web professional is moving from lone individual status to working in larger and better-resourced teams with a greater standing in the organisation. Dave Hartland talked about the need for strategic staff development to support Web providers in his plenary on Strategic Staff Development for the Web-enabled organisation .
Heidi Fraser-Krauss and Ester Ruskuc described how an e-business strategy had been developed at St Andrews University in response to student demand. Students no longer wanted to queue in the cash office to pay their fees, but instead wanted to be able to do this online, potentially at the same time as purchasing a commemorative mug and paying off their library fines. Heidi referred to this as the 'Amazon mentality'. In response the University has developed a system which can sell virtually anything online, from any of the myriad of internal suppliers around the campus. In giving more control to the customer they have lost some control from the centre, but the service has proved extremely popular with students and has simplified workflow processes for staff. The University has transformed thinking about how it can interact with its 'customers'.
Stephen Bulley added a note of realism with his plenary on LSE for You: From Innovation to Realism and Beyond . Stephen described how the LSE for You Project has climbed a slope of increasing realism after falling into a trough of disillusionment. The service began as a project to Web-enable key applications on campus such as student registration and module selection, and is now moving into more mainstream portal development. Stephen described how they had worked with a philosophy of 'think big - start small' in order to move the project forward and gradually change the culture. They had now reached a 'plateau of productivity' and are developing a strategy for full portal development.
Brian Kelly and Lawrie Phipps challenged the current consensus on Web accessibility in their plenary session on Beyond Web Accessibility: Providing a Holistic User Experience . Currently, awareness of Web accessibility issues is widespread amongst the academic community. However, compliance with the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) guidelines is still very low, as a recent survey on accessibility of University home pages has shown . Brian and Lawrie concluded that the guidelines are difficult to achieve in an environment where the needs of all users must be considered. There is confusion over the guidelines, and some institutions have tried to implement them as mandatory standards, but this approach has invariably failed. Brian pointed out that even the Web site of the Disability Rights Commission is not AA-compliant. Brian and Lawrie concluded that pragmatism is the key to interpreting the guidelines in an educational environment.
David Supple dismissed the current trend for Content Management Systems; raising concerns about total cost of ownership, lack of flexibility and inability to support a large complex environment.
David Supple discussed the strategic approach to using the Web to transform the organisation. Tony Brown and Matt Thrower from PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) came at organisational change from a different angle, as described in their plenary session Socrates: building an intranet for the UK research councils . Tony and Matt have built a cross-research council intranet which has encouraged greater communication, information-sharing and community across the research councils. Their approach was to 'just do it' rather than waiting around for the decision-making process to catch up with them. Their mantra of 're-use and re-cycle' has led them to build the site largely based on freely available tools. The result is a popular and well-used service which is succeeding in breaking down communication barriers across the research councils.
Sebastian Rahtz introduced us to the OSS Watch Service (Open Source Software) in his plenary entitled Beyond Free Beer: Is Using Open Source a Matter of Choosing Software or Joining a Political Movement? . The OSS Watch Service is funded by JISC to advise UK HE/FE about issues around open source software.
Brian Kelly introduced us to Life After Email  in his plenary session on Strategies for Collaboration in the 21st Century. Brian took us through a whistle-stop tour of developments in new collaborative tools. Increasingly our users have access to a whole range of mobile devices such as PDAs (personal digital assistants), mobile phones, MP3 players and digital cameras, all of which have collaborative potential. Users will expect us to be able to deliver our services to all of these devices, and will increasingly expect support for other collaborative tools such as instant messaging and blogs on campus. There is huge scope for the use of these tools to support e-learning. Brian posed the question of whether we can afford not to support such technologies, and suggested that we need to get to grips with the strategic challenges they bring with them.
In addition to the plenary sessions, delegates could choose from a large selection of parallel workshop sessions on topics ranging from the use of blogs and WIKIs in a support environment through to the legal aspects of Web management. All of these sessions were interactive, with lots of opportunities for discussion and sharing issues.
Discussion groups were also available, covering strategy and management issues, technical issues, usability and accessibility issues, information management issues, e-learning issues and staff development.
Delegates also made the most of the excellent opportunities for relaxation in Birmingham, taking a well-earned break with a canal boat trip into the city centre, followed by a chance to sample the Birmingham nightlife.
Post-workshop, the opportunities for discussion and collaboration continue, with a WIKI (a collaborative Web-based authoring environment) made available for delegates to evaluate the potential of this emerging technology . Delegates are also invited to create a FOAF (Friend of a Friend) file which can be used to enable an electronic social network of participants .