What is a Web site for an organisation such as a University? And what is the remit of the body charged with managing the Web site?

I used to think we knew the answers to these questions: a large organisation would have multiple Web presences (organisational, departmental, Intranets, etc.) with a combination of centralised and devolved approaches to managing such resources. And many members of the community would meet up at UKOLN’s annual Institutional Web Management Workshops to learn about ways in which organisations have gone about developing best practices and to hear about some of the latest innovations.

However I’m now beginning to think that this consensus is breaking down. With my involvement in Web 2.0 technologies and engagement with JISC development programmes the emphasis that I see focusses on the Web as a highly interactive, collaborative and distributed environment; members of institutional Web management teams may, however, continue to regard the Web as primarily a delivery mechanism for quality institutional informational resources.

We do, of course, need our institutions to continue to provide such services. But I’m beginning to wonder whether the institutions should rethink their priorities. Back in the mid 1990s in many institutions the University Web server was the responsibility of the IT services department and, initially, control of the hardware and software enabled the department to stake a claim for responsibility for the content (back then, PR and marketing departments didn’t understand Web technologies, and when they became involved initially they provided graphic-intensive and inaccessible Web sites). However over time PR and marketing departments developed a better understanding for Web design principles, resulting in many attractive and accessible institutional Web sites.

However I am concerned that a new conservatism is blighting the institutional Web. And just as the Web was dismissed as a technological toy for the geeks in the early 1990s, there are dangers that same dismissive approach may be taken to Web 2.0.

I see this conservatism manifesting itself in the view of the Web site as a static informational resource, rather than the richly interactive and collaborative environment which was Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision for the Web.

From this perspective, we might regard the Web as an operating system environment which can be used for a wide range of applications: blogs, wikis, messaging, discussions, e-learning, e-research, oh and information. The informational aspect may then be regarded as the help system for the institutions operating system (click here to find out about the university, the courses it runs, etc.) – all important stuff, but not the area in which the significant development work is likely to happen.

Or, to put such thoughts in a bite-sized chunk “Content isn’t king; rather, communication is king“! Or, to generalise this point, it’s not just about the resource (and all of the processes associated with publishing quality resources and it’s not just about the user (user needs analysis; stakeholder analysis; usability; etc.). These are, clearly, important. However the overlooked aspect is the relationship between the resource and the user; and this relationship can cover a variety of areas (collaborate, alert, entertain, amuse, annoy, etc.) and not just inform (as is assumed in the conventioanl view of the instituitonal Web site).

So after 10 years of PR and marketing departments managing our Web sites maybe it’s time for IT services, the research community and innovative e-learning developers to engage more actively in defining and developing a vision for our institutional Web services.

Is this an approach which others share? And is this a topic which we should be discussing at this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop?