Having worked extensively in the corporate sector as well as in higher education, I often find myself comparing how certain tasks are accomplished, which particular business practices are similar or dissimilar, or what criteria influences strategic decisions at the leadership level between the two functional verticals. While many of the operational components are common across the corporate sector and higher education, the operational practices are often 180 degrees apart in terms of management and strategic decision making. Coming from a strictly corporate perspective, the differences may seem antithetical to success. All too often, institutions struggle with their web strategies, and the result is that their internal communities do not realize any of the benefits of a modern web implementation, or worse, the communities suffer from an unacceptably poor implementation.
My particular interest in this topic is that an institution’s website should be yet another tool to foster student engagement–with the institution, of course, but (through integration in the learning ecosystem) with content areas of interest as well. Yes, the website should be an extended instrument of learning, technology, and play! First, however, institutions need to get the basics in order (and perhaps in a subsequent blog entry I’ll address the utilization of websites for teaching and learning). It only takes a moderate amount of experience in higher education to see that there are considerations having to do with decentralized decision-mailing that require a complex collaborative model to push institutional initiatives forward. And in the long run, that’s almost 100 percent irrelevant to building a successful web presence in the higher education space and to winning a battle for student mindshare being played out in virtual space.
In the corporate sector, effective websites are usually built and managed by a single functional area specifically tasked with website development and ownership, often within the context of marketing leadership. In any event, the key components of effective website development are all handled by the single functional area:
- Visual (and Audio) Presentation
- Architecture and Usability
- Search Engine Optimization and Digital Reach
In a higher education institutional setting, rather than group these components together and “hand the keys over” to a single group, the responsibility can be divided across functional areas, with some overlap and collaboration where appropriate. For example:
- Content – may be handled by a publications office in collaboration with the specific departments contributing content for their respective web areas. Content is primarily textual information along with graphic images, photographs, or video segments that meet particular criteria.
- Visual (and Audio) Presentation – could be the responsibility of institutional marketing, making sure the maintain brand fidelity. Content elements provided by publications or individual departments must adhere to established presentation standards.
- Functionality – should facilitated by IT, though IT should not define and impose functional constraints on the website. All other groups may desire particular functionality in service of area goals (for example, publications may desire a particular content-approval workflow, in which case IT should be able to identify and implement the most suitable content management system to meet the need).
- Architecture and Usability – is a design concern that goes beyond typical marketing functionality, and the expertise may be located in any of a number of areas within an institution such as a design department or computer science department in which usabilit and human-computer-interface issues are considered. Architecture and Usability will provide acceptable parameters within which website presentation exist.
- SEO and Digital Reach – can be directed out of a business program in which digital marketing is a component of the curriculum, or the institution’s marketing group may manage this component provided the specific skill set is represented on staff. There will be communication between this group and publications in order to ensure that website content is optimized for search engine performance.
The benefit to establishing this decentralized model (and this is just one example) of website management is that the separate areas will be able to go about their business independently (for the most part), only having to coordinate at certain points in the website implementation and management lifecycle. Additionally, all groups do not need to participate in all meetings, which tends to reduce frustration with the overall process and friction with each other.
While the model is fairly straightforward in print, the groundwork and internal institutional communications required to ensure that it is and will remain sustainable can be significant. This is where institutional governance comes in, and there must be buy-in and commitment to the outcomes produced during a collaborative planning phase.
Having worked directly for a number of institutions over the years, I understand that this is not a simple process, and individual ideas regarding website ownership can run deep. The conversations need to be open, and the process to settle upon a model needs to be transparent. Don’t hesitate to call in a trusted advisor, but do resolve to set a reasonable timeframe for discussions. Taking too much time can be a costly mistake, because the “competition” continues to move forward. It is important to recognize that your students are often the quickest to identify your competition, and students can be the most unforgiving critics if they perceive other institutions to be meeting needs that their own institution is not. You only get to lose that mindshare battle once.