Higher Ed Governance for the Real World, Part 2

A person using a laptop
We as practitioners must take steps to establish the web as a specialty tool that requires specialty skills, not a publishing platform free-for-all.

In part 1 of this post, we shared common org structures and CMS tools from our survey of web governance in higher ed. Part 2 covers the most-cited problems and advice from folks we interviewed about how they deal with them.

Higher ed’s web woes

We asked survey respondents, “What are the biggest challenges for managing content in higher ed?” And boy, did we get answers. There were emotions. There were swear words. It was clear a lot of people felt frustrated and undervalued. We coded responses by topic and weighted this graphic by the number of times a problem was mentioned:

Graphic of common web problems

Any of these look familiar?

How to solve them

The valuable part of this exercise is not the problems, it’s the solutions. Here’s what we heard:

1. You are not alone

One interviewee said, “If I could go back, I’d be more proactive and empower people to be excited about the web and their role in it…building those relationships, giving people a real understanding of your work and why it matters, and what they can do about it.”

It’s tempting to limit the number of people who can get their sticky fingers on your web content, but web work requires collaboration. Learn who your allies are. Build a community and lean on it. Some examples our respondents gave for growing a web community:

  • Hold quarterly training sessions for CMS users.
  • Use a listserv to announce changes, updates, and tips.
  • Coach “power users” to serve as resources for less-frequent CMS users.
  • Serve snacks at web meetings.

2. Set clear standards

A lot of frustration revolved around internal stakeholders not cooperating with web standards. But as web professionals, we don’t always do the best job of communicating what those standards actually are. Respondents who’ve mastered this suggested:

  • Provide video, screenshots, and written tutorials for updating web content in an easy-to-access place that doesn’t require a password (like a web style guide on the marketing section of the site).
  • Be consistent and fair in applying standards. Don’t make exceptions for squeaky wheels.
  • Send warnings like “We noticed your content doesn’t comply with the new standards. We’d like to work with you to fix it by [a reasonable deadline].” If it’s been, say, a year and departments fail to comply, explain you’ll be removing it from institutional servers on a scheduled date.
  • Clearly define exactly who’s in charge of what using a RACI matrix.
  • For new projects, sit down with requesters over a checklist: Does this support institutional goals? What’s the ROI? Is there a specific date it will be needed? Are people available to work on this?

3. Get support from the top

You have to get leadership to see you as a strategy-driver, not tech support or customer service. Sometimes that takes a little lobbying:

  • Make your case in whatever format matters most to your leadership. If that’s data, give them charts and graphs. If it’s personal stories, record a few user testing sessions.
  • Infiltrate leadership meetings. One interviewee got on the agenda of her dean’s committee meetings, and now they review content in one committee member’s area each quarter for updates, compliance issues, and potential improvements (while the dean is in the room).
  • Filter requests through deans and department heads. Get them on board to assign tasks to their constituents on your behalf AND to vet their people’s work before it gets to you.

4. Make it about the users

One interviewee who’d been at the same university for 15 years said, “When I worked for IT, their definition of a good website was one that’s up and running 24/7. When I worked for marketing, it was about being on-brand and on-message. The thing missing from both is nobody talked about the user experience.”

A website is fundamentally different from other university communications platforms because it’s interactive — a fact often overlooked by long-winded faculty and administrators. Flex your web expert muscles while simultaneously advocating for your users:

  • Find where user needs line up with strategic goals like recruitment and retention and tie your content goals to those.
  • Track how audiences are actually using content and use analytics as a starting point for decisions about what to toss or improve.
  • Consider granting wider CMS-edit access to a portal site where faculty and staff can post internal items, rather than cluttering up the public site for external audiences. (Warning: you’ll probably want to configure a good search tool…information architecture is a skill most CMS users are not born with.)

5. Be patient

For higher ed, good web governance requires cultural change, and often organizational change — neither of which happens fast. It’s important that we as practitioners take steps to establish the web as a specialty tool that requires specialty skills, not a publishing platform free-for-all. One wise participant said: “We are a federated governance model; the central governing body doesn’t have control over the states. In higher ed, consensus decision-making is the norm. We have to accept and work within that, and get around the table.”

For more on this study, you can download slides that summarize the findings from a presentation given at ConFab Higher Ed 2016 in Philadelphia.

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