“When The Axe Man Cometh” – the Future of Institutional Web Teams
Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 9 August 2010
Doom and Gloom
“The doom and gloom of the impending cuts rang out loud and clear” described Deborah F. in her report on the IWMW 2010 event. I introduced this concern in the opening talk and then, in the second talk at the event, Susan Farrell asked “Are web managers still needed when everyone is a web ‘expert’?” As described in a report written by Amy Chamier and published on the IWMW 2010 blog Susan, former head of Web Services at Kings College, London, explained how those with front-end skills are most at risk. Susan’s advice was to “demonstrate the competitive advantage we deliver in turbulent times. We must show how websites run by web managers cut the cost of: (a) generating new customers (b) back office administration and (c) service delivery. And also, how websites run by amateurs can put an organisation’s reputation at risk.” In her conclusions Susan left the audience with a final question: “Without recognised qualifications and a professional body, do web managers and their specialist skills run the risk of extinction, as our duties are absorbed into other roles?“
But isn’t this all a bit too late? Eleven days after Deborah published her post in which she described that, despite the doom and gloom, “being a hopeless optimist with a healthy realist streak I’m heading into this gloom looking for as many opportunities as possible to innovate and achieve despite the cuts” she wrote a follow-up post entitled “The Axe Man Came“. In the post Deborah described how “After the doom and gloom start to the IWMW event and the later encouragement that this could be a great time to innovate and to do things differently [she]returned to work engaged and enthused“. However shortly after she returned to work Deborah was informed that her “web team was being given to marketing, where there is already a manager“. Sadly seems that the only option available for Deborah is redundancy :-(
Death of the Web Team
The concerns over the future of Web teams isn’t restricted to the HE sector. On the Mission Creep blog Neil Williams, a “government web geek”, speculates on Death of the web team?. Neil describes the evolution of the Web within large organisations from its initial roots in IT. As the importance of content became appreciated responsibilities may have changed. As the need to engage with the user community became apparent we saw further evolution which was subsequently followed by the need to develop responsibilities for publishing. Neil feels that everyone now has the potential to be involved: “The explosion in social interaction online created direct communications between customers and employees, and before long it will be happening all over the place. The organisation is no longer in control of where customer-employee or customer-customer interaction happens; let alone what’s being said. Digital communications is now, or will soon be, everyone’s job – listening, collaborating and responding online must become core competences for all if the organisation wants to continue to manage its reputation and meet the expectations of its customers.“
I agree. “Here comes everybody” – and the view that Web managers need simply to market themselves more effectively fails to recognise this changed environment. What then, is to be done? Neil Williams concludes by suggesting that “the future of the web team involves a simultaneous strengthening of control by the centre and a transfer of trust and skills to the wider organisation. It’s about choosing the right bits of digital, and the right bits of responsibility to hold onto or to devolve.“
For me this transfer of trust and skills is particularly appropriate in the higher education sector. So rather than worrying about “websites run by amateurs [which] can put an organisation’s reputation at risk” there’s a need to recognise the value of the effort being provided across the institution. And such effort can ensure that an institution’s use of the Web is greater than the effort provided within central Web teams. We saw an example of this is the workshop session on “Sheffield Made Us – using social media to engage students in the university brand” which described a case study in which “the University of Sheffield ran a competition encouraging students to upload videos to Youtube with the incentive of a £3000 prize. The aim was to get the students to express in their own words what they thought of the University, and how Sheffield had made them.” This sounds like a great example of a “transfer of trust and skills to the wider organisation”.
What is to be Done?
But what of the idea of “simultaneously strengthening of control by the centre“? If you take an institutional perspective this would appear to suggest the need to strengthen centralised provision and control. But if we step outside our own institution and consider the wider perspective we may get a different perspective on what is meant by centralised provision and control.
The UK HE sector has taken a leading role in its provision of centralised services through its support for JISC services. We have also, over the past few years, seen institutions exploiting the benefits of Cloud Services. And if we focus on strengthening advice and support, rather than control, by the centre, we have a tradition which dates back since 1997 of the institutional Web management sector sharing advice on best practices and ways of exploiting new developments.
But how can Web teams continue to strengthen the support provided to higher educational institutions? Since members of institutional Web teams may regard departmental provision of Web services as failing to provide ‘competitive advantages’ why not apply that argument to the duplication which takes place across over 160 universities? How many members of institutions Web teams will currently be developing institutional strategies for exploiting the Social Web, I wonder? How much tax-payers’ money is being wasted in unnecessary duplication of effort? And how much tax-payers’ money is being wasted in a failure to share? These arguments are well-understood in the context of open access to research publications and research data but could equally be applied to support services such as institutional Web teams.
In a way these suggestions are nothing new. The IWMW event was launched in 1997 and since then we have heard hundreds of talks given by members of institutional Web management teams who have been willing to share their experiences and invite discussion and debate. We have also see a similar willingness to share experiences and provide support on web-support and website-info-mgt JISCMail lists. But the IWMW event only takes place annually and, as described previously, discussions of the JISCMail lists have declined significantly over the past 5 years.
Centralised Services for the Web Management Community
An alternative approach (although it would probably be better to describe it as a complementary approach) would be to ensure that the work of institutional Web teams is published openly and in a format suitable for reuse in a variety of ways. This, quite simply, means use of blogs. In a recent post on Revisiting Web Team Blogs I described a number of benefits which can be provided by blogs. I also pointed out that the Google Custom Search Engine can be used to provide a search interface across such information, thus providing a cost-effective mechanism for knowledge sharing across the sector.
In order to encourage the “strengthening of control by the centre” I have created an institutional Web management Community page. This provides access to the search of University Web team blogs. In addition it provides links to two tools developed a couple of years ago by Tony Hirst after his participation at the IWMW 2008 event.
The Autodiscoverable RSS feeds on UK HEI home pages was developed following a suggestion that there was no reason for institutions to not publish press/media release, jobs and upcoming events auto-discoverable RSS feeds. Tony’s tool visits UK HEI home pages and dynamically reports on the numbers which are implementing autodiscoverrable RSS pages – today I find that the adoption rate for is 38.3% (51 out of 133 institutions). This is an example of a centralised auditing approach which members of institutional Web teams will be familiar with, with the intention being to encourage Web providers to implement recommended best practices.
Another tool Tony developed is the UK HEI “Page Not Found” page. In this case no statistics are provided: rather a display of thumbnails of institutional 404 pages is displayed which provides a simple means of observing the approaches taken across the community – and best practices can then be implemented locally.
The ‘Nudge’ Principle
Tony’s work was inspired, I think, by a post I wrote in 2008 on Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage which described an idea developed by US economist Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists who “want to highlight the best option, while still leaving all the bad ones open. … Rather than the state mandating solutions which aim to bring about positive benefits to society or to individuals, people are made aware of the benefits of the preferred option, but are left free to make their own decisions. In this case rather than best practices for the provision and support of institutional Web services being mandated (which is not, in any case, possible) people in Web teams are made aware of the benefits of the preferred option, but are left free to make their own decisions.
Are you convinced? Or do you think that the view that the Axe Man is visiting institutional Web management teams is an exaggeration and there is not need for change? If you are worried that the Axe Man will be paying you a visit, perhaps in the autumn, after the Comprehensive Spending Review is announced, then perhaps you may want to play a more pro-active role in a centralised but informal national network of institutional Web managers. A good start would be to create your Web team blog and leave a comment so that it can be included in the list of the early adopters amongst Web teams which have already appreciated the benefits which can be gained from greater openness and transparency. As for what the early adopters are doing, well look at the Web team and related blogs for the University of Bath, Birmingham City University, Canterbury Christ Church University, City University, University of Essex, Edge Hill University, Glamorgan University, University of Lincoln, St Andrews University, UCL or the University of York, the aggregated blog provided by Scottish Web Folk, the departmental ECS blog at the University of Southampton or the individual blogs provided by Anthony Leonard, Claire Gibbons and Martin Hamilton.
I’m sure there will be other relevant blogs, provided either by teams or individuals, but their value to the community is diminished if the content is not easily accessible to the community. So if you want to strengthen the community, please make sure that it is included in the list.
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