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Guest Post : It’s Not About Technology! The Digital Challenge is Institutional

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 September 2014

Mike McConnell has attended many of the IWMW events which have been held since its launch in 1997. This year’s event made a particular impression, particularly with its focus on ‘digital’ rather than ‘web’. In this guest post Mike reflects on the event and describes the moves towards digital taking place at his host institution, the University of Aberdeen.


In June I attended the Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2014) event which was held at the University of Northumbria. IWMW is primarily aimed at Higher Education (HE) web managers and their teams and has been running as an annual event since 1997. Its ponderous and slightly quaint title is much loved by its community and reflects a collegiate and resolutely non-commercial mindset that was once taken for granted in HE.

I have attended IWMW, on and off, almost since its inception and each conference seems to have its defining, epochal ‘thing’, which often overshadows the formal agenda, e.g.  The Year Of The CMS, The Year Of The Rejection Of The CMS, The Year We Daringly Asked Marketing People Along, The Year The Everything Became Irrelevant Because Of Web 2.0, and so on. This year’s formal title was ‘Rebooting The Web’ but the real ‘thing’ was The Year It Went From Web To Digital. There was an unapologetic focus of the user as customer and repeated references to ‘product’ and the user experience.

I expect that before too long the word ‘digital’ in this context will sound as anachronistic as Web 2.0 but currently it makes the term ‘Web’ itself sound dated. My view is that this is because, to an extent, the community has ‘solved’ the Web, if Web is defined as technologies related to the traditional university website. Of course there are massive, ongoing operational issues related to university websites, but the challenge is no longer primarily a technological one.

The disintermediation brought about by social media was an early indicator for institutions of the disruptive effect of digital. Many have risen to the social media challenge, but social is only a piece of the digital jigsaw. Digital goes beyond web and marketing; it is about institutions, how they are structured and how they respond to change. The traditional guardians of Web – IT and Marketing – find that digital increasingly requires them to operate outside their normal spheres of influence – it is a business-wide problem that requires strategy, governance, technology, people and processes. How can IT and Marketing effect the scope of change required?

At my own institution, the University of Aberdeen, awareness of the digital issue grew out of a traditional Web project to implement a new information architecture (IA) for the University site. Once the IA had been approved and the templates created in the CMS, it became increasingly apparent that the challenge was no longer a technological one but was instead related to content, ownership and governance. It became apparent that there was no-one at all in the entire institution who wrote content for the Web as part of their formal duties. This might seem startling to non-HE readers, but I suspect it is not just our institution where this was the case.

The result of this was that we created a new type of role, the Digital Communications Officer (DCO). The DCO job description included the model skills we felt were lacking in the institution’s web authors: writing for the Web, an understanding of IA, web usability and user experience, social marketing experience and the ability to utilise analytics to inform web design.

Our initial appointment of two DCOs and the adoption of a third from another role proved to be transformative for the traditional website. Almost immediately the Web Team were released from having to make decisions about governance and content. The DCOs rationalised website structures and used analytics data to make their arguments. The website became smaller, more effective and standardised.

However, the DCOs also started asking awkward questions. Why is the site not responsive? What is the brand? Why does the architecture reflect the institution and not user journeys? Why do we not have a content strategy? And so on. In short, all the questions that the Web Team had been aware of for years but not had the time, resource or authority to do anything about.

The result was that we managed to persuade the University to create a Digital Strategy Group (DSG). The DSG is a traditional University committee, comprising senior staff from across the institution as well as Web staff and the DCOs. Its remit is “to provide high level direction for the delivery and resourcing of the University’s digital engagement, including the production of an overall digital strategy”.

At the time of writing, the group has convened three times. At the first meeting the group was presented with a vision piece from some third party consultants. This showed a digitally enabled student journey, from applicant to student, alumnus and beyond.

This was tremendously helpful for showcasing the potential opportunities of digital. DSG members responded with enthusiasm, the result of which was that we engaged with the consultants for 5 days of ‘discovery’ work to ascertain our digital readiness. The consultants conducted 3 days of interviews with staff from across the institution to understand activities, strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats.

The results of this discovery work were presented at the second meeting of the committee. Findings were broadly as follows:

  • There is lots of digital-type activity ongoing in the institution, much of which is good, but there is no overall vision for this, or alignment with strategic objectives.
  • There are varying levels of digital understanding across the institution and no individual interviewed has a complete vision.
  • The University does not currently have the structures or targeted resources in place to deliver a digital vision.
  • The University does not need separate digital strategy; rather it requires an overall business strategy that is fit for the digital age.

It has been difficult for the DSG to convey the universal scope of the digital challenge and indeed group members themselves have differing interests and views. It is hard to explain to some staff that, for example, for a student to have a responsive, seamless customer experience on the front-end website that the institution might require a customer relationship management (CRM) system and beyond that an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB). Understandably, such systems and concepts can be alien to many of the key University decision makers.

The DSG acknowledged that to overcome these challenges and identify and articulate a digital vision for the institution it was desirable to seek outside expertise. The University therefore went to tender for support. The following text is abstracted from the tender documents:

This Invitation to Tender (ITT) is issued as part of an initiative to define a digital vision for the University of Aberdeen; to ensure that this is embedded in University strategy, and to help assess what people, systems and processes are necessary to deliver this vision.

The University wishes to define a digital vision that will enable it to achieve its strategic ambitions; differentiate itself significantly from its competitors; engage with all its major stakeholders and customers, and enhance and develop its brand.

It is suggested that in order to achieve this, suppliers might wish to follow the following methodology:

  1. A discovery phase, which would provide a detailed understanding of current capabilities and activities; market analysis, and customer groups
  2. A vision stage, which would identify and prioritise ideas; run research with target groups; identify opportunities, strategic aims and an operating model, and formulate a business case
  3. A planning stage, which would produce a high level business plan, options and recommendations

Suppliers are however welcome to suggest alternative methodologies and outputs to help the University achieve the objectives defined above.

The tender was deliberately written in broad terms because the DSG wished suppliers to engage with the University prior to submission and also because the DSG itself was unclear on what the strategic objectives should be, prior to any visioning stage. Concerns that suppliers would find this confusing or off-putting have proved to be unfounded and we have been encouraged by how many suppliers seem to ‘get it’. Almost all understand the scope of the issue and that it is not about technology – at least at this stage.

The tender has now concluded and we have had healthy number of responses. The DSG trust that the exercise will provide us with a digital vision that is broad in scope and world class in its ambition.

However, I am conscious that despite the University’s aspirations, we are approaching this challenge using traditional methodologies – committees and projects – and existing structures. I am curious how other HE institutions are approaching the digital challenge and would ask colleagues the following questions:

  • What is the focus of your digital activity: student lifecycle, research, alumni, donors, public engagement?
  • Who owns digital: Marketing, IT, senior management?
  • Who drives digital: is it top down or bottom up?
  • What new roles or teams are required?
  • What has changed about the institution? What should change?
  • What effect has this had?
  • What does digital ‘success’ look like?

About the Author

Mike McConnell

Mike McConnell is Business Application Manager in IT Services at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He manages the Web and Corporate Systems teams who are responsible for digital, web and corporate applications development.

His main duties are:

  • Leading on institutional IT digital strategy, including web and mobile development.
  • Supporting and developing the institutional corporate systems environment including Finance, HR, Admissions and Student Record systems.
  • Supporting and developing the institutional SharePoint and CRM environments.

Contact details:

LinkedIn: mikeramcconnell

Twitter: @mike_mcconnell

 


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3 Responses to “Guest Post : It’s Not About Technology! The Digital Challenge is Institutional”

  1. ds said

    I’d add one more thing to that list of end questions: what things have stakeholders already started doing independently of what the institution provides to achieve what they want or need to do?

  2. […] Guest Post : It’s Not About Technology! The Digital Challenge is Institutional […]

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