Building a digital team

I’ve received a lot of emails lately in the runup to my AMA Higher Ed talk in Austin this year about integrating a digital team into your existing marketing outfit.

The bottom line is: How does this work?

Without giving too much away, here are some quick tips that I’ve been relaying that are worth sharing:

1. Assess what your organization needs now & in the future.
It’s hard to make a long range plan without a captain, but you really need to assess your internal needs now. This can come from outside help, but people aren’t always going to be honest with a consultant. You need a true reflection of what ails the organization’s inability to integrate digital, if you’re going to get it right. Once you have a sense of the real blindspots, you can begin to create a role — and a structure — to aid in fixing it.

2. Hire good people.
This is a tough one. How do you know? Find experienced people who can move you forward. Be honest and up front about the barriers to success. Nothing worse than being hoodwinked about the issues or being told you’ll have reign to fix things, only to arrive in a new situation and find that the reality of that wasn’t true. Especially in higher ed, we’re notorious for noxious internal politics that we can’t communicate — because of politics — and have people parachute their way into a hostile situation that no one can prepare them for. It’s especially prevalent in the digital realm and until we solve it, digital teams will continue to struggle for integration.

3. Be clear about your expectations.
This is a tough one. When you’re faced with ambiguous situations, it’s tough to know how to measure what’s working and what’s not working. But it’s your responsibility to figure out what benchmarks will ensure the success of this role. If they change, then communicate those changes. Bringing in new people — or repurposing old ones — and not understanding what your expectations are will ruin any chance of success you’ll have going forward.

4. Allocate resources.
Everybody wants double for half price. But when it comes to digital, what you invest is often what you get in return. That means being clear that what you’re allocating in resources is used for what it’s earmarked for. Not only that, but listening to your people when they tell you what’s needed — whether it’s crowdsourced from similar institutions or through their own internal assessments — the folks with boots on the ground are most likely to tell you what you need to be successful.

5. Trust your people.
This is the biggest one. Too often, senior leaders don’t recognize what digital people are bringing to the fore because they don’t truly understand all of the interconnected parts of how the web impacts organizations. If you’re ignoring the people giving you good counsel in finance or fundraising, you could lose big. The web is no different, but for some reason, we’ve ignored the experts in lieu of people who think because they’ve used Microsoft Front Page or know how to use Facebook, that it makes them digital experts. The world is constantly changing, shifting and evolving but there are people immersed and keeping tabs on how to navigate your organization through the muck.

It just takes identifying them, giving them the support they need & trusting them to get it done right.

The Fifth Model of Digital Teams: Chaos

— C. Daniel Chase (@cdchase) August 22, 2014

The current structure of our web organization is comprised of sixteen colleges who all have their websites housed on a single remote server, managed centrally by a team of four people. There are webmasters whose job it is to manage local users and who have control of aspects of local servers. But it was decided a number of years ago to central web operations and so, we’re dealing with the side effects of decisions made a long time ago by people who have long since disappeared.

Where does that leave us?

In seven years or so, there have been several dramatic shifts of ownership of the website. From marketing to IT and then spunoff into its own department. Then after a huge redesign, a kind of hybrid model where what used to be a department returns to IT and then after a redundant web operation sprung up in response to internal structural inefficiencies; the web was returned back to Marketing.

Then I showed up.

ncloud_Strategy Governance
(nForm Web Governance Models graphic)

Prior to this job, I was pretty sure I’d seen most of the ways that a university or college website structure could operate. I’ve inheirted static websites that needed to be migrated to a CMS. I’ve taken over redesigns in the middle of the process. I’ve seen really strong content structures where content editors and authors were supported and responsive. I’ve taken over websites where the entire structure of the site and all of the decisions surrounding it were made to accommodate whoever was in charge of the site at that time.

Arguably, there is no asset that has more political value than the website. When I started my first job in 2006, there were still institutions just evolving from having one sole university webmaster who managed the entire website. There were few best practices, no consensus and information sharing was scant across the board. Here we are eight years later and we still find in many corners of the country that nobody can agree on who owns the website, where it should live and who should manage it. We have agreed on one thing though — under no circumstances should anyone with web development or digital knowledge actually sit on the leadership team of a president. I know I know, Harvard, Columbia and a few other places have created Chief Digital Officer roles. But places like that you’d expect to lead from the front on this issue.

The real question is, why hasn’t anyone else copied them? Or asked what they’re doing and why? It’s not like they’re not out there talking. It’s just we’re not listening. I get why no one wants to talk about this. We like our jobs and it’s a bit sticky to start talking about what works and what doesn’t. But we’ve got bigger problems than just web strategy or hiring people to tell us what we should be doing online. Our problems are structural, engrained and institutional. We suffer from a crisis of confidence and it stems from the fact that the web is so new that we’re always sure somebody else should own it.

I’m not convinced of this, but I’m also not convinced that every institution should be investing all of their money in a full-time web person who lights the path. It’s not for a lack of qualified people, but rather, a lack of qualified people willing to go all of the places where they’re needed. People will sometimes ask me why I go to the far-flung corners of the country to serve in roles and I answer that everybody deserves access to good information and if they’re willing to support it, then I am willing to be part of the solution. Part of that has to do with timing and opportunity too, it’s not all altruistic. But I do get a certain sense of satisfaction from toiling in semi-obscurity and providing a kind of insight to the web that helps people realize that it’s not as confusing or distant from their everyday lives as they thought. I like being accessible and reverse the image of the web person as unapproachable or someone who says “No.”

The margin for institutions of higher learning won’t be what consultants they hire to help them light the path. It’s going to start with senior leaders — Presidents and Executives — who recognize the value of the web and empower people to chart a way forward in concert with stakeholders. While I’ve not always been Director-level, part of my success in the past has been serving as a direct report. The only other time I wasn’t a direct report was also the only other time I held a Director title, which seems strange that as a junior person I had more access, oversight & influence than I do making more money and having way more responsibility.

Having talked to colleagues around the country, I know I’m not alone.

The turf war between marketing, technology & advancement over who thinks the web belongs to them has to stop. The website doesn’t belong to anybody, it belongs to everybody. And just like you have other experts leading those areas, top brass need to have insights and perspectives from people who can provide it.

The web is grown up and chaos won’t do.

If you want to win the future, start by winning the web.

Ron Bronson’s American History Reading List

Back in the early 2000s, I was an active political blogger back when you couldn’t get paid to do that. I don’t do that anymore, but feel free to buy me a cream soda and we’ll talk about politics all you want.

Nonetheless, the #Ferguson tweet stream has me wanting to contribute something to the conversation. Alas, I’m sharing a book list.

This is solely a book list to backfill the sorts of history schools don’t cover and can help you better understand when you read something from someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates you’re not flying quite as blind. Not everyone needs this, but I assure you that there’s at least one book on here you haven’t read and that’ll better inform you.

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990, Quintard Taylor

Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935, James D. Anderson

Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Leon Litwack

Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class, Mary Patillo

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, Larry Tye

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, Tim Tzouliadis

We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Tommie Shelby

Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Geoffrey C. Ward

“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Tatum

The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality, Thomas Shapiro

Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs, Deidre Royster

Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire, Carol Jenkins

Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union: An Autobiography, Robert Robinson

Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation 1968-98, James Cone

Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class, Karyn Lacy

Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life in White Societies, Mwalimu Shujaa

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, Paul Tough

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson

Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth T. Jackson