— 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.
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.