The politics of .edu web strategy

I never realized how politics web sites were until I started working in higher education. Simple things like where commas should go, what should reside on the home page or how many links there ought to be on a particular page can become battles that would rival a local ballot initiative.

I’m not going to win web strategist of the year by telling you something as rudimentary as “politics stifle creativity and hurt web projects by bogging them needless through mud.”

But I’m not blogging for an award, just trying to shed the truth on a pervasive problem in our industry.

I don’t really know what the solution is, though. I mean, it could be as simple as “get out of the way and let the people who know what they’re doing, handle the tasks they are charged with…” but that’s too simplistic.

Web strategy isn’t really about web people, after all. They’re just the do-ers, the folks who implement the will and the visions of those who are responsible for protecting the brand. I don’t believe there are scores of web people yet prepared or wanting to serve in high level roles aimed that require a diverse skill set encompassing communication, web and yes…print. But they are out there and where they don’t exist, we need to create them.

Innovation has taken a back seat to pragmatism and many in the academy are being left behind, because they’re too busy squabbling to keep their eyes on the road. It’s easier than ever to take bold steps forward, but in order to get there, we have to trust the folks empowered to make it happen. It’s their responsibility to explain their steps and to be open to feedback and willing to compromise. But I don’t think it requires a Congressional-sized committee, either.

At the request of the awesome Mike McCready, here are a few constructive tips for navigating the higher ed political waters:

I would say:

1. Pick your battles: You can’t win every fight, so really be selective about the times that you’re going to engage and push back on some subjects, while letting others go realizing that there’s no real point in losing energy on those.

2. Create allies: You can really smooth your path by taking extra care to treat everyone on campus fairly, but especially keying on the departments and areas that will need your assistance a lot. If those people respect your input and feedback, they can prove to be allies when you need them later on.

3. Be knowledgeable, but not a know-it-all:
No one likes the character of the web guy who comes into the wrong, demeans everyone else and acts like they’re too stupid to get it. That might’ve flown in ’99, but it’s ’09 and these days, more people, the middle and the bottom of institutions are getting savvier about their web knowledge. It’s mainstream now, so we’ve got to be mindful about what we communicate and ensuring we communicate useful tips that help them see how everything connects.

4. Listen:
This one should’ve been first. People will have legitimate grips and we can tend to dismiss their comments as sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher when we hear them over and over. Engage your users and really understand what’s on their minds and what their needs are. Even in situations where you can’t deliver what they need, it might be a great way to understand how to ensure the site continues to meet the needs of various constituencies.