The need for digital strategy leadership in the higher ed C-suite

Whether you care about sports or not, Thursday night was the NFL Draft. A coming out party for the newest members of pro football teams, it’s a joyous night akin to the Emmys, as top college players go from being students to newly minted millionaires.

Laremy Tunstil went from being a highly touted prospect to a victim of social media exposure that likely cost him millions in potential earnings. Someone presumably took control of his Twitter and instagram feeds and posted damaging content including him smoking marijuana from a gas mask. (You can get the background via ESPN.)

A damaging night for the brand

The NFL draft night went from being a proud night for the Ole Miss program to a damaging night for the university brand. During the press conference to address the social media posts, another hack this time to Instagram implicated an assistant athletic director at the university with paying Tunstil.

When asked about it during his post-draft interview, Tunstil admits to taking money from a coach. This story goes from being a salacious sports drama to having massive repercussions for the entire university. Because this is illegal under NCAA rules, it could investigated and cause massive damage to the institution’s football program.

I don’t really care about any of that. This isn’t a post directly about sports, it’s the need for university leaders to be savvier about the way the proliferation of digital tools has changed the way we work.

Somebody on cabinet needs to have a digital-first mindset

Most of the focus on social media as a tool in higher ed focuses on the various ways that marketers can use SEO and social media to increase traffic to slick websites meant to increase eyeballs, applications and enrollment. None of this is news. The problem is, most institutions treat digital as an asset of their marketing efforts or IT. Neither outfits is usually equipped to deal with the nimble, adaptable nature of managing a social culture. Public relations is reaction. Marketing is concerned with selling widgets. IT is about infrastructure. Digital is about disruption and modularity.

UC Davis paid a consultant to scrub an incident that damaged the university brand. I have been in many meetings over the years, where far less embarrassing things have come to light and have asked whether it was possible to “remove” them from the internet. It makes sense if you think of digital as an extension of traditional marketing. In the past, you could remove a negative ad, blackball bad press by advertising in a rival newspaper or adjust your PR strategy to reflect the changing tide. I would speculate that someone probably advised against spending public money to ‘fix’ this PR problem, but many leaders are not receptive to the word “no.”

You can count the universities and colleges on two hands that have managed to invest in a cabinet-level digital leadership. The problem is two-fold: First, consultants rule the roost with regard to digital strategy across many colleges and universities. There is a very common perception that if you want good ideas to be elevated where someone will listen, you just need to have a consultant say it. Internal voices — even competent ones — are not valued as highly. This biased extends to the corporate sector, so it’s not unique to higher education, but this doesn’t make it any better. The other barrier to C-suite digital leadership is the turf wars that involve what purview they’ll have over the various digital properties. Nobody wants to cede part of their job, even if it’s good for the organization.

I am not advocating for another highly paid person to inhabit a disruptive role only to become entrenched in the politics of the leadership class. Instead, I’m proposing that more senior leaders across the board from vice-presidents to senior directors, are trained to better understand the role of social media in our world. I think anyone in-house who manages the digital properties should be granted the ear of the people in charge, even in an ad-hoc capacity, to lend real-world perspective of the fallout of things when they’re happening.

Crisis communications can’t mitigate the damage done to the brand in a world where you can’t keep up or even see what people really think about your brand. I’m going to work on a whitepaper that proposes some solutions to this in the coming days, but I couldn’t help but reflect on these stories for the fallout yet to come.

Season 2 of #24hrsofstrategy


Season 2 of my ongoing series #24hrsofstrategy started tonight.

It won’t be 24 articles, mostly because Medium doesn’t support that. Nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about web management, the way things are and how we neglect people who manage our sites and why we need better education for ordinary web people.

Not just at expensive conferences, but in ways that people can actually get the information they need. So much of the conversations about design thinking or strategy are always high minded. They’re aimed at people who don’t work in the trenches, but are good at passing the ball to someone else to figure out how to actually get the work done. Or setting battle plans that don’t bear any resemblance to reality & hope it’ll be good enough.

We can do a better job. I’ve known this my entire career, because I’ve been at very stage of this process from the entry level guy punching above his weight to the dude in charge of an entire department of web managers across a disconnected network trying to figure out how to implement bad policy being given to me by people who don’t know what we’re actually going through; while deciding what I can do to provide actual air cover while my people on the ground get real work done.

Maybe this will resonate. Perhaps it won’t. I don’t know that I care anymore, I just needed to record the background, the struggles & my solutions for fixing what I see are problems.

Sometimes has to.

(P.S. Here’s the link to Season 1 in case you missed it. Season 2 will be a lot better though.)

The UX of restaurant websites

I wrote a brief thing on Medium, reflecting on some tweets earlier tonight about restaurant websites. My main point is the best way to understand why restaurant websites are bad, is canvassing restaurant owners to find out what their problems are with existing sites.

Just creating a tool isn’t a panacea. I can see a world where you could create a MVP that attracts lots of funding because it’s a problem that many people recognize. But if we’re talking about viability, you need an approach that takes into account an understanding of the market problems in the first place.

Too often, we want to just build for problems we perceive and iterate from there. While this works for some sectors, I think a customer experience driven area like restaurants require a research-first approach.

When a persona resonates with an audience: #NowWhat 16 recap

I spoke at Now What? Conference in Sioux Falls this week. This talk was a reprise of a talk I gave at Confab Higher Ed in 2013 (and again at Confab for Non Profits a year later) about being a “solo” or “Army of One” working as a web responsible person in a department where no one else has those responsibilities. When I originally gave the talk, it was reflective of my own experience.

This being the third time I was giving the talk, but the first time in a few years, I had an entirely different perspective. Mostly as someone whose managed web teams now, but also, lots of experience working with people who were in organizations where they felt misunderstood or believed the web could be better prioritized.

I created an amalgam persona named Liz, who was based on a variety of experiences I’d witness both in my own professional life and that of people I’ve consulted or worked with. Liz resonated in this talk well beyond what I would have anticipated.

“I do all of the things. I felt like you captured my experience”
So many people from different organizations said that Liz resonated with them. They felt the difficulties of managing a variety of tasks all at once and trying to figure out how to do it all. Here’s the thing: the talk about solos is often a difficult one because I know everyone has an individual story that diverges in terms of support and responsibilities. A supportive boss, departmental support and/or resources can be a huge boon to even the most overtaxed individual in an organization. Take away any of those components and what you’re left with, is someone who has to make a variety of difficult decisions without the internal support to achieve the goals put before them.

What Liz taught me.
In this example, I wanted to imagine a character who had various responsibilities across the organization but firmly planted in a CMS administration role. What most leaders of digital organizations fail to realize is CMS administration ends up being a lot more than just “putting things online” or “updating the websites” it becomes a job that’s part public relations, part editorial and a variety of other challenges that start to add up.

My goal was to communicate to the attendees that they’re experts, because no one else is as equipped to navigate the minefields of their organizations better than they are. Unlike situations where people are “aspiring” to inhabit certain roles, the attendees at this event were already functioning in these jobs. They’re doing the work day after day.

Speaking with dozens of people after the talk, I learned that “Liz” embodied a character who was 1) very busy and 2) didn’t feel like there was a lot of upward mobility. She’s passionate about her work or the cause her organization supports whether it’s a company, governmental or non-profit. They feel unsupported and note a lack of support from the people who they report to.

How to support Liz?
In the presentation, I talked about the need for people who felt Liz represented their story to be more communicative about their challenges, to interact with stakeholders across the organization more often rather than waiting until they needed something from someone.

I’ve written about the ways the CMS has given us more problems than we expected, namely that content platforms expect people throughout the organization in some form or fashion to contribute to the system regardless of their technical abilities, other responsibilities and so on. While it’d be easy to implement digital governance policies that indicate whose job it is to manage what and where, execution of the policies is easier said than done.

Understand the challenges your people face: I’ve run across binders full of leaders who don’t have the first idea what their web people encounter. For a long time, I advocated for a separate function for web management but I’ve gone beyond that thought now in a world where service design preaches integration. We need more people to understand what people face across the organization, but this means talking outside of just retreats or scheduled meetings.

I never expected Liz to resonate the way she did, but I’m grateful. I’ll probably revisit the story at some point, too. Thanks to the organizers of Now What Conference for inviting me, I had a great time.

Content Governance for the rest of us

During my #ConfabMN talk last week, we discussed among other things the various ways that enterprise content governance happens.

The first message I tried to impart is how within most organizations there’s not a culture of appreciating the challenges of managing large websites. It’s just low on the priority list. Often times, the people managing website who aren’t aware of the history of how we arrived at this place.

User roles are a fallacy based on the idea that people who manage web content have the time, talent or expertise to do it. When we first started managing websites, webmasters received content from everywhere and put it online. It eventually became too much for one person, so distributing the content management responsibilities across the company made sense. Often times, the people we gave permissions to manage aspects of the website were versed in some level of HTML or were easily trainable. Nobody wants extra work and the notion that you’re going force people to manage their content by putting it in their job descriptions. Yet, we hear of clients often whose leadership propose this very strategy of governing content.

Fast forward to 2015 and none of these things are necessarily true. Getting people to manage content is often like pulling teeth. This leaves websites with old or outdated content and leaves those of us responsible for bringing these disparate silos together on the web in a tough position to bring it all together.

Do your people know how to get content from their desks to the website?

There is no perfect model of governing content.

Stop! Drop! Roll! is is a helpful thing we tell kids in elementary school (here in the US anyway) if they find they find their clothes on fire. I have no idea how much this happens anymore, but the bottom line is, it sticks with you.

I propose a simple way of helping your end users understand how to get content to you in the same fashion. The high-level conversations of strategy are too alienating and don’t focus well enough on business goals in an environment where senior leaders are shifting priorties elsewhere. Only when you make digital properties relate directly to the bottom line, do I find that you’re able to resonate across silos.

During my Confab talk, I asked the audience what percentage of them believed that if you asked any random person in their companies how to get a piece of content from their desk published to the website, whether that person would be able to answer the question. Barely anyone raised their hands.

We’re spending an increased amount of time talking about the tactics surrounding content publishing and investing lots of resources into the tools of content management without focusing on the processes.

The trick is: there isn’t one.

It’s dependent largely on the way your company is setup, the structure and organization of your web content infrastructure.

Here are some models we’ve devised after seeing lots of different governance structures inside diverse companies and organizations:

Single-Payer Model

  • Every user has some skin in the game related to the CMS. Whether they are trained to edit content or approve content, the single-payer model gives everyone in the organization a relationship with the content management platform.
  • The problem? Hard to enforce. Also, once people have put their content in the CMS, many of them never want to deal with it again and would appreciate if you’d never, ever speak with them about it.

Most people responsible for managing websites are not empowered to implement widespread strategy or affect massive organizational change.

Policy-Based Model

  • Assemble a committee of stakeholders, preferably with at least one senior member. Work together to establish or revise existing policies that give you a baseline to manage content.
  • Policies can envelope responsibilities for governing content across departments, content on platforms outside of the CMS, approved tools and more. The key is to ensure policies are fluid enough to be workable in most scenarios rather than constraining the people in charge of managing your sites.
  • Problem: The policy-based model often requires a unique amount of consensus coupled with a leadership willing to delegate core responsibilities to subordinates. While we’ve seen the policy-based model work — and it’s the most common setup — it can be fraught with other challenges like outdated policies that once codified are hard to revise and a lack of senior stakeholder engagement that leads to stagnation once you’ve assembled a committee.

Centralized Model

  • Content is managed & approved centrally by a team. This can be done departmentally or company-wide. This ensures that areas like legal, marketing and product teams are part of the content development process. Provides support to web managers and takes the burden off one person or a small team to chase down folks to get content.
  • Bad news is having all of the power rest in one area, department or person is great when things are going well. It’s less good when things aren’t working as well. Having policies in tandem with a centralized model seem to work best for the people we’ve talked to.

Head Person In Charge Model

  • The closest thing to the old “webmaster” model where one person has control of pretty much the entire digital presence. A lot of people think this model no longer exists, but there are still lots of smaller institutions that leave the website in control of a centralized web person embedded in marketing or some related office.
  • There are lots of issues with this model, but the most challenging is what happens when the smart person you’ve entrusted with everything decides to leave. The vacuum of knowledge often leaves with that person and unless there’s 1) a lot of documentation and 2) a period of transition, you risk going backwards in your digital operations as a result. Ways that end users are used to interacting with one person might dissipate and leave you starting from scratch.
  • The other thing about the HPIC model is often that someone has responsibility for management of the website, but someone else has authority over the presence. This leader is often divorced from the day-to-day process of managing content which can cause many problems depending on the challenges faced by the team executing content from communication to funding breakdowns.

Bumper Car Model

  • I explained the bumper car model as “a bunch of people running into reach other, not communicating and trying to do a lot of the same things at the same time at varying speeds.”

Governance is not a topic that will move the need in most organizations. It’s our job to bring it down to Earth in measurable ways that help people understand how it can help us do our jobs better, save resources and improve communication.

Managing what you don’t understand

I give a lot of talks during the year. Often at the end of those talks someone will come up to me and say some variation of,

I really enjoy your talk. It resonated a lot. How do I make my web person understand this?

I have to be honest. Until the past year, I was not aware of how badly some place were struggling with their ability to integrate the web into their marketing units. Now in some places, this entire conversation is a form of blasphemy, but we’re going to operate in this paradigm for at least the rest of this blog post for simplicity sake.

Here’s the thing. The first thing you need to understand about strategic integration is you’re not going to understand all of it. There are going to be things you won’t get and that’s okay. The key is finding people who can explain it to you like you’re not an idiot AND who you trust to 1) empower to make smart decisions that you will support OR 2) to give you the data and analysis that you can use to make informed decisions yourself. That’s it. Those are your options.

At a certain point in your career, it becomes clear that within some organizations that you can just BS your way through interactions with people who won’t be able to keep up with your pace and thus allowing you to make bad decisions within a vacuum. If I tell you something costs millions of dollars and you don’t understand it and I flub those millions through bad decision-making, who is going to call into question the whole enterprise when no one really understands what we’re doing?

This is really about leadership, but for a lot of people it’s about just how much they can throw in your face statistics that bolster their claims. Outthinking your opposition when they’re bad at chess isn’t really a feat to be proud of, it just means you’re going to lose when you face a more formidable opponent.

A position to fit the player

There’s a fallacy that we create job descriptions to find a specific kind of person. The other night, I semi-jokingly wrote what I thought about job descriptions I’ve encountered in the past few years for social media roles on Twitter. It’s as if you can picture the people sitting around a table, trying to check boxes in an attempt to create this perfect person.

Newsflash: That person doesn’t exist and they’re not perfect.

On the flip side, people seeking roles will often believe that they’re just one job away from the perfect situation. The role that’s going to give them the autonomy, compensation and fulfillment they seek in the workplace. For most of us, this just isn’t a real thing. There are going to be days that you don’t love what you do and that’s okay. Visual artist Chris Martin had a quote I read in Believer Magazine the other day that was instructive on this point:

The point of an artist is to find out what are the flavors that I must work with. Finding one’s freedom is about surrendering to your helplessness. I’m a painter. That’s what I do. And sometimes I’m very happy about that and sometimes it’s just what I gotta deal with.
The missing link for everyone is realizing that the goal should be to assemble great teams of good people. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself. We’re often so afraid that we’ll lose people, that we hire conservatively. Or we want people who stick to the plan, because it gives us comfort knowing there’s a plan, even if it’s a bad plan. Strategy isn’t ancillary, it’s primary and the sooner you realize that you need to invest in gameplanning, the better off your organization will be.

In sports, we see this in a variety of ways. Games evolve over time into new positions that didn’t exist a generation ago. Remember playing volleyball in gym class? You could only score points on a serve, but in 1999 to make the sport more viewer friendly, they completely revamped the sport and even created an entirely new position called a libero. Basketball has five positions officially, but the way people grow and change often results in players who don’t fit their position called “Tweeners” literally people who are “between positions.” In the corporate workplace, these people would simply be without a job.

We don’t hire for value, we hire for people’s ability to adhere to the landscape that’s been laid out for them. It’s not an accident that so many bright minds are going off to form startups or opt to consult. It’s not that they eschew rules, but rather, prefer not to play by an antiquated rule set which doesn’t befit the modern world.

It behooves us as leaders to build teams that can grow with our best people. To encourage them, it can often mean preparing them for their next job. In sports, coaches will start off learning under an experienced leader before going off and doing great things elsewhere. Proud coaches will cite their “coaching tree” of the players they’ve sent off into the wild. We see this at the highest levels of the corporate world, but for middle managers and front-line staff it’s less common.

As we age, it’s harder to make big moves. Consistency, security and added responsibilities trump ambition. Our goals change, too. But it doesn’t absolve us as leaders from creating environments that embrace the skills and talents of those we’ve been entrusted to lead. Learning what makes people tick requires time and an ability to care about something other than the bottom line.

Sports has the time to care about people, but treat just as disposal once they’re no longer up to snuff. Still, we can learn a lot about managing our own teams from taking a look at the playbook of athletics.

Setting the social media agenda where one doesn’t exist

Last week, I was having dinner with some friends who were discussing their frustration with being in organizations where it felt as though there was no true agenda in regards to their web presence. While these folks are quite good at what they do, neither of them felt particularly strategic in their thinking and it wasn’t part of the job they felt they were taking. I told them they needed to reconsider that the thought that their only job was execution, but rather, being an asset required taking a more strategic view of things.

The conversation fired me up enough, that I had to put on my teaching strategist hat in-between bites of gluten free pizza.

Here were some of the takeaways:

1. You need to be the subject matter expert: Maybe you feel as though you’re good at specific things and feel out of your realm when it comes to trying to provide a senior leader direction on a topic. That’s understandable. But the reason you’re there is often to be the “young, fresh mind” offering up key insights and information that will help the organization move forward in its marketing digitally. In the case of these two folks, they’re working for non-profits with limited budgets, but that’s not a unique thing. Which leads me to…

2. See what others are doing well: There are so many resources online that you can spend entire days — to your peril — researching discovering and voraciously reading the pros, cons and so forth of what other people on doing online. The bottom line here is you can find people in your field and around it, doing things that can be of benefit to your organization. It doesn’t mean doing the same things, it means figuring out what’s working and what doesn’t, so you can provide a value-added benefit to the organization.

3. Assess your goals by listening and asking questions: For my shy friends who flourish designing, this one seemed the hardest. “What if I say something stupid? I mean, what if they ignore what I have to say?” Understandable fears, but you never know until you try. And the tactics involved in converting people to a new way of thinking often require showing rather than telling. It can be tempting to want to inundate folks with the bevy of new things that may or may not help. (And don’t get me started on the calls from consultants offering to change your life with this product or that one…) But it’s your responsibility to curate the best ideas, implement what you can within your responsibility and be able to show how it’s helping.

4. What’s the punchline?: Often times, it just boils down to giving someone the punchline. In organizations where people are wearing lots of hats, with leadership who might be set in a different way of doing things (read: older), it might be challenging to convince them to really propel forward with bold new innovations for fear they won’t work as well as conventional methods. That’s where it’s your responsibility to track, measure and evaluate what’s working and what doesn’t. Make sure that everything you’re doing can be tied by to goals that you established, so there’s no confusion about what time is being spent on.

Time will tell whether this recommendations from this spirited discussion — ok, spirited from my end — will necessarily help, but they’re both reported feeling more confident since our little impromptu lesson.