in Higher Ed

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.

  1. Great advice, Ron. I would offer two more bits of advice:

    Develop a thick skin. Don’t personalize criticisms of your work. Remember: You are not the project. Critics will always be there.

    And related to that point:

    You’ve got to have the stomach for inter-office politics. Even if you try to avoid politics as much as possible, you’ve got to be able to get in there and mix it up with the other bureaucrats every once in a while. And then, as Ron’s first point says, know which battles are worth fighting.

  2. 5. Focus on what’s important: You’ll never get everything you want, so focus on the stuff that matters most and at least you’ll always be making progress and raising the bar.

    6. Avoid office politics: Especially just starting out, it can be hard to avoid the factions in offices, but it behooves you to do anything you can to be good terms of almost everyone. Relationships can build naturally and not everyone will like you, but it’s good to maintain strong relationships with as many people as possible.

    7. Be an advocate for the institution: I try to implore people to see the web as a vehicle for how the college/university grows and reaches further. A lot of them see the web as real estate or a personal fiefdom that they need to control and I’ve tried hard over the years to get people to take a broader look at the web, technology and how it can really advance the mission of the school. By doing that, it shows your loyalty to the institution and an awareness of how the brand can benefit exponentially by your best foot forward via the web site.

  3. 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.

    Now I’m going to edit the post and add these recommendations, thanks for making me flesh it out, Mike! :)

    Hope these help a little bit. I could probably go on for days…

  4. This is so true. I’m the Web Services Manager at a college in Canada and been mandated to direct our web presence to a new level. But I am seeing the politics are going to play are a part – unfortunately. What practical recommendations do you have to mitigate the negative impacts of politics in higher education web design?

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