The digital vision

Duncan Stephen
Friday 1 August 2014

This is the fourth of a series of reflections on this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop.

Read an introduction and the other posts.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge

The final session asked: “what is our vision for the institutional web and can we implement that vision?” This was led by a panel of Stephen Emmott (London School of Economics), Mike McConnell (University of Aberdeen), Tracey Milnes (York St John University) and Mike Nolan (Edge Hill University).

The web? There is a problem with it

Stephen Emmott – who recently changed roles from being head of web services to digital communications – noted that the word web now seems old hat. He said that the web is the wallpaper. It’s everywhere. We do ourselves a disservice as a community to think about just the web. We should instead talk about a digital agenda.

We should also avoid naming steering groups ‘web’ something. It’s not about IT; it’s about institutions and organisations.

The panel went on to discuss how our roles have moved away from IT in general as digital media is no longer a technology problem. 10 or 15 years ago we were less sure what technologies we should use for the web. Today that picture is much clearer. It has become clear that the real challenge we face is in managing people and the organisation itself.

Later, Stephen Emmott made the point that IT is a vitally important department. We are desperate for IT help when things go wrong. That is what the IT department is for, and that is how it is seen by others in the institution.

This crystallised my thinking on the issue. IT is an inherently negative environment to be in. The structures surrounding it are all about fixing things. Digital teams working under an IT department get put in that box. Their job is to fix things. They then get caught up in a vicious circle of support, and never get the space to actually improve their products.

One delegate remarked that the web and digital communication is about what the printing press once was. It is a change in the way we communicate, and fundamentally about communication.

Disruptive, social technologies require very little technical management, but require very good content management. The focus should now be on how we use this communication more effectively.

This is a particular challenge since many senior managers are from a certain generation that is still largely paper-based.

The need to change the organisation

This leads us on to the idea that the organisations themselves need changing. It was noted that universities are designed and structured for the 20th century. This is why they find it hard to compete in the digital world.

I was reminded of a slide from Martin Hawksey’s talk. He remarked that universities are decentralised, or centralised in some cases. Meanwhile the rest of the world has moved on to using distributed networks and methods of working.

Mike Nolan said that sometimes you have to do things under the radar to get things done, and I can certainly testify to that. He said that digital teams need to drive developments themselves more to make progress.

A major theme to emerge from this session is that our roles are now about managing the organisation, facilitating relationships between departments, and culture change.

Tying transformation together

That final session reassured me that the approach we are beginning to take at the University of St Andrews is the correct one.

When we first started working on the Study at St Andrews website with the Lean group, one of the phrases we often returned to was culture change. A lot of the work I have done subsequently has been in building relationships with different parts of the University.

Since we are now looking at digital as a whole across the University, I am aiming for us to retain as much of that approach as possible. It is tempting to sit in your own office and wait for problems to come to you, particularly if you are in an IT environment. But over the past year I have learned the great value of getting out and about and speaking to other parts of the University.

Now is a good time to do it. I am excited to see various important digital and organisational projects across the University appearing to make better progress. With a Change unit even being set up here, it seems as though there is a fair wind for change. I am excited to find out what we can achieve in digital – and beyond – in this environment.

Read more posts about IWMW 2014.

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