The Web Singularity is Near

By Michael Fienen

Lots to take in here, Michael, and you make a good case for centralization. I like the cruise ship analogy. For some of the key, outward-looking clients, however (i.e., those who recruit students or raise money) maybe the better analogy would be that of a battleship. Many of these clients see their role as fighters, competing against other institutions for students and funds, and the terminology of the marketing sphere has borrowed from military terminology for quite some time (“target” markets, collateral, etc.). Just food for thought.

I’m not sure how well a centralized approach will work. It goes against the grain of the decentralized, networked, flattened, anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional paradigm of online communication. Add to it the very independent, anti-authoritarian perspective of many campus cultures, especially on the academic side, and you have a very tough job on your hands. Unless your president/chancellor is a field marshall, and not many are.

You didn’t even touch upon the sphere of social media and the Sooner land grab going on there to stake claims in Facebook, Twitter, etc. We’ve developed a centralized social media plan on our campus, but it’s based on the decentralized, “agreement by consensus” and “authority by influence” model that usually prevails in higher ed, rather than the command-and-control 3-D approach you advocate. I think centralizing a university’s social media presence is even more difficult, since anyone can grab a Twitter or LinkedIn account without having to go through any on-campus mediator.

With our campus’s social media efforts, I’ve likened the effort to trying to get all the horses back into the barn after they’ve been running wild and free for so long — and long before the barn even existed. It’s slow going, and tough going.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Reply

  • Avatar image
    Michael Fienen (author) Says:

    Social media is another monster all together. In the past, I’ve advocated very hands off approaches towards use of social media. Maybe offer guidelines for very basic protocol and behavior, but otherwise I think it’s hard to centralize such a moving target and goes against the principle of that particular medium. I think the better solution is to educate those that would use it in good practices and techniques. The problem is that it is such an agile, fast moving area, that if you put anything in the way of the community, you introduce unnecessary noise in the channel. Besides, if you made it too hard, what’s to stop a teacher from asking a student to set the page up, then make them an admin. If anyone questions it, they just take the teacher off for a while till it quiets down.

    Reply

  • Avatar image
    Patrick Powers Says:

    I agree with most of your post, Michael, although I don’t think its necessarily an issue of centralized control as it is centralized leadership.

    It has been my experience that even in the most decentralized situations, people will follow if they’re shown the way. This doesn’t have to come from a higher level of the academic food chain, just someone willing to help them see how their little corner of the website fits into the big picture.

    I used to scoff at the flowery language of university mission and vision statements. But their real value is in helping internal and external audiences see where we’re going and how to get there. If people buy into these ideals, it’s easier to show them the need to present one image.

    Reply

    • Avatar image
      Michael Fienen (author) Says:

      I totally agree with you, and perhaps used the term “control” in a way that sounds a lot stiffer than I meant. A ship captain doesn’t necessarily step in and show the performers how to put on their show or anything. It’s not about “my way or the high way.” It’s just a matter of direction and cohesion. As you say, leadership. The only issue is that I think it does have to come from a higher authority in the structure, mainly because a peer has no authority. You have to have someone with authority in the cases where something is otherwise going to go off the tracks. A good leader in that regard won’t have to flex their authority, because their teams will do like you suggest, and will work with each other rather than against.

      Reply

  • Avatar image
    Mike Rivera Says:

    I preach centralized control whenever anyone is willing to hear it, though my spin includes latitude for content creation: https://bit.ly/cttSZv

    Even if you don’t agree with centralization, it’s pretty clear that decentralization isn’t exactly working out beautifully. There may never be a perfect approach, but experience should tell us that other options and models ought to be tried.

    Reply

  • Avatar image
    Michael Powers Says:

    Very timely post. Within my team, which manages our school’s main website we talk about this issue almost every day, and from our perspective the singularity’s already upon us.

    We first became aware of this over two years ago. Before launching our redesign, we did an online survey of students about their web use and their opinions of the then-current website. Most of what we learned was pretty much what we expected. We knew there were problems, and that’s why we were doing a redesign.

    But one surprising comment kept getting repeated over and over: “the website has too many logins.”

    It was surprising because-our website didn’t *have* any logins.

    Further investigation revealed that while we thought of “the website” as our central web presence, our users thought of “the website” as everything the university had online: course management systems, registration, parking ticket payment, everything. And almost every one of those systems had its own unique login. (And none of them were purchased or implemented by offices with any experience in usability or design.)

    Our problems in changing this are the same as what you mention. I’d add that we, and I think many universities, don’t just have this issue on the website. (That is, it isn’t just websites that are working against each other.)

    I’d be very interested to know how others are working toward establishing, if not centralization, some better coordination between various web properties. (And other media outlets, too. Ever hear a radio ad for your school mention a URL “for more information”-when there actually isn’t *any* information at that URL? [Just to be safe, I won't confirm or deny that this ever happened to me.])

    Here’s my approach for the moment:

    1. Documentation and data collection: I’ve got a growing collection of web coordination issues available to share with senior decision makers. Whenever possible, I’m reaching into web analytics and other research to put some sort of number on the value lost via lack of coordination. I.e., “this ad drove 200 hits to the website, and only two of them looked at more than one page” or “the main website sent 1,500 prospective students over to the registration system, but only 300 actually managed to sign up.” (I’m trying to establish a dollar value for a prospective student, but that data’s hard to come by from my place in the bureaucracy.)

    Having data *really* helps, esp. when you use it to show that *lack of coordination* is the main problem, not the incredibly low quality of someone else’s website (even if that’s true).

    2. Showing where we need to go and comparing that with the resources made available: Having shown how lack of coordination hurts us, I show via mockups or wireframes where we need to go, inevitably getting the response “but we don’t have the time to do that.” Exactly. Most of our sites are maintained by faculty or their department secretaries. They aren’t web experts and they really do have other things to do.

    So the argument is: We know what we’re losing through our current (lack of a) system. We know where we need to take the website. We know we’ll never get there using the current de-centralized system. So, senior decision makers: what’s your decision?

    In a world of unlimited resources, in which rational argument always worked, I’d have an obvious winner here. In the real world-the jury’s still out.

    Other approaches?

    Reply

  • Avatar image
    Allison Says:

    Great post! Interesting viewpoint, it seems more in tune with the private sector. I also agree with Andrew’s comments on campus culture.

    I work for a public two-year system that has 13 physical campuses plus online that feed into the larger 13 four-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin system. We are part of the UW system (governance, etc.) but UW Colleges is seperate in most other ways(chancellor, etc.). We share resources to an extent.

    Organizing the web efforts is nearly impossible, as most campuses consider themselves independent and have different housing systems, calendaring, individual resources, etc.

    I started my position in central marketing three months ago. My postion (Web Projects Manager) is newly created and thus open for interpretation. And I would definitely agree that the overall cohesiveness of thinking about the greater “web presence” is missing.

    Our CIT department has done a beautiful job of centralizing to an extent but they work in the technical and don’t cover issues like: usability, accessibilty, social media, recruitment-based design, best practice, content strategy, IA, Analytics, testing, etc. We have; however, begun to leverage resources for bigger need projects from central that will benefit all the campuses, such as a media archival tool. It seems progress in this direction is slow and meets some resistance as everyone wants their own unique thing (and ownership over it).

    One of the projects I am working on is to create a strategic web plan, which I hoping will provide some guidance on how to move in a more centralized “web presence” direction among the campuses. I am wondering if anyone has done a web plan like this, if they would be willing to share, provide any advice or guidance.

    Thanks and again, great post!

    Reply

  • Avatar image
    Josh Nichols Says:

    There is a third option that might work for higher ed: voluntary centralization.

    Most departments on campus can’t afford more than one web developer, but today’s sites require a team of professionals to be successful. Web development spans various areas of expertise: programming, design, usability, writing, photography and information architecture. That’s the benefit of a centralized Web office. You get a team of professionals who can specialize.

    Departments are starting to understand this but still shy away from centralization because they feel like they will lose control. They don’t want their message to get lost or be forced to fit a template.

    To ease their worries, you could meet them halfway by allowing them to voluntarily fund a position on the centralized Web team (or move their current employee to the team). They get all the benefits of having a team of Web professionals work for them, but they also get a stake in what happens with their site. They get a primary contact in the central Web office to be their advocate and the university gets their external messages and branding to stay consistent.

    You won’t get everyone on board overnight, and no matter what you do there will be rouge offices that will never conform, but over time, as other departments show success, you’ll get more participation. If you’re able to get key groups onboard first, you may be able to reach some of your goals quicker than you thought.

    Reply

    • Avatar image
      Josh Nichols Says:

      To add to my previous comment:

      Your centralized Web office may also need to become a “for hire” type of business. Instead of having a department pay a salary, they could hire the central Web office to build them a site in a CMS and then contribute to a maintenance fee that includes certain services, like photography and marketing, once a semester.

      In that scenario, the department feels in control because they become the client and the Web office is the consultant. There isn’t a long-term commitment and they can update their own content in a CMS without the expense of hiring a Web developer. The central office, in return, gets a steady income to pay their Web team.

      Reply

    • Avatar image
      Michael Powers Says:

      Josh, this is pretty much what we’re hoping to do. (We even call the non-conforming offices “rogues.”) The only hitch is that the departments never received funding to create websites. They’ve been labors of love by the faculty. (Or at least they were until the redesign.) So we want to do opt in, but we need to get the funding from somewhere higher up.

      Reply

  • Avatar image
    Morgan Says:

    I certainly agree with you here-I’ve said the same thing for literally ten years at our institution. The problem for us has been (and continues to be) the vendors we use to provide our administrative database services. Even our Blackbaud product looks and functions terribly-it just took over our on-line donations page, which used to be a very smooth in-house page. I wish that I could get this message through to the vendors. This is also a situation where a sort of Web Captain couldn’t do much, because the Web Admiral (one VP or other) is the one calling the shots for whether to use the Blackbaud junk or not…

    Reply

  • Avatar image
    internet reklamları Says:

    I certainly agree with you here–I’ve said the same thing for literally ten years at our institution. The problem for us has been (and continues to be) the vendors we use to provide our administrative database services. Even our Blackbaud product looks and functions terribly–it just took over our on-line donations page, which used to be a very smooth in-house page. I wish that I could get this message through to the vendors. This is also a situation where a sort of Web Captain couldn’t do much, because the Web Admiral (one VP or other) is the one calling the shots for whether to use the Blackbaud junk or not…

    Reply

  • Trackbacks/Pingbacks

    1. links for 2010-02-05 « innovations in higher education says:

      [...] The Web Singularity is Near (tags: centralization webpresence webstrategy strategy politics policy highedweb highered managing) [...]

    Leave a Reply

    Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free