A colleague of mine once described higher education as “a group of independent franchisees all doing their own thing.” Universities tend to be highly decentralized organizations with a tremendous penchant for working in silos. Even the way we define our structures supports this notion. We have the division of academic affairs, the division of student affairs, the division of marketing and communications. We often aren’t a team of teams but rather a sprawling landscape lined with fences -- and sometimes moats filled with sharks and alligators.
These silos make interdisciplinary collaboration difficult and limit opportunities to maximize resources and create highly effective communications for our audiences. They also hinder innovation, limit access to alternative perspectives and invite territoriality. Silos must die. Most of us recognize that, but there are four big ways we contribute to the culture:
- We refer to campus units and departments as “clients” or “customers,”
- We offer a “menu of services” that emphasizes tactics,
- We force teams to be generalists when specialists are needed, and
- We often leave out voices and perspectives based on job title.
Clients Versus Partners
Admissions, financial aid and advancement are not our clients. We do not serve individual units. We serve the university’s strategic goals and the audiences to whom we are communicating. We partner with other offices as we work together to achieve those goals and serve those audiences. We are in our positions because we have expertise in a specific area. We must bring that expertise to the table and effectively guide decisions around approaches to marketing and communications that are based on achieving institutional goals and serving our audiences.
Tactics Versus Strategy
We are offering a menu of services was all the rage a few years ago, but it is time for a major shift. A menu is essentially a checklist of tactics. Rather than starting with the product, it’s time to start with the goal. Whether it’s more students in a major, fewer phone calls to financial aid, earlier confirmation of enrollment or a specific fundraising goal for scholarships, when you build your tactics based on your goal, the end results are campaigns that work. Marketing communications is a blend of art and science. It’s not a checklist. We must stop providing tactics and start providing strategies.
Generalists Versus Experts
“A mile wide and an inch deep” is often the best way to describe the expertise of generalists. They bring a broad base of understanding to a role, but because of the demands on their time and their work, they are forced to be jacks-of-all-trades but masters of none. When you have the opportunity, develop yourself and others on the team into more “T-shaped” individuals -- team members who are not so narrowly limited to one discipline that they do not understand others, nor so broadly spread that they lack depth of expertise. These colleagues can command respect based on their knowledge while having the ability to fluently engage with others on the team.
Perspectives Versus Directives
True collaboration requires building connections across boundaries. People in departments and units across campus often have a great understanding of their audience and deep subject matter expertise. When we bring that expertise together with our understanding of marcomm strategies, we can create a partnership that is infinitely more effective. Collaboration takes muscle memory. The more you collaborate, the more you want to collaborate. As you bring voices to the table, broader perspectives inform your work. The greater diversity in perspectives you have, the better your end product becomes.
While silos are endemic on college campuses, marketing and communications offices have the opportunity to be the architects of their demise. Bridging boundaries can help transform the way your organization collaborates and create a better path for achieving the institution’s goals.
Jaime Hunt is vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at Miami University of Ohio.