3 Reasons Why Internal Communication At Small Schools Is So Hard

Positing Kim’s Law of Campus Communications

November 3, 2015

You would think that internal communications at a small residential college would be easier than at a big university. You would be wrong. 

(Although I’m not really sure, as I have never tried to do internal communications at a big and geographically dispersed university - you tell us).

I’m going to posit a Kim’s Law of Campus Communications: The smaller the school, the less internal communications can scale.

My internal communications experience at my own small and residential liberal arts institution is that digital communications don’t really work. Messaging on any scaled communication medium, be it a website or an e-mail sent to any larger group, will fail resonate and gain attention.

It is getting harder and harder for internal campus communications to cut through the information noise.

How many e-mails do you get a day? How many websites do you visit? How many people, groups, companies, and organizations are fighting for your scarce attention? How much information do you need to absorb in any given day?

At a small school, the only effective communication is personal communication. Retail communications. Small conversations.  Communication by walking around.

Why is this so? Why is the size of a school inversely related to the ability to get everyone in a community on the same page?

3 ideas:

1. Everyone At A Small School Thinks That They Should Know Everything Before Everyone Else:

We higher ed people do not suffer from a lack of self-regard. We think that we important, and that we should be “in the know” before any big news is publicly announced. We all see ourselves as experts in how higher education should work, and in how our home institution should behave.

The fact that everyone at a small school sees themselves as essential to the running of the place is not a bad thing. The feeling of a strong sense of mission and responsibility encourages us to do our best work. We are all highly aware that our actions represent and reflect the values and mission of our school. 

While good for our community, this sense of ownership and mission makes any communication beyond personal conversations difficult. We already think that we understand and are a big part of the work of our school, so why pay lots of attention to any communications efforts outside of our regular conversations and networks?

2. Small Schools Run On Relationships:

My sense is that every organization, no matter its size, runs on relationships. My theory is that a relational model of organizational work gets stronger the smaller the organization. At a small school we expect that we will have a voice in decisions, and that we will personally know those colleagues who occupy leadership positions.

It may be that the smaller the school the more time that leaders need to spend on cultivating individual relationships. It will be necessary to build coalitions to achieve any major strategic or policy change. The community will not go along with any change unless a critical mass of people feel that they have an active stake in the result.

3.  Organizational Change Moves at the Speed of Trust:

“Organizational change moves at the speed of trust”. This is a quote that I heard at the EDUCAUSE conference last week - and it has really stuck with me.  Internal campus communications are one method to get the entire community on board for change.  We need to say why we are doing the various initiatives, projects, and investments that we are pushing forward. If your goal is organizational evolution, then the process of change will be regulated by the amount of trust within the community. Trust in the shared values and goals within the community. Trust that those doing the communicating are also listening.

Scaled communications, from all campus e-mails to websites, are not very good at building trust. Trust comes with empathy, which comes from conversation. Trust requires a track record of working together to accomplish shared goals. At a small school, trust needs to be earned one conversation and one interaction at a time.

How do you think about internal communications at your institution?

Are you a communicator at your school? What have you learned about getting your message heard?

What does internal communications look like at a big university?



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