April 30, 2015
Our IHE community has been having a good discussion about how important, and how difficult, it is to effectively communicate within our campuses.
Why are higher ed internal communications so challenging? What are the reasons that it is so difficult to have everyone on campus understand the thinking behind big initiatives, policy changes, and long term institutional investments? What are the barriers to everyone on campus at least gaining a shared understanding of leadership priorities, even if getting consensus on the wisdom of those priorities is a longer term effort? How can the various constituencies within a campus, the schools or departments or centers or units, get their work and their initiatives better known by the university community? Why is it that we spend so much time thinking about communications and outreach, but seem to have so little success in getting our messages out to the larger campus?
I have 6 hypotheses as to why internal campus communications is so difficult. My hope is that someone with more experience, wisdom, and training in communications will help us understand what’s what.
Hypothesis 1 - Academics Are Actually Not That Good At Communicating:
I have this theory that effective communication is really hard. That there are people who are educated, trained, and experienced in communicating - and that we should listen to these people. Academics, or at least the academic writing this blog post, tend to think that because we are good at some things that we are good at many things. If we were smart enough to make it through the gauntlet of a terminal degree, surely we are smart enough to know how communicate. Wrong. Creating and executing an effective communications strategy is a professional skill. Common sense (even if PhD’s had common sense) is not enough. The hypothesis is that the reason that we are ineffective at communicating is because we are ineffective at communicating.
Hypothesis 2 - We Underinvest in Communications:
The hypothesis is that we don’t do a good job at communicating because we underinvest in communications. How many of our units have someone who is dedicated full-time to communications? I’d be interested in seeing the numbers, but my sense is that companies invest far more in marketing and communications functions than does higher ed. This is probably as it should be, as we want as many of our resources to go towards mission (teaching and research) as possible. The cost, however, is that the communications function is constantly under-resourced. The communications plan gets tacked on to the end of the project. The people executing on the communications plan are often the same people who are running the project. They have neither the time nor the expertise to do a really good job at communicating.
Hypothesis 3 - The Limits of a One Person At A Time Communications Strategy:
The problem with campus communications is that everyone on campus thinks that they should not only know what is going on on campus, but that they should have also been consulted before the plan was made. We academic types do not lack for self regard. If the initiatives being discussed are not our initiatives, then we are less interested in learning about the particulars. Communications, in such an environment, works best person-to-person and face-to-face. The problem is that there are only so many small conversations that any one person can have. Face-to-face communications is effective, but it does not scale.
Hypotheses 4 - An Environment of Autonomous Campus Actors:
The degree of difficulty for campus communications is directly proportional to the degree of autonomy enjoyed by people (and schools/departments/divisions) at the university. The more autonomous the people (or the units), the more challenging it will be to get everyone into the same conversation. The norms, values, and organizational structures of most colleges and universities are explicitly designed to balance centralized authority. There is a large spectrum of just how autonomous individual faculty, departments and schools are across the postsecondary landscape. The hypothesis is that the more hierarchical the institution, and the more that some central authority has power to shape policy and drive campus behaviors, the easier it is to get everyone on the same information and communications page.
Hypothesis 5 - A Saturated Marketplace of Ideas:
We are trying to get the attention of many people on our campus. The problem is that everyone else is trying to the get the attention of the same people. The ability to drive change in higher ed depends on our success in the marketplace of ideas. That marketplace has become increasingly crowded. How many meetings are you asked to attend? How many committee assignments are you asked to take on? How many talks are occurring on any given day on campus? How many e-mails do you get every hour? How many websites or blogs can you visit in a day? The scarcest commodity on campus is attention. Any effective communications strategy needs to somehow break through the campus noise. Good luck.
Hypothesis 6 - The Credibility Gap:
Communicating on campus is difficult even in the best of circumstances. If your message, or the messenger, comes with negative baggage then that communications will be all the more difficult. In my world I’m trying to communicate about initiatives at the intersection of learning and technology. The problem is that my profession has historically so oversold the benefits of technology for learning that many educators have simply tuned out. The price of over-promising and under-delivering is that truly promising initiatives, programs that would actually help faculty meet their teaching and research goals, will often get lumped into this troubled educational technology history.
What do you see as the barriers, and enablers, to being an effective campus communicator?
What are your hypotheses as to why internal campus communicating is so difficult?
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