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“We’re so decentralized.”

In my organizational design work for higher ed marketing and communications, I often hear this lament from leaders describing their current structure. The refrain, which is not exclusive to large institutions, implies that a centralized—or significantly more centralized—model would be the answer to current challenges or gateway to greater effectiveness.

By definition, centralization is the concentration of control of an activity or organization under a single authority. If you’re a CMO, do you seek to be a controller or a catalyst? More centralized tendencies may indeed be part of the answer, but centralization should not be the objective.

In fact, I recommend eliminating these terms (centralization, centralized, etc.) altogether from your organizational lexicon. They simply aren’t helpful. If framed in the rigid binary of centralized and decentralized, organizational design discussions are less productive because the issue of power—who has control and who does not—will always be an undercurrent. Unit-level staff are not yearning for centralization or a perceived reduction in autonomy. But they do want strategic guidance and access to expertise and resources ranging from systems to tools.

In 20-plus years at various levels of institutions (including academic unit, campus, and system), I’ve experienced about every organizational model that exists. Structure does matter, yes—and in my current work across the sector, institutional leaders often ask us to solve for structure.

Structure, though, should follow strategy, which is intricately woven with culture. Starting with strategy means answering a fundamental question regarding the change that marketing should affect for your institution and the value its work should deliver. Your true objective lies here. Do you have institutional alignment on the answer?

While moving closer to centralization on the continuum can bring certain benefits and efficiencies, the precise solutions from one institution to the next are more contextual and nuanced based, in part, on the answer to that foundational question—along with a host of other factors from institutional infrastructure (e.g., budgeting systems such as responsibility-centered management) to institutional culture.

When leading marketing on a flagship campus with 200-plus distributed marketing and communications professionals, I wanted to adjust our position on the continuum toward a more centralized orientation in targeted areas, ranging from training and professional development of staff to media buying. I did not aspire, however, to have a fully centralized model. We trusted our school/college and unit-based colleagues to be champions for their constituent segments and manage their day-to-day operations.

Furthermore, 200-plus marketers and communicators formally reporting centrally is a weighty—and one could argue peripheral—responsibility when focus and prioritization are required to influence the outcomes that matter most to the university. As a vice president for marketing and communications recently told me, “I need to keep our team focused on the highest goals.”

The highest-performing marketing and communications teams in higher education have found their sweet spot on that continuum. They have a high degree of integration, but exact formal structures vary. In addition, they have been thoughtful to more clearly delineate core responsibilities, a formidable task when unit-level marketing goals and objectives can look vastly different across academic, administrative and auxiliary units. Most importantly, they have institutional clarity on what “high-performing” means and the associated outcomes. And they have established guiding principles for how they operate.

They also realize that because organizations are never static and market forces are increasingly dynamic, the sweet spot is continually shifting. Richard Rumelt, professor emeritus at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, writes, “In any organization there is always a managed tension between the need for decentralized autonomous action and the need for centralized direction and coordination.”

It’s tempting to see centralization as the panacea, particularly when resources feel constrained (“we have to do more with less”) or when an example surfaces of someone or some unit going “off brand.” Instead, manage this healthy tension—it’s what leaders do. Find your institution’s sweet spot on the continuum, understanding that the need for better coordination does not require the response of centralization.

Rob Zinkan is vice president for marketing leadership at RHB, a higher education consultancy founded in 1991. He joined RHB in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement. He also teaches graduate courses as an adjunct in strategic communications and higher education leadership.

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