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IT Management

The Key to Better IT Communication

Getting the right message out can be the difference between success or failure for technology projects on campus. Here's how three universities have fine-tuned their IT communication strategies.

When Kathy Lang was named chief information officer of Marquette University (WI) in 2002, she realized that the university's IT organization did not have a communications plan. "Changes were being made, updates were happening, there were outages — and nobody was aware of it," she said. "We might put it on the Web site, but I realized that wasn't good enough because people aren't going to look there." Part of developing a plan was working with people on campus to determine the best ways to communicate, the protocols and best methods for sending communications, she added.

One creative approach Lang took was the development of a communications subcommittee on every large project. For instance, in 2002-2003 Marquette was implementing a new student information system, and Lang made sure to involve someone from the university's marketing and communications team to help get key messages out to the right audience. "It was the first time in 20 years moving to a new SIS, and I knew that in order to succeed we had to have proper communication with the entire campus," she remembered. "And we have been using that strategy ever since, because it has been so effective. We were able to implement PeopleSoft in 18 months — on time and on budget — and part of it is because of strong project management, but one specific critical success factor was that strong communications team. I saw or read about so many project failures and when you study what failed, communication is always right up there near the top."

Marketing IT

Lang is not alone among CIOs in identifying communications as a weakness of IT organizations and trying to address it. In an October 2015 Campus Technology article, Hilary Baker, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at California State University, Northridge, described her approach: "Who knew that a CIO was in the marketing business? But I am — and my team is — so much so that I now have a director of communications reporting to me that I did not have in other times in my CIO career."

For this article, we interviewed Mayra Solano, CSUN's director of planning and communications, about her position, which she has held for the past two years. Solano said that before her position was created, the IT group was not developing marketing plans around new initiatives. "People think of IT as a service organization. One of my goals is to begin to think about services as products for our students, and explaining the overall benefits."

Solano noted that Baker has helped her by including her in internal IT leadership discussions. "I am always in those meetings, and she is an advocate for keeping me in the loop," she said. "She gets that communications is important. When she meets with the cabinet, she fills me in on developments that will affect the campus."

For any new project, Solano creates a top-level communication strategy, and then breaks it up into different audiences. "You can't have a targeted marketing plan without understanding your audience," she emphasized. Before rolling out a service, she gathers a focus group of students, faculty or staff to learn more about how they perceive a service and their expectations. "That really drives the messaging," she added.

CSUN rolled out a new e-portfolio tool to students last fall, and this spring semester will see a new marketing campaign targeting graduating seniors. "We have 42,000 students and they are at different stages academically, so the messaging for a freshman or sophomore is very different from what you develop for a graduating senior," Solano pointed out. She has held focus groups of students at different academic stages and asked them directly what would be the best way to get their attention about the e-portfolio. Based on their feedback, the No. 1 approach will be a social media campaign, she said. "But they also want to see lawn signs and posters around campus. Even though they are always on mobile devices, they are still looking for print ads on campus." Another lesson Solano has learned is that students don't want this information from the university only; they also want to get it from classmates. So for the e-portfolio project, the university hired eight student ambassadors to help spread the message.

Marquette's Lang said she would love to have a communications staffer within IT, but doesn't have the ability to bring on new staff now. But like Solano, she said she uses different communications channels for students vs. faculty and staff. "The biggest challenge for us is what medium to use. Twitter is huge with the students, but I would never send something to faculty and staff via Twitter," she said. "We have to be creative. We have to ask, who is my audience and how am I going to get this message out to them?" For instance, over a recent school break Marquette upgraded the wireless infrastructure in one of the residence halls. "We actually printed a sheet of paper with information on it and left it in [students'] rooms. Otherwise, they are not going to see it. And it is not something we want to blast to all students, because it doesn't affect all students."

A Coordinated Approach

Other universities have taken new approaches to focus attention on large technology transformations. At the Educause 2015 conference in Indianapolis last October, Kristin Sullivan, program director for the Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) program at Harvard University (MA), spoke about Harvard's effort to create a 23-person strategic team outside of IT operations to oversee the move to a single learning management platform, Instructure's Canvas. (Two previous attempts to shift to a new LMS had stalled, she said.)
In describing the effort, Sullivan broke it up into three phases. Year one (2013-14) was the planning phase; year two (2014-15) saw the pilots and implementation begin; and the just-launched third phase would build on year two goals and begin oversight transition back to operations.

In the planning phase, Sullivan said, her team needed to communicate to central IT leadership, school leadership and school academic technology partners that TLT was not a regular part of IT operations. "We needed to spin up a special organization of the folks who were going to do the work of TLT and communicate about that," she said. "One of the tricks of this part of the program was that we were communicating about this while doing the planning, so we were sort of building the plane while we were flying it."

Sullivan scheduled events called "Coffee and Canvas" and held one-on-one meetings with school CIOs and academic technology stakeholders. Her team created a Web site,, and started a monthly newsletter that communicated about the progress of the project.

As they transitioned to phase two, Sullivan reported to an executive committee comprised of faculty and executives from across the university and continued to report to the CIOs. "We created a special advisory board of academic technology people called the Canvas governance group," she said. The team added a second newsletter about platform updates as well as a monthly newsletter about the program.

Harvard is now in phase three, which includes looking at research data from Canvas, cultivating teaching and learning communities across the university and creating an academic developer community to build new tools. The TLT team is also beginning the reintegration planning with academic technology services, the central operating unit within Harvard University IT (HUIT).

Sullivan and her team also coordinated communications with other technology projects under way at the same time. HUIT was introducing a new student information system, learning management system, ID and authentication, and Office 365. This was a lot of change to introduce all at once. "We decided on a coordinated approach and called it technology renewal," Sullivan said. The projects used similar language and held demonstration days with faculty and administrators to talk in a coordinated way about all the technology changes that were happening in the fall of 2015. "I admit I was a little skeptical at first about how this plan would go, but it really paid off," Sullivan added. "We communicated in a coordinated, clear way to the community we are trying to serve about the largest technology changes ever," she recalled. "Believe it or not, we actually had the best startup ever with very few glitches. It was very exciting. That is how we rolled out not just one big project, but a bunch at once."

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