IWMW15 conference write up
A couple of weeks back I attended the annual Institutional Web Management Workshop or IWMW 2015 at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk. Lucky for me (and not so lucky for him, due to a nasty knee injury) Neil was unable to take his place as a speaker, so I got to go along as a delegate to my first and hopefully not last of what I found to be a convivial and motivating event.
Last year’s conference was attended by a group of colleagues from UWP, but I was on my ownsome this year, at least until I arrived at Preston station and saw the friendly faces of colleagues Aldona Gosnell and Dave Oulton from the College of Humanities and Social Science web team – more from them later.
Beyond Digital: Transforming the Institution
IWMW was launched nearly twenty years ago to provide those working in institutional web teams with a way to share knowledge and experiences with colleagues within the sector. The theme of this year’s conference – Beyond Digital: Transforming the Institution – neatly encapsulates the challenge those of us working in the area face – how doing digital well means tackling the cultural shift necessary to deliver an outstanding service across all areas contributing to the user experience, not just ‘digital’.
The plenary sessions were excellent. I’m not going to cover each session in detail – you can read conference organiser Brian Kelly’s blog posts and the other resources at the end of this post for that, but I just wanted to pull out a few points that resonated with me in the context of what we are trying to do here.
Mandy Phillips, Out With the Old, In With the New: Digital Services at Liverpool John Moores University
Head of Corporate Business Change Initiatives, Mandy kicked off with her talk on how she and her team have implemented digital transformation within the University. Tasked by the Vice-Chancellor with the high-level objective that the website be a ‘Window on the World’ the challenge was compounded by needing to be achieved within six months! While this seems like an impossibility, particularly with seven (!) agencies involved, Mandy and her team achieved what they set out to do. Key to their success for me however were two main factors:
- the team were given the support to stop business as usual for the duration of the project, enabling them to focus fully on the development.
- the volume of pages within the site was culled from 12k down to 1k! However, this was achieved by starting from scratch with new copy rather than editing existing content.
So getting adequate time to focus on objectives and needs, facilitates a much more successful project with an agreed view of what’s required and the time to get it right.
Rich Prowse, An Agile approach to content, University of Bath
Fail fast and adapt quickly
Given that the development side of the EdWeb project we are in the midst of delivering here at Edinburgh has been delivered using Agile development methodology, I was looking forward to Rich Prowse’s talk about how they apply Agile to their digital content strategy.
Rich, Digital Editor-in-Chief at Bath, outlined the six digital principles that they apply to creating digital content to make it user-centred, based on data and consistent. A simple approach that proves very effective, I was really encouraged to see the successful application of this approach, so similar to our own.
Mike McConnell, The Challenge is institutional: Merging customer needs with new operating realities, University of Aberdeen
Why you don’t need a new website project
The high-standard of the plenary sessions continued on day two of the conference with Mike McConnell’s talk eliciting not just nods of agreement but the odd belly laugh. Using the iceberg metaphor for website and institution, he took us through Aberdeen’s journey through tackling the institutional challenges exposed by getting to grips with digital strategy. Aberdeen have met the challenge head-on, bringing in Precedent and KPMG to help them achieve the ‘magical pyramid of loveliness’ that comprises the alignment of digital, organisation improvement and business and customer needs.
Most impressive was the University’s decision to appoint a Director of Experience, a post reporting directly to senior management to oversee the digital teams, recognising, as indicated by the job title, that it’s not about digital but customer experience.
Rob Van Tol, Precedent and Sam Sanders, KPMG, Marrying Creativity with Management Complexity
Digital is the panacea, we just don’t know how it works of what we’re trying to solve
Later in the morning the other side of the coin was presented in a joint session from Rob and Sam. It was rather refreshing to get their perspective on the challenges of working with a sector which hates the word customer and insists on copying other institutions to try and differentiate itself?! Listening to them talk through the challenges and solutions was enlightening, though there is no shying away from the scale of the task when it is about managing people and change, not technology.
Paul Boag, User Experience Design. How Far Will You Go?
The big issue with Universities – you HATE prioritising!
Paul continued the theme of putting users first in his talk, echoing earlier messages about taking time out from the maintenance to research user experience and crucially, that finding ways to engage colleagues with user experience and in this sector, an outstanding student experience, is far more important than building new websites. Internal communications strategy, presenting data in attractive and engaging ways and delivering quick wins which benefit colleagues (sort out that expenses claim process) can all help to sneak user experience under the radar and into the focus of the institution.
Workshops and master classes
In addition to the plenary sessions, there was an excellent programme of workshops and master classes. For me, this meant getting my teeth into the BS 8878 Web Accessibility Code of Practice and exploring how it might facilitate the move from aspirational to practical web accessibility compliance. This session was of particular interest to me as Court has just endorsed a new web accessibility policy for the University.
What did others think?
In addition to my ramblings, Aldona and Dave give their perspectives on IWMW15 and the big takeaways for them below:
Aldona Gosnell,Web Team Manager, College of Humanities and Social Science
Increasingly more frequently we talk about the “digital experience” rather than just the “web”. Yet my team hasn’t rebranded, and we continue to call ourselves the CHSS Web Team. Does it matter?
According to a number of the IWMW 2015 speakers including Marcus Lillington (Headscape) – yes it does. During his masterclass “Lessons Learned from Helping HE institutions Develop their Digital Strategies”, being “digital” helps in a holistic understanding of the business requirements and processes. These days it is not simply a case of providing an efficient web development service – digital managers should strive to be at the very heart of developing the institutional strategy, addressing specific business needs.
Paul Boag (Headscape) seems to share this view and gives an example of a fully integrated parcel delivery service where the “offline” activity is completely in-sync with the online updates and alerts, taking the questions of usability far beyond the issues of on-screen layout or buttons.
Mike McConnell (University of Aberdeen) also shares this view providing examples from his institution around the digital transformations and business challenges. He uses an iceberg as a metaphor of large university websites, where only a fraction of “symptoms” are visible and a whole mass of “causes” are hidden under the water. The simple conclusion is that it is impossible to create a good website without tackling these underlying causes.
Mike does not agree with some other speakers (for example Mandy Phillips) that universities are simply “businesses”. Yes, there is a lot of competition, and universities are far more marketing- and sales-savvy these days, but they remain non-profit and their core mission is pursuing and sharing knowledge.
The immediate “key takeaway point” for me is to apply all this to our “intranet” project within the College. We have an opportunity to improve various administrative processes within the College, but in order to do this have to fully understand what our colleagues currently do and how SharePoint could help them achieve these goals more efficiently. As more experienced users of the intranet we should proactively develop solutions here rather than just react to incoming requests.
Dave Oulton, Senior Web Content Officer, College of Humanities and Social Science
Fresh from a week at the Digital Humanities summer school in Oxford – where the message was more websites, more apps, more data, link it all up – the focus at IWMW 2015 was a little in the other direction: ‘Everything overboard! Your college or university flagship websites should be sleek, attractive superyachts adapted for slicing through the choppy waters of the internet; not vast container ships wallowing about in the swells, loaded with every good idea the institution has ever had’.
Speakers from Aberdeen, Bradford and Liverpool John Moores universities gave sometimes controversial but always informative presentations about how they had streamlined their ‘digital estates’ – linking processes across the institution. Bradford’s extreme downsizing – from 12,000 web pages to 1000 – apparently wasn’t met with howls of outrage from staff and researchers, but rather sighs of relief.
A remarkable move, but possibly easier in a (relatively) smaller environment than Edinburgh. It definitely helped me focus on how the CHSS Web Team could streamline processes when building and maintaining sites. It’s often difficult to find a balance between creativity and sustainability when working on more bespoke research projects. Re-using code, utilising tried and tested core groups of plug-ins, and reducing the time spent on styling and updating complex site architecture would leave more time for the important part – inspiration can only happen when you have the time to think a bit.
Interestingly this year’s sessions weren’t live-streamed, which resulted in some candid opinions about the digital directions university were taking, as well as a look at some works in progress with an entreaty to ‘not tweet, as the stakeholders haven’t seen this’. In the era of instant reaction and comment it was felt like a bit more of a ‘retreat’, a bit removed from the usual social fishbowl. Maybe web managers and developers are a (necessarily) more reflective breed, having seen more innovation and change in their sector than most.
Linking thinking – The possibilities of using linked data doesn’t just apply to humanities research data; all sorts of different data types – profiles, research outputs, course information, timetabling, blog posts – could be leveraged to create a dynamic ‘open campus’ environment.
Agile – It doesn’t have to be rigidly defined, but it works well as a way of iterating website projects. It often doesn’t make sense to regard a website as being ‘finished’ in the same way a book is published – it’s a slowly evolving project, which suits the Agile methodology.
Involvement – I had an interesting talk with the team from Kent University about their development of an audio tour app, the result of a Hack Day event, and how they subsequently got JISC funding for a ‘digital storytelling’ event centred around collecting content for the app. This is an idea I’d like to investigate further to gather content for a series of virtual tours I’ve been working on; getting input from different audiences on what they would like to see in the tours, and how they could repurpose them. This kind of approach will also uncover nuggets of local knowledge or pieces of campus history, like the story of the rhino’s head on Charles Street Lane.
More take-aways (condensed):
3 good things for web teams
- Pair writing/designing – avoid getting bogged down in content detail or stuck up design canyons.
- Don’t copy others – innovate (within accessibility guidelines of course 🙂
- The ‘Everything’ ideas board – web teams get a broad overview of the institution, and where it could improve – not just on the digital side, but with feedback, forms, photocopiers, festivals…
Throughout the conference I felt that it wasn’t so much about learning something new, but more about discussion with like-minded colleagues in an environment of affirmation, with great examples of positive application of principles leading to successful digital activity. So with executive support, time, resource and creativity, we can do anything! So, let’s get going, (at least to next year’s IWMW)!