Simple strategies and tactics can improve your communication efforts and strengthen your ability to communicate effectively with all of your campus constituents.
Sharing ideas, describing opportunities, clarifying problems, and articulating a vision—commonly referred to as communication—is part of the critical work of academic leadership. Higher education IT leaders can make this work more manageable by employing a few simple strategies. Of course, this is easier said than done. Changing habits or existing protocols requires effort.
I have found that library and IT leaders (my areas) often structure their communication efforts to go up the reporting chain and prepare executive updates, knowing that keeping other academic leaders informed will make gauging or obtaining their support easier. Communicating 360 degrees means communicating out and around to all parts and people in your campus ecosystem. Effective leaders also communicate broadly with their direct reports, their leadership teams, their customers, and their business consultants or vendors—staying on top of industry news, trends, technology, and products. Doing all of this well takes time and strategic thinking. The following strategies and tactics are not novel. They are simply organized for easy access and use.
Communicate early and regularly. Focusing on regular communication gives people time to provide real feedback, allows for missed communications, and builds trust, letting your teammates and colleagues know that there will be ample time for change management. Humans, by nature, need reminders.
Simplify the message. Break communication efforts into "whole-part-whole." For example, start with your whole message: "We plan to change the password login reset process to better protect your personal information." Then, present all the parts, including the timeline, the rationale, and the detail of the message—with screenshots! Then, provide the whole again: "Remember, on May 17 your password reset process will change, and part of your social security number will no longer be used. We are committed to keeping you safe." Always include a signature at the end of your message.
Reduce the jargon. To make your messages easier to understand, translate your area's jargon when communicating with anyone outside of your area. Following are a couple of examples:
- Jargon: "Transfer of the NetId is a NetOps DEMARC for this incident."
- Translation: "Once we provide the username, the next office takes over."
- Jargon: "Failure to upgrade network equipment by manufacturer 'end of life' will begin a roadmap of decommissioning network services on campus."
- Translation: "After July 31, our current wireless access points will stop working and must be replaced."
Your goal in communication is to meet the needs of the intended audience and to promote understanding. Research shows that the "presence of jargon disrupts people's ability to fluently process scientific information."1
Highlight the benefits, not the features. Communicate the value for the audience. For example, the phrase "protection from ransomware," may be better than "automated online threat scanners with advanced multilayer detection technologies" if you are communicating to non-IT members of your campus. More detail is cool for IT leaders, and it is essential for selecting the right product, but no one else cares! Worse than not caring, your non-IT audiences will stop listening. They want to know what's in it for them.
Provide internal clarity first. To set a clear path, avoid mixed messages and internal wrangling, which could lead to stakeholders saying things like, "Wait. What are we doing?" or "No, I told the anthropology department we could not upgrade their machines until next fall." The risks of not addressing and responding to internal ambiguity or misperceptions include diminished service quality and reduced innovation. The risks of public disagreements and confusion include loss of trust and confidence in leadership.
Segment the audiences. Perhaps the most critical strategy is understanding that the same message may need to be delivered to relevant audiences at different times, through different channels, and using different language. Speak directly to what each audience (students, parents, administrators, alumni, and faculty/staff) cares about. Say, for example, that you need to upgrade your core router. You may communicate this message in different ways and at different times depending on the intended audience.
- A message to the business VP via face-to-face communication one year earlier than the anticipated need might go something like this: "This upgrade is an impending $200,000 investment in keeping our college network ready to handle the traffic and our residence halls competitive. We have saved $160,000 in reserve and are looking for the last $40,000."
- A message to the academic VP via face-to-face communication six months earlier than the anticipated need might go like this: "An upgraded router is important to the stability and speed of our internet services for classrooms, offices, labs, and residence halls. We need to do this before we can add bandwidth, and that's why we can't simply increase the speed by finals."
- An email message to students, faculty, and staff one month earlier than the upgrade might read like this: "On December 15, wired and wireless internet services will be unavailable between 5:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon for an important upgrade to our network equipment."
Streamline the channels. Stick to the most effective channels for each audience, and do not rely on rebroadcasts for truly important communications. Check your institution for guidelines or policies on communicating with specific channels, such as social media.2 Do not use a channel you cannot keep updated—especially social media or webpages. Social media is notoriously difficult to maintain, and any blunders can go viral instantly.
Explore on-demand dashboards. Research dashboards and data visualizations can be used to deliver on-demand communication. Customized reports and snapshots are greatly appreciated by many decision-makers. Justifying a staffing request with an up-to-date report on service use by user category can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful presentation.
Show, don't tell (sometimes). Communicating through actions can be very powerful. Talk about your commitment to staff development, and then schedule an all-staff professional-development day. Follow it up with an assessment. Any action plans that arise should become part of the next round of planning and budgeting. Budgets communicate your priorities and your long- and short-term plans. Facilities and spaces communicate your brand and priorities. To repeat an oldie but a goodie, "Say what you mean, and mean what you say."
In addition to general strategies, getting communication work done requires regular effort. Some good tactics include planning things out, setting specific timelines, and arranging the communication opportunities you need to be successful. There are a variety of important tactics you can employ internally in your area and externally on campus.
Internal to Your Areas
- Daily: Regular meetings, in-person visits, and return email and phone calls.
- Weekly or bi-weekly: Change-management communication and meetings, project-management meetings, electronic newsletters, budget meetings, and advanced calendaring with administrative assistants.
- Monthly: Individual and group leadership team meetings.
- Each semester: Constituent-group meetings (by union representation, work specialty, or other), updates on budget, travel, inclement weather, and other internal guidance policies.
- Biannually: Leadership retreats or customer-update gatherings for planning, progress check-ins, customer feedback, and teambuilding.
- Annually: All-unit or department meetings.
External on Campus
- Weekly: Leadership or project meetings and biweekly informal networking coffee/lunches.
- Monthly: The provost (or your boss), VP for administration, chief of campus police, college faculty senate, and president's executive council meetings.
- Bimonthly: College-council meetings and bi-monthly written reports.
- Each semester: Advisory-group meetings, student-fee meeting with the student association (SA) president, and services meetings with SA vice presidents.
- Quarterly or as needed: Project-prioritization meetings with campus vice presidents and a financial update from the budget office.
- Annually: Report on strategic initiatives, blueprint for the next year, budget request, and staffing request.
Academic leaders might also have communication obligations in their local, regional, or state communities, or to their national working groups and associations. These can be organized in the same manner to make sure important communications are planned and executed.
No communication strategy is perfect in all circumstances, but if you are looking for improvements, trying some of these strategies and tactics may help. Developing the strategy that works best for you is always a journey.
Author's note: This blog post was adapted (with appreciation to the SUNY Council of Chief Information Officers for their feedback) from Holly Heller-Ross, Evan Kobolakis, John Kaftan, and Denise Burbey, "Communicating 360°," (panel presentation, SUNY Technology Conference, Lake Placid, NY, June 20–22, 2017).
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- Hillary Shulman, Graham N. Dixon, Olivia M. Bullock, and Daniel Colón Amill, "The Effects of Jargon on Processing Fluency, Self-Perceptions, and Scientific Engagement," Journal of Language and Social Psychology 39, no. 5–6 (October 2020): 579–597. ↩
- See, for example, "Social Media Policy," State University of New York (SUNY) Plattsburgh (website), 2019. ↩
Holly Heller-Ross is Dean and CIO of Library and Information Technology Services at SUNY Plattsburgh.
© 2020 Holly Heller-Ross. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.