The conference was excellent again this year – given the challenges of Brexit, and broader changes to the HE sector it was more upbeat than might have been expected. It seemed that there wasn’t much doom and gloom – instead people seemed to be confident in their abilities to meet the challenges. Mainly by building relationships and collaborating with people across the various organisations
For me, some major take aways –
The Service Design Manual at St Andrews was a practical tool to bring others across the organisation into to help spread good standards and practice. It’s likely that nit everyone needs something as extensive, but stating the teams’ opinions and decision so clearly in the open can only be good.
More broadly, thinking of threats as opportunities has been covered many times over the years, but the current climate really puts that to the test. Being optimistic at the start of what might be pretty difficult years ahead seems to me to be crucial.
I had so many good conversations with people in other Universities, seeing that we are ahead in some areas, behind in others. It’s been discussed before that the current state of HE might lead to some kind of contraction of the community around University Web teams, as people seek to gain some kind competitive advantage by discovering some killer technique or idea and not sharing it. This conference confirms to me what a wrong headed idea that would be.
Digital transformation was again on the agenda, but with people at very different stages and different approaches to make it work for them, neatly summarised by Stratos from Edinburgh –
Anyone can copy your strategy, but nobody can copy your culture
There was a live stream of the event which I’d recommend if anything I’ve said here piques your interest.
The UK’s European University in a Time of Brexit
Interesting opening around the particular effect of Brexit on the very European facing University of Kent. The University has taken a conscious decision to continue emphasising it’s commitment to ‘remain European’. Brexit wasn’t the only change to the landscape that Bonnie mentioned. The influence of sponsorship from external corporations and the possible effects on course structures, outcomes and how they are perceived has the potential to have a profound change on the sector.
Touching on the those things then led on to the concept of ‘Anti fragile’. From a book by Massim Taleb. Part of the idea is that some things benefit from shocks and stresses, thriving in the face of disorder, uncertainty and similar phenomena. Called Antigfragile in the absence of an existing direct opposite to fragile, Bonnie explained how it might be an interesting concept to think in terms of organisations that need to innovate to survive.
The concept of having skin the game was a concept that I liked, and one that will chime with Pigs and chickens of Agile advocates.
Black Swan events were the next concept introduced – rare, unpredictable events that can have extreme impacts, and humans tendency to look for simple explanations and retro fit them. The interesting part of reading more around this has been a specifically relevant idea for universities, that of developing robustness to such events and shocks to both the sector and individual organisations.
Bonnie then raised some examples of disruptive innovation, and posted some of the logos of the usual suspects – Uber, Amazon et al, but I couldn’t help thinking that some of those disruptions, whilst creative often turn out to be illegal!
Overall, I enjoyed the introduction of those ideas, as ways of framing the change happening to the sector, in the knowledge that change is a constant.
Having a Good Crisis…and Not Wasting It
Andrew talked a bit about the various organisational changes that they’ve undergone that universities are so fond of, and how that process has created opportunities to tackle some pretty fundamental problems. One simple idea that I loved was the change from support services to professional services. A simple name change, whilst not being a silver bullet, seeks to alter perceptions of the service and the people running it, positioning them as more of an equal.
Another gem was the chart he used to make it clear who and what was getting all the traffic on the website, and so which things they should be focusing on. The process of things coming into focus at Dundee seemed to come across, with more emphasis on student recruitment.
I especially liked his ideas around the content management system, being only a partial answer, and what is really needed is less ad hoc development and culture change to a more organised and responsive culture. It was good too, that he recognised that all of this is hard, and a work in progress.
High Sights, High Standards
Probably my favourite talk of the whole conference.
Starting from the basic premise that there is too much work for a central web team to do it all the team at St Andrews explained how they’ve built up their capacity by a thorough programme of standardising how they work, explaining their thinking and educating their users.
There were lots of interesting details about how they’d done all this. The development of the Digital Pattern Library as part of the wider Service Design Manual was central to defining standards and it was clear that the process of defining the standards was very helpful to the team in gaining clarity about their decisions and having a real solid foundation for decisions taken. Having a clear set of well thought out, and explained ideas then makes it easier to implement those ideas across the organisation.
The digital visa concept was one that seemed to impress everyone in the audience, not only with it’s comprehensiveness, but also the commitment to enforce it’s use.
Of particular note was the commitment to produce three blog posts every 2 week sprint, importantly, with time set aside for people to do them. I was impressed with the follow through to produce those posts, and the clear thinking that they are produced for mainly an internal audience with clear aims to support and develop the community they’ve created.
Overall, a cracking mix of overarching strategy with great examples of how to put it into practice.
Making Digital Change Happen
Melanie’s talk was quite a departure from St Andrews’ since she explained how much restructure and change that the university has undergone, and that she has been tasked with sorting out a pretty big mess.
In such a a heavily federated organisation it’s been crucial to have an audit and get a picture of the full scale of the mess. A digital strategy has been written and the important buy in from the top of the organisation has taken place.
IT looks now as a case of ‘watch this space’ to se how it all progresses. The talk was a good sense of perspective and had me mulling the fact that all the universities represented at the conference are on very different stages in the journeys to better ways of working.
You Touched It Last: Designing Governance for Devolved Institutions
I was looking forward to Gareth’s talk, despite a pretty dry title, I enjoyed his talk from last year and was expecting good things. I wasn’t disappointed – his lovely slides had plenty of good nuggets to take away as a well as a nice introduction to a way of thinking about information management. It was especially interesting to get an historical perspective and see that information management isn’t a new problem, even if the tools are.
Wholeheartedly agreed with some of Gareth’s other exhortations – ‘Don’t devolve design’ and ‘Don’t talk pages’.
It all finished nicely on common types of people that you encounter when devolving web activity and how to deal with them. There were plenty of murmurs of recognition in the room at those descriptions and appreciation at ideas how to deal with them.
Special mention to @garius for giving me homework with things to read on twitter!
Realising the Vision of a Single Source of Course Information
Some of the team at Cardiff University presented a roundup on how they’ve tackled the thorny issue of CMA compliance by some wrangling their course information into a Single Source of Truth. It felt like lots of people in the room were at various stages of this with their own peculiar problems of their own setups, but it was interesting to hear a story from the front line. Was tickled by the heartfelt “Get a Project Manager” that someone said.
Oxford Mosaic – A Web Publishing Platform for the Future
This felt similar to the Cardiff talk in explaining a real world problem they faced – A scary security situation caused by lots of sites – and how they are dealing with it. I almost felt they covered too much. There were tantalising things about how the Lean Startup book was influential, how they were rebuilding a live product and the development setup to enable them to ship to product every 2 weeks.
I guess that was the beauty of this conference – anyone really into getting those answers could go and seek out the speaker and interrogate them – in the friendliest way possible.
Building a Digital Publishing Platform
Rich is always an engaging speaker, and in this session he had plenty to talk about. I’ve seen him describe the journey through content strategy at the University of Bath, and this talk was about the experience of building tools to support that. There was plenty of good reminders that the landscape content is being released into is changing fast, and so they’re trying to build a tool that accommodates that. The standout for me was incorporating user needs into the content creation process, to remind people that there needs to be a reason for the content to exist, and a measure of how successful it is against that goal. I’ve advocated a goal based reminder in CMSes for a while and it’s nice to see it happening – I think we’ll see it more and more.
Also good, was the handy reminder that Publishers are users too, and so the tools need to meet the needs of those users too.
Students as Humans: Understanding and Segmenting the Real Student Experience
Interesting range over ways in which universities can understand Student behaviour better, by thinking a bit more about their experiences at university and what might be best for them as individuals, with some ideas how that might be achieved. [Bloom’s sigma 2 problem] sounds mysterious, but looks interesting.
Building a fuller picture of the student should help to help them, which in turn helps the organisation.
5 Conversion Techniques that Higher Ed Can Learn From eCommerce
Despite the slightly linkbait title, Piero managed to cram quite a lot of practical things to try in a short space of time, not going into tons of depth, but a really handy starting g point of things to try.
And I couldn’t help thinking of Glengarry Glenross, when talk turns to leads. “Put, that coffee down, coffee is for closers…”
How to Win Over Your Colleagues and Make Life Easier
One of the handy things about such an experienced speaker is that the slidedeck is usually a great aide memoir, but Paul took that concept to the next level with his UX Culture cards.
So many take aways from this talk.
Building a Collaborative Culture in an Institution
Overview of the thorny issue of creating a collaborative culture. No shortcuts. To get something valuable requires a lot of relationship building.
And a roadmap. A much undervalued document – provided you keep it up to date and protect it, with one of the tools being the Global Experience Language
The Life Academic
A very different t flavour of talk this time. A really interesting and useful explanation of the life academic – getting an insight into why that academic you’ve asked for ‘content’ is taking a while to get back to you was really good.
Tom’s talk was a showcase of some of the cracking work that students have created on his watch. He was very generous and explained how much progress the students are making when given the opportunity and a bit of support.