Archive for October, 2010

This week I attended a meeting of higher education leaders hosted by our state senator. These leaders were from institutions  in her district, and I must admit she presented a meaningful topic agenda. She was there to listen, and I applaud her for taking the initiative.

The Texas legislature will be off and running again this coming spring. But once we all meet in Austin, political polarization will likely combine with serious state budget problems to produce the same kind of bickering that has been paralyzing Washington.

For higher education, the overall situation quickly becomes circular and contradictory: 

We will begin with a budget deficit, and so there will be loud calls to cut spending.  But, simultaneously there will also be those legislators arguing to expand college access to more people. Then, with the same breath they will insist that we keep tuition low.  And there will also be assertions that university’s are managed poorly, and so there will be new calls for more regulations and reports. 

For the institution all this adds administrative work and people, and tuition goes up again. So in this very bad economy, where one in ten is out of work, it will be very likely that public universities will have an even greater percertage tuition increase than privates.

We simply must find new ways to address these problems. I suggest that thoughtful, experienced professionals from the legislature, government, education agencies, and universities be invited to meet together in a nonpartisan atmosphere away from the Capitol. It should be a retreat-like location where a “getting down to business” tone can be created. And to get the ball rolling, the initial charge should be to only talk about doable solutions, even if they are partial.  Perfect solutions will not be possible, from either party.

Any plan will require fine tuning along the way, and so all participants should be asked to acknowledge that reality publicly. First, it should be acknowledged that each insitution wants to keep prices as low as possible, deliver high quality, be accessible to more people, and manage everything more efficiently. So, needed improvements must be put in priority order and then matched with available resources. Simple action steps are added at the conclusion, including realistic timeframes for results.

Whether we are talking about communicating an institution’s brand identity, dealing with sensitive issues, handling crises, or finding legislative solutions, the most valuable talent to have in our profession is to be able to see complex problems in more simple terms, as well as to be able to articulate clear and comprehensible steps forward.

In politics, we call this talent statesmanship, and we definitely need a good dose of  it now.  Putting good sense back in our legislative processes simply must be our top national and state priority.  We simply can’t continue the nonsense any longer.

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This week the American Council on Education (ACE) launched a Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement. Led by John E. Sexton, president of New York University and chair of the ACE board of directors, the panelists are prominant leaders in higher education from the United States and overseas. They will meet throughout the 2010-11 academic year.

Most experts agree that the globalization of higher education will ultimately touch every academic institution in some way. For many, it could be a real game-changer. The outcomes of the work of this panel will therefore be critically important for all of us in this industry.

Coincidentally, just this week major government cuts in funding for higher education were announced in the UK. Initial reports put them as high as 70 to 80 percent!  This will force a system, that at one time provided higher education as an entitlement to its citizens, to become largely a free market-based system, depending much more on student fees–not unlike the U.S.

So what are the consequences? Higher student fees in the UK are likely to allow some prestige universities to thrive, but others are likely to struggle to make ends meet, and still others might even fail. This means these institutions, each with their own motivations, will begin to look more agressively for new markets.

At minimum, new international reputation-building campaigns, broadened student recruitment initiatives, and accelerated fund raising activities will be launched. High school students in all parts of the U.S. will likely begin to hear more about the economic and educational benefits of an undergraduate education in the UK, and donors will be lured with new naming and recognition opportunities overseas. 

Responding to these and other coming changes around the world will require more than expanding study abroad and making sure that subject areas are taught from an international perspective. This “sea change” will present a whole new set of complex strategic planning challenges.

To remain competitive, or just to meet its’ goals, should my institution plan satellite campuses, institution and/or program partnerships, or expand study abroad into remote and developing countries? What about language and culture challenges?  Do we understand government regulations and political realities in each country? Are there financial or even reputational risks? Are these ventures compatible with our mission and vision?  And, of course, what kind of marketing program will be necessary in each location?

And even if we decide not to operate in other countries,  how will these changes affect us? It’s certainly clear that migratory patterns of students everywhere will change, donors everywhere will be inspired to think more globally, all governments will focus more on science/technology and career education, reputation-building will present new sophisticated challenges, education will be more student fee-based everywhere, and the U.S. will struggle to maintain its market position overall.

It becomes more and more clear every week that academic institutions in all parts of the world will have to consider how these forces of change will affect them.  The UK is just one dramatic example.  There are many more changes in many more places to come. It’s almost an understatement to say that the work of ACE’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement is extremly timely!

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Is there a best way to organize a marketing and communication operation in a university or nonprofit institution?  I am asked this question frequently, and the answer is no.

Every organization has differences in management and leadership styles, in immediate marketing and commmunication needs, in quantity and location of necessary talent, and in established ways of getting things done.  The best way to launch a new marketing initiative in this setting is not to immediately restructure. Rather, it is much better to use dotted lines and teams to create an integrated planning process that can begin working immediately. The best permanent organizational structure will then emerge over time.

Not long ago the university advancement profession argued that the best way to organize marketing and communication was to put it with alumni relations and fund raising under the leadership of the chief advancement officer.  The “model” was referred to as the “three-legged stool.” Admittedly, sometimes in some instutitions this structure works well.  But success depends greatly on the background and interests of the person in charge.

If the chief advancment officer is consumed with fund raising pressures, as many are, this structure will not work as well as it should. In addition to alumni relations and fund raising, marketing and communication professionals must also give significant attention to student recruiting, to promoting the schools and colleges, to institutional reputation building, to overall visibility activities and events, and to issues and crises management.

Marketing and communication professionals must be led by someone who will relentlessly champion their support throughout the institution, and will represent them enthusiastically on the president’s team.  For many academic institutions, the most effective structure will be for marketing and communication to be its own division with its own cabinet-level leadership.

I have recently been working with a professional association where many of the areas typically in a marketing and communication operation are spread over several administrative departments. Due to long established relationships, it was clear that the only way to move forward was to establish an association-wide marketing task force.  With this approach, I have no doubt that the best structure will emerge over time.

There is much to be learned about the dynamics of organizational processes, and the politics of gaining widespread support for sophisticated marketing and communication.  Experience teaches, however, that there is no one best model. Organizations that on the surface seem similar still have very different management cultures and marketing needs.

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A consultant firm recently contacted me asking what I thought about marketing plan models. The timing was interesting since I had just posted a blog essay on the place of marketing planning in overall strategic planning.

Since I am in the consultant role from time to time myself, I realize that the client’s expectation is often that a marketing plan will be developed. My experience, however, has been that I never actually implement a marketing plan the same way twice. A “model plan,” I believe, is for textbooks only, and for teaching marketing 101.

You can never stop marketing and communication activities one day and start under a new plan the next day.  When you try to do that the plan will inevitably wind up “on the shelf.”  My impression is that consultants with model plans actually fail to realize that after they leave town, everything goes back to the way it was before they arrived.

My practice has been to talk first about a “blueprint” for a way forward, or about “special initiatives” plans. You must start with what and who is already there. It’s the people, not the plan, that will make change work. And change comes when the momentum of managed collaborative processes begin to alter how people are thinking about what they do, and how they will do it.

The best starting point is a professional development seminar that shows what an overall integrated marketing plan might look like. This seminar should also introduce the concept of how using collaborative processes can transform organizations, getting everyone on the same page developing new objectives and practices over time.

With these processes, early successes can also be produced by using “action teams” to launch special initiatives over and above daily marketing and communication activities. Then, with a measure of personal and group satisfaction established, it will be possible to phase in more permanent changes.

Integrated processes also will bring everyone involved to a better understanding of how marketing and communication planning should work in tandum with academic or program planning, facilities planning, and fund raising planning. This is critically important to long term institutional success, and was the topic of my last post!

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Events this week had me thinking once again about strategic planning.

I attended a meeting to review the progress being made by a strategic planning committee and was reminded of how many different kinds of plans are undertaken in a university, and how often they are undertaken at different times and in the wrong order.

Universities do strategic academic plans, master facilities plans, fund raising campaign plans, communication plans, and marketing plans!  And they are often done in an order where decisions are made about fund raising goals before anyone knows what the academic program plan will look like. Or campus facilities and buildings are being designed for the future before academic needs and goals are known.  Then the institution is in a situation where plans already in place must be reconciled with plans that are bound to change them!

I also was reminded that I have been associated with many nonprofits that have had very similar planning experiences.  They too would consider facilities and building needs, fund raising objectives, program development,  communication initiatives, and marketing targets, each in isolation from the other, and all along assume it will just work out in the end.

If we did all this right, an analysis of the market (industry and career trends, etc.) would come first, followed by an assessment of overall institutional strengths, as these will have to be reconciled above all else. Differentiating the organization is critical to establishing its competitive advantage.

Then a program strategic plan should inform the facilities needs plan, and both together should inform the fund raising plan. Elements of marketing and communication planning should be involved throughout the entire process so that a brand identity grounded in core strengths and values can be clarified, and target markets appropriately identified and researched.

None of this is rocket science, and yet it is rarely done. The meeting I attended this week ended with an acknowledgment of all this, and a firm vow to next time get it right!  Music to my ears, indeed.

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