Digital is more than just the web – lessons from IWMW14

Last month, IWMW14 came to town. Our town. At our invitation. So we worked hard to make it an event worthy of a place we love. Our conference team did such a good job of the organisation that I even got to sit in on the talks. So I get to blog about them here…

Rebooting the Web

That was the event title, but to get more of a sense of what it was about visit the IWMW14 pages on Lanyrd where you can see slides and resources from the speakers and attendees.

put-it-on-the-webI don’t intend to review each session in-depth here, but rather highlight a theme that stood out across those I attended. That is that digital teams have a role well beyond simply being a service to “put things on the web.” Instead they should be catalysts for institution-wide change.

Much has been said about digital “disruption” and the external threat this represents to education. What I found refreshing here was the desire from people in digital teams to see this as an opportunity. They’re the ones trying to instigate change because they care about what the organisations they work for do and know that doing digital better means doing education better.

Who said that then?

Paul Boag from Headscape talked about the idea of “digital transformation” and how those working in web/digital teams can lead it. He advocated establishing core digital teams, empowering them and giving them the independence to make good things happen.

Ross Ferguson talked about doing this in practice at Bath University, where he’s encouraged a startup culture/attitude to digital, honed at the Government Digital Service. It was inspiring to hear about the willingness of his team to stick to these principles and demonstrate, despite some opposition, why they lead to better results. The culture change was partly about different approaches to managing digital teams, but also about helping people in those teams see their work in the broader context of what the organisation is for.

Hiten Vaghmaria, from the University of Westminster, presented a more centralised organisational model for their ‘digital development services’ as part of a talk on creating work allocation tools for academics. Again though, they had set digital in a broader context, linking many of the units that can often become silos.

Christopher Gutteridge of Southampton University chipped in from the audience with stories of working beyond the organisational chart to form ad hoc groups of able people who were motivated to achieve something they thought needed doing. That doesn’t require a new committee or unit, but it does require leadership.

That sentiment was echoed by Tracy Playle who outlined issues with the “groupthink” approach of committees and strategies. She told us that if social media strategies serve any purpose, it is to act as a Trojan horse for organisational change by starting conversations that organisations really need to have, such as “restructuring communications around audience needs instead of internal department structures.

In the final panel session, Mike Nolan observed that “sometimes you have to do things under the radar to get them done.” He said that digital teams should lead developments, not just react when they are asked to. I think the nods of agreement around the audience show a dedication that organisations should recognise and value.

Institutional change is a big deal

This reminded me of a Jisc project I worked on way back in 2008 looking at Institutional Responses to Emergent Technology. To detect institutional responses to the rise of “web 2.0” we looked for changes in ‘5 Rs’ – Rules, Responsibilities, ƒRewards, ƒRelationships and ƒRoutines.

I think this is still a pretty good model to identify any organisational change, such as the change I hope the people I met at IWMW will go on to achieve. While that will no doubt take time and effort, I think it would have a positive impact on educational organisations beyond just their websites.

Off the record

I also learned that the people who go to IWMW know how to party! So a town that knows how to host one proved a good choice of venue. I think I can speak for all my fellow organisers when I say it was a pleasure to be involved in both the social and educational sides of IWMW. We’re looking forward to seeing what Brian comes up with for IWMW15!