10 things I would love to change about education advancement

By Posted in - 10th birthday & Advancement on August 11th, 2017 0 Comments

1. Break down silos

Let’s jump straight in with the big one.

Organisational silos are the arch enemy of effective education advancement activities. Structures will always exist, and certainly serve a helpful purpose from an operational perspective. However, the rigidity of such structures and the application of those structures and hierarchies to our communication structures in turn creates poor user (audience) experiences.

Decisions around procurement of systems and approaches to implementing them also creates significant inefficiencies, missed opportunities and reduced impact of the work that needs to be done throughout the organisation.

2. Create brand messaging and identities that are truly distinctive

When you’ve worked with over 160 educational institutions, it’s exciting when one tells you that they are truly unique or have developed a really bold brand proposition. But that excitement is often quickly dispelled when you realise that 3, 4 or many more other institutions that you’ve worked with have the same approach, nearly identical messaging.

The initial flurries of developing something truly bold and distinctive are often diluted by consultation and group-think that pulls brands back to being safe, samey and – well – just a little beige.  

3. Design and implement proper content governance processes

Even in the smallest of educational institutions, content creation and management is often distributed across a wide range of staff.

That’s absolutely fine – they often know their own audiences well. But without proper content governance in place, this can lead to inconsistencies, poor presentation, content that isn’t suited to the platform, out-dated and inaccurate content and – ultimately – a poor user experience.

Governance need not be restrictive. A good governance process should control and empower others, supporting them to be better instead of closing them down. Most institutions might have good brand guidelines, but not have a strong content governance process in place.

4. Connect content properly

Educational institutions are beautiful and complex ecosystems.

While our structures are often siloed and hierarchical in nature, our work is not. It’s a web of interconnecting relationships. An academic might be the lead on a research project, a programme director, a PhD supervisor, the member of a committee, the lead on a strategic priority and much more.

A news story has an author, may feature a specific person that we’d like to learn more about, could belong to a specific department, might shine a light on a strategic priority, and could even have courses or programmes that relate to that topic.

So much of our content forms the basis of meaningful connections and yet often those connections are not fully formed. This is because a hierarchical approach to designing information architecture is often deployed, coupled with siloed responsibilities for content and information management.

I want to be working more with educational institutions (I already am) to help them understand their content ecosystem and how to form meaningful content connections – and how to implement them – in a way that makes their lives easier, the user experience better, and breaks down silos along the way.

5. Integrate and connect systems

We don’t just see inefficiencies and missed opportunities through the lack of a content model and connected content. We also see inefficiencies and missed opportunities through the procurement and implementation of systems to support different business objectives.

A simple example that we often come up against is the system implemented to capture an academic’s research profile (publications, grants, awards, partnerships, etc) might use one system, while the experts directory may use another, and website personal profile pages may use another again (a separate content management system).

With good content modelling, strategy and management, there’s no reason why we should be asking academics to complete several different databases to serve different objectives. It should all be fed through multiple fields in a single system, reducing the burden on them and improving communications as a consequence.

6. Revolutionise research communications

I really don’t think we’ve nailed research communications in the education sector. I think there are pockets of excellent examples, but generally speaking we fall foul of trying to craft content through a single channel (like the “research” section of our websites) in a way that aims to appeal to too many diverse audiences.

I crave the day when we really unravel this, unpicking the adherence to that “research” tab and really crafting an audience-centric approach to communicating about research and expertise that accepts and embraces the different needs of all those different audiences, but without implementing multiple systems and burdening our academics with multiple databases to update.

Please bring me in to work with you on this. This is the project I’m really chomping at the bit to work on right now!

7. Overhaul alumni communications

And the other project that I really want to get my teeth into right now is an approach to alumni communications that really dives deep into the diversity of interests, triggers, life stages and motivations of members of that community.

When I’m feeling particularly gobby about this, I find myself questioning out loud why we even have “alumni” sections on our websites. The points of interest and connection that they have with our institutions aren’t guided by the common bond that we force on them – being part of the alumni community – but instead based on their personal interests and values, in all their wonderful diversity.

Let’s really work to unpick this and start developing outstanding content strategies for engaging alumni communities.

8. Raise the game in professional development activities

Working in the education sector, you’d think that we’d value learning and development higher than any other sector, wouldn’t you? And while our institutions innovate in teaching and learning methods, I’m not convinced that advancement as a professional discipline is really keeping up.

While there are some excellent organisations offering professional development opportunities for the sector, it often feels like we’re offering much of the same – lots of seminars, workshops and one-day conferences that have to start late (so we can avoid paying for hotels) and end early (so we can get the cheap trains home).

Wrapped up in this is a race to the bottom with the price-point, with conferences and training programmes operating at a financial loss and very rarely investing in paying for good speakers. We absolutely should be willing to invest in raising the standard of professional development events, and experimenting with new approaches to learning.

We’ve set up ContentEd to give us a platform to experiment in this space a little, but we’ve a long way to go yet. But in the months and years to come we’ll see what we can try.

9. Be brave and bold

In a sector that innovates, inspires curiosity, and develops new knowledge and thinking, constantly pushing boundaries, I would love to see us push a few more boundaries in advancement activities.

I’ve reflected several times in this blog series about the need for us to be bolder with our brands, but this extends beyond this. We should be more willing to lead and innovate in our engagement activities and professional practises, but instead we do tend to play safe and follow rather than lead.

I’d love to see the sector get braver and bolder in advancement activities over the next 10 years, and I’m fairly confident that this one will happen.

10. Raise the bar for storytelling

Stories and emotions are far more powerful than facts and figures for engaging and motivating our audiences. A well-crafted memory told with passion is equally more powerful than a carefully crafted marketing message.

So, lastly I’d like to really see the sector raise the bar in storytelling. Shifting away from contrived case studies that follow static formats, and instead investing in telling stories from the heart, using a range of media in order to tell those stories in engaging and inspiring ways.



This brings an end to my week of posts to celebrate our 10th birthday here at Pickle Jar Communications. Through this week, I have shared my insights, experiences, hopes and frustrations of working in advancement in the education sector. But underpinning it all is a true confidence and belief in the value that I and my colleagues will continue to bring to the sector through the work that we do.

So, here’s to the next 10 years of us working with you to help break down barriers, and ensure that we’re a sector that truly has an impact on the world and inspires curiosity and a lifelong love of learning. Keep chatting to us about what’s on your mind. You never know; we may be able to help.

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