All entries for Wednesday 24 May 2006

May 24, 2006

How to write a communications strategy

At lunchtime today Madeline and I attended a very well taught and useful session by Casey Leaver of the Communications Office as part of a series organised by the CPD Office (which sadly is soon to be closed). Casey gave many good tips on print and online communications, but most vital was her introductory ideas on how an organisation can create a communications strategy.


One of the key aims of a communications strategy is to ensure that the best 'channels' of communication are used for each of the different 'stakeholders' with whom one must engage. The use of inappropriate channels is a common and sometimes serious mistake. For example, I do not wish to be told by my doctors surgery that I must use an online diagnosis form, I want to actually talk to a real person. Unbelievably, the obsession with technology has actually caused such obvious errors of judgement. One must think carefully about audience, and match channels to them carefully.

Stage 1: stakeholders

The first stage of the process is to identify the range of "stakeholders" with whom communication must be carried out. There may be some groups within the university for whom this is straightforwards. However, I suspect for the majority there are a range of different and sometimes conflicting groups to be catered for. So what of the E–learning Advisor Team? Consider our rather broad and general aim: to encourage wider and more effective use of learning technologies throughout the four faculties. Obviously the agents of this change are our principle stakeholders. But we should also consider everyone who will beneift, as they are ultimately those who will judge our effectiveness.

Casey provided us with A3 sized grids on which to record our ideas. Along the vertical axis, we listed each of the stakeholder groups. On my grid I added the following:

  1. Lecturers - techies and early adopters. Lecturers who are prepared to adopt new learning technologies without much prompting or convincing. This group presents us with an easy but not necessarily significant or sustained win.
  2. Lecturers - followers. Perhaps an unfair description, as the majority of lecturers simply do not have a great deal of free time to try out new approaches. They have to use well tested and understood techniques.
  3. Lecturers - resisters. This group actually puts effort into opposing the introduction of new learning technologies, even though no one is actually forcing them to do anything. Yes, they really do exist, and can exert a formidable effect within departments.
  4. Graduate research students and post-docs. A group that I take very seriously. They do a big share of the teaching, as well as being users of learning technologies for private study.
  5. Taught students. There is some controversy about whether we need to communicate with taught students. It could be argued that this is the responsibility of the relevant lecturers. However, I believe that it is necessary and valuable for us to work directly with taught students. At Warwick we aim to encourage students to act independently, taking personal responsibility for their skills and technologies. The Learning Grid is a brilliant example of this approach.
  6. Departmental IT. Some departments have their own IT people, who act as key agents of change (or stagnation in a few rare cases). This is more common in the Sciences.
  7. Departmental administrators. Another significant set of agents for change. The Business School's e–learning team had a strategy of working closely with administrators. This is said to be a very effective approach, leading to excellent integration of admin and e–learning systems, something that IT Services has failed to do.
  8. IT Services. The people who run the services upon which we rely must be informed as to the significance and effects of their services.
  9. Central service providers. For example the Library and the Warwick Skills Programme, who are themselves keen to adopt the best technologies, and who may also effect change within departments as they demonstrate successful applications.

That is quite an intimidating range. Perhaps we should consider cutting some of the stakeholders out of the plan? For example, we could take the easy route and focus upon the techie/early–adopter lecturers. But then we risk alienating the vast majority of lecturers by only ever addressing the needs and interests of individuals who are already unique and eccentric. Alternatively, we could simply address the silent majority of lecturers, the 'followers'. That would be a hard and perhaps impossible slog, in which we may fail to encourage and communicate any good examples of the use of learning technologies. Probably the best solution is to prioritise, and work with each group where they offer the best strategic return.

Stage 2: channels

Assuming that we do have to communicate with each of these groups in some way, the next step in formulating a communications strategy is to consider the range of available 'channels' of communication that are available. Once that I started on this list, I quickly realised how many we do regularly use, and just how diverse they are. My list included:

  1. The E–learning at Warwick web site.
  2. Content on other people's web sites.
  3. The E–learning Forum.
  4. The E–learning Blog.
  5. Personal blogs.
  6. Email, personal.
  7. Email, list.
  8. Telephone.
  9. Booklets and leaflets.
  10. How to guides.
  11. Flyers.
  12. Posters.
  13. Billboards.
  14. Personal contact.
  15. Coaching sessions.
  16. Presentations within other meetings.
  17. Seminars and workshops.
  18. Conferences.
  19. Novelty items (I mean fridge magnets, drinks mats etc).

I'm sure there are even more, but I ran out of room on the A3 grid, upon which they were plotted along the horizontal axis.

E–learning Team Comms

Now, with the stakeholders and the channels plotted, one can consider matching the latter to the former, that is to say, ensuring that the appropriate channels are used with each group of stakeholders. This immediately throws up some key issues. For example, I expect that content presented via blogs could be more accessible and interesting to undergraduates. However, I have in the past made the mistake of expecting a moderately 'resistant' lecturer to read a blog! My experience is that such people actually expect and demand to be dealt with on a personal face–to–face basis.

During the session we only really got started on using the communications strategy grid. I did immediately start to think about the problem in a new way. For example, our web site contains "showcases" that aim to engage the majority of lecturers. I know that this only provides a small element in the required communications with such people. We need to compliment it with other channels, especially departmental presentations (although we should deal with the resisters and early-adopters seperately first). I will continue developing my grid, and hopefully arive at more solutions that can be applied.

Thanks Casey!