Embrace the brand

Anyone searching for a word to wind up academics could give this one a try: brand.  “Brand” is the new “customer” for awfulness of metaphor when it comes to explaining the profile and values of a higher education institution. It’s the term—and the attitude to public communication—that has already white-anted our confidence in politics, so why universities are presently gulping the Kool Aid when it comes to brand profiling is beyond me.

OK, don’t write in: I know that universities operate in a competitive marketplace, that public communication with stakeholders is critical, etc. etc.  I just think that we’re not operating according to a shared, or even particularly clear, understanding of what marketing experts mean when they say “brand” with such breathtaking lack of irony. It’s a small but grown-up word that you can slip into a busy sentence without fuss, but it opens up into a vast corporate universe of discourse that promises coherent tonality of message across an entire higher education institution as a reasonable expectation in this lifetime.

I don’t think so.

The problem is the disruption of the brand in classrooms and lecture theatres, in the corridor, in our offices, and increasingly in the cloud.  We really do teach critical thinking, that’s not just what it says on the door.  And this means that we speak candidly about the challenges of institutional life in large organisations just like the ones in which we work. This is the job we were hired to do, as part of the way in which we prepare students for leadership roles in careers that haven’t been invented yet, such is the rate of churn in the global world of work.

As a result we’re often way off message, in terms of brand curation. In fact, to marketing professionals, universities can seem more like campsites or carnivals than corporations run smoothly from HQ.  Even as we try to achieve some measure of coherence around standards and quality control, we haven’t yet reduced ourselves to the kinds of all-together-now customer service promises that characterise the quick service restaurant industry: if you don’t get your degree in the time we say you should, we won’t give it to you for free or upsize it to a higher qualification.  We’re not selling content or even customer experience; we’re here to help you figure out the experience you can create for yourself, using your abilities, resources and values in partnership with ours.

This is why universities can’t easily borrow the marketing strategy that fits other large customer-centred operations. Firstly, there’s no single speaking position from which to make statements about what we all do, or what we hope to stand for when we speak; secondly, we’re not trying to engage an audience with our brand message in the usual way.  Engagement means something a little different to us, and the confusion about “audience” is the pivot point of this divergence. Engaged students aren’t audiences to the spectacle of their own educational experience, they’re the co-creators of it.

So I’m interested in today’s enthusiasm for Dan Klamm’s “6 Best Practices for Universities Embracing Social Media“.  This apparently straightforward set of guidelines is itself wrestling with intra-organisational diversity. Klamm sets out the basic problem like this:

Within a university, there are many departments and academic units, all with unique messages and distinct audiences. … From the residence life office to the parking department to the dining halls, each unit can have its own social media presence (in a way that is coordinated across campus, of course).

This diversity is actually very difficult to wrangle back into the bag. Klamm recommends social media guidelines that will “ensure consistency and appropriateness of all social media activity” but that remain miraculously open-ended enough to avoid constraining individual innovation including by the “staff member who wants to try something outside-the-box”, while at the same time nodding in the direction of the marketing department with this:

A university’s social media presence is an extension of the school’s brand. What is your brand all about? Is it playful and joking or conservative and buttoned-up? It’s important that a consistent voice is implemented across all of the school’s major social media platforms — a school with an ultra-serious Facebook page and an offbeat and sarcastic Twitter account will just look like it’s having an identity crisis.

Double back flip, with pike and twist.  And this is the heart of dilemma facing us. For university brand managers trying to harness organisational tonality across platforms originally developed for different purposes that have now slumped together as “social media”, the risk of letting academics out of the box is precisely that we’re the ones who find the identity issues in higher education interesting. We aren’t so worried about a marketing crisis, but we’re passionate about reserving our capacity to speak sensibly about how public communication works, and why our students need to understand that it matters. In fact, we’re the ones helping our students professionalise their own online presence, and in many cases we enjoy being their first audience.

Funnily enough, though, this is business as usual, rather than a whole new situation. Higher education at its best is a rich form of participatory culture, and has been all along, not just since Gen Y and their prosumer expectations. Our shared engagement with public cloud media has simply made more visible education’s transformative capacity: a conversation between individuals who were previously strangers, and who have agreed to put aside a little time to learn together, in the context of their respective lives, and in a way that helps us all more fully appreciate the experience of being human.

So, memo to the student communications team: as we’re figuring out the social media guidelines and the digital communications strategy, let’s keep this element of the brand in view, as it’s the one we really do embrace in our practice, every day.

UPDATE: A correspondent suggests that I’m dismissive of what’s good about branding in universities, and I thought I’d say that I’m not.  It’s not only important but simple courtesy that a university establishes its own distinctive sense of purpose and says clearly and simply what this is so that all concerned (prospective students, industry partners, politicians, employees) can make their informed choices about engaging with that institution on the basis of its values and goals. But the goal of harmonious brand tonality across the institution might be a limiting one in our case, and (my interest) it may be one of the hardest points on which to achieve consensus between academics and other professional staff.

Actual results may vary

Here’s another quick finding in the tealeaves of educational technology prediction. Providing you can get through the argot of the deals, mergers, acquisitions, takeovers, and patent showdowns, sometimes you find yourself face to face with the poetry of the safe harbor statement. It’s hard not to read it over and over to check that it still says what you think, and that it says it so beautifully.

The safe harbor statement is a get-out clause currently derived from the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, although it also seems to have been in the Securities Act of 1933 where it’s expressed with even more affection for good language, as you might expect.

In these strange days for higher education, the safe harbor statement protects us all from the exuberance of edtech futurology by pointing out that more or less nothing about the future is known, and no one can be held accountable if things don’t turn out the way the LMS suitors (or anyone else in a suit) said it might. It’s a metaphor from the world of risky seafaring and ambitious, perhaps even mercenary, navigation towards the uncharted future.

At the moment, it’s attached specifically and prosaically to the need to limit the value of what’s called “forward-looking statements” in being able to predict anything at all about how things will unfold from here on in; typically it shows up as a footnote to the announcement of a deal with a truly breathtaking price tag.

Today I’ve been looking at one attached to the news that Hellman & Friedman LLC have bought SunGard Higher Education for $1.775 billion, in order to merge this with something else they own, Datatel Inc.  In case you’re wondering, SunGard HE “collaborates with the higher education community and provides software and services to help institutions find better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect” and Datatel “is a provider of innovative technology products, services, and insight to higher education.” This is carefully unclear about what they actually do for us, which is more plainly explained here.

But if you only read the press release, you might think that the result of their union will be more innovative and better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect, plus insight to higher education. Or the other way around.

Just don’t get too excited, because none of this may turn out to be the case:

Statements in this release other than historical facts constitute forward-looking statements. You can identify forward-looking statements because they contain words such as “believes,” “expects,” “may,” “will,” “would,” “should,” “seeks,” “approximately,” “intends,” “plans,” “estimates,” or “anticipates” or similar expressions which concern our strategy, plans or intentions.  … We assume no obligation to update any written or oral forward-looking statement made by us or on our behalf as a result of new information, future events or other factors except as otherwise required by applicable law.

This primer in how to identify the language of optimistic promises doesn’t give much else away, except that forward-looking statements are the opposite of historical facts.  So they clearly aren’t written with the same pen as going-forward statements, of which we’ve been hearing so much lately.

But what should we make of the fact that they seem to start to fade as you look at them, like the Cheshire Cat? Shouldn’t we be just a tiny bit worried that the press release that tells us something shatteringly good just happened involving Blackboard and the QM program, for instance, also mutters that of course “Actual results may differ materially from those indicated by such forward-looking statements as a result of various important factors, including the factors discussed in the “Risk Factors” section of our Form 10-K.  … These forward-looking statements should not be relied upon as representing the Company’s views as of any date subsequent to” etc etc?

Of course, we know why the small print exists, and at $1.775 billion of business activity, fair enough too.  Universities use it all the time in their audit reporting.  But bringing it out from the contractual backstage to the realm of the publicity campaign, where it can tip a bucket of cold seawater on itself, is a bit like l’Oreal having to admit that using their makeup won’t make anyone look like Julia Roberts, even Julia Roberts. We’re not fools. But why do the promotional airbrushing in the first place, if you’re only going to have to explain to your customers later that this miracle may not occur in their very own bathroom?

So we do understand that neither forward-looking nor going-forward statements can tell us exactly what educational technology will do to the future university—we’re just going to have to wait and see.  This is exactly why we’re the ones quietly asking why it wouldn’t make sense for everyone just to stay off the Kool Aid and moderate the predictions a bit.

A few more candid statements—”We’re not sure exactly how this will work out because we’re a really big business in the middle of dramatically upsizing and you’re a very small customer in a remote educational outpost well beyond our major market, so while the following features might be on our roadmap we might have to let some of them go, and in the end, we’re not educational specialists, we’re here to sell you stuff”—wouldn’t stop us buying the product, but it would make us feel much less patronised and annoyed while doing so.

But as this isn’t likely to happen, on my reading of the tealeaves at least, then perhaps those of us who actually work in universities, rather than just sell things to them, should also start using the safe harbor statement as often as possible.  Competitive research grant applications, writing deadlines, statements of learning outcomes, strategic plans of any stripe, and all of the promises we make about the deadset value of a university degree in today’s competitive employment market: all should come with the rider that at the time of writing, we simply believe things have the potential to work out in this way.

But really, who knows what the future holds?


Going forward

One of the challenges facing a higher education institution trying to choose a new learning management system is the blind taste test that passes for product demonstration.

Typically this involves being hustled through a demo site that’s been populated with made-up students in imaginary classes exchanging imaginary one-liners with each other via a discussion board, while imaginary academics set up imaginary course content, and the whole thing flows through to imaginary gradebooks or generates imaginary tracking reports. Because the number of dummy identities is invariably about 20 or so, and their communication is limited to brief sentences (although some only manage to mutter “test test test”), it’s a highly contained exercise in imagining how online learning actually works.

Really, it’s like trying to compare the liveability of two different cities by flying over them. Once you’re far enough above the ground, they all look more or less the same. Continue reading

What we’ve got here …

As the Chilean ash cloud wafts through Australian airspace for a second time, we’re all thrown back into the science of prediction. What will it do next? Nightly news footage of passengers sitting in grumpy heaps in airports has drawn an unusual degree of national attention to Darwin. It turns out that we have one of the world’s nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers right here in Australia, and they’ve been putting on their good shirts for the TV cameras night after night to tell us that they know where the plume is, and they’re keeping an eye on it.

Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres and their regions (image courtesy of Darwin VAAC)

Australia specialises in this kind of one-step-ahead-of-nature risk communication, because we do live in a difficult natural environment where prediction takes on biblical tones. Fire, drought, earthquake, flood, locusts, cane toads, mice (seriously) and now ash. We’re really clear on the importance of being able to see all these things coming.  In fact, we have a public culture of disaster planning, which is not to say that we’re nationally unique in planning for disaster, but we communicate it well.

But when it comes to planning the expansion of higher education, communication gets a bit murky. Continue reading

Vertical thinking

The “education vertical” sounds a bit more thrilling than it is.  The first time you hear it, it seems to share the weird poetic syntax of “the body electric” and “the life everlasting”. It’s education, on an updraft.

A bit of googling fishes up a turn of phrase that has more concrete aspirations. This vertical is both market and solution  (“Callista cracks open education vertical“) and it continues intermittently to appear in the promotional talk of software vendors and government procurement. So it’s one of those ways of thinking about what we do that slips off the tongue a bit more readily after a slurp of the corporate Kool-Aid.

But it hasn’t really entered the vernacular or the affect of the higher education workplace. We don’t feel ourselves to be operating in a client vertical of any kind, and we mostly don’t use this kind of language to describe our position in a complex network of learning experiences. Dimly, we’re aware that the students currently sitting with us have come from somewhere, and are on their way to somewhere. But we have our heads down, concentrating on our bit of the conveyor belt. Continue reading