What I learned working in HE digital at Buckingham

3 October 2019

Caleb WoodbridgeDigital Team Blog | by Caleb Woodbridge, Head of Digital Experience

I’m leaving the University of Buckingham for pastures new after two years working here – which is also the time it takes to get a degree at Buckingham. I thought it would be worthwhile reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned in my time here.

1. Digital is as much about culture and mindset as it is about technology

I would have given lip-service to this before I started at Buckingham, but I discovered just how true it is.

It isn’t enough to rock up knowing all the best technical solutions for an organisation’s needs and problems. There also needs to be the understanding, skills and appetite in the organisation for digital development.

I consider the following to be key aspects of a digital outlook, one that is shaped by and suited to a time of rapid technological change and rising expectations in terms of convenience and ease of use:

  1. User focused. There is an outward looking focus on the needs of the users/audience, rather than projecting internal language, structures and priorities outwards. Fortunately being student-focused is part of Buckingham’s DNA. Sometimes though that may have relied on assumptions about students, rather than being robustly researched and validated. So the challenge is translating the University’s value and aspiration to put students first into good habits of user research and testing. It’s also been a case of making sure that all audiences are considered, even though students are the priority.
  2. Data driven. Digital is makes measurement easy. (Though there are significant challenges when working across the long recruitment cycle of someone deciding where to go to university, for example). That means a lot of the guesswork can be taken out. Instead, you can test different approaches and measure which are more successful. That requires a shift in mentality, and requires more strategic focus in defining clear goals and metrics upfront.
  3. Committed to ongoing, iterative improvement. The natural outcome of the previous two is that the digital experience is a living, breathing thing. It is always moving and adapting in light of changing user needs and expectations. Looking at data allows ongoing improvements and optimisation to take place.

Coming in to the University, it was encouraging to find pockets of digital thinking around the place. And over the course of my time here, it’s been even more encouraging to see this kind of perspective growing. When people outside the Digital team start saying, “what are the user needs?” or “why don’t we A/B test that?”, you know that the culture is shifting.

2. Meaningful change is both possible and difficult

There are a lot of achievements I am proud of in my time, including

  • establishing a new digital team
  • getting a Digital Strategy Group up and running
  • making the website fully mobile-responsive
  • improving the design and flexibility of landing pages
  • launching the Virtual Open Day

While I’ve had a hand in them all, all of them have been a team effort. Many important developments have been behind-the-scenes in terms of culture, as mentioned above, or also in terms of processes and tooling. Changes such as moving to a version-controlled development workflow in Git don’t directly affect the user experience. But they mean that we are a lot more robust and able to develop faster and with greater confidence.

Some of the hardest changes are those that aren’t just a matter of technology, but of process. This is especially true when it crosses over multiple departments. A good example is course information: to get quality content and data on the website, the right information needs to be decided and gathered in the course approvals process. It needs to go into SITS, our information system internally, with all the correct data in the right formats, and for the website to pull that data through and display it in a user-friendly way. Each department – academic schools, Registry, QA, Admissions, IT, Marketing and Digital – needs to be clear on its responsibilities. Staff are committed to doing good work and improving how things are done. But tying up changes across the whole chain can be a delicate, complicated business.

It takes patience, persistence and good relationships to drive forward these kind of complex changes.

3. There’s lots of wisdom in the HE digital professional community

I’ve been really impressed with how friendly and welcoming the HE digital community is, especially at the IWMW conference and online on the HE Digital Slack channel. Anyone working on managing university digital faces many of the same kind of challenges. There is a lot of passionate commitment to supporting the mission of universities through digital, including being accessible, user-centred and open.

To all the people in the HE Digital community who have chatted, encouraged, commiserated, shared ideas and insights, thank you!

4. It’s about the people, stupid

I enjoy diving into the technical details of digital development, but ultimately it’s about making people’s lives easier and hopefully happier. With university digital, it’s all about helping students find the right university for them – specifically for us, connecting with students who will thrive at Buckingham with its two-year degrees and small class sizes. Getting the right education makes a lifelong difference, and the University of Buckingham offers for many a more personal learning experience.

It’s also about people in terms of the team. One of the best things about my job has been working closely with talented colleagues in the Digital Experience team, and also in the wider Marketing department. I’ve also enjoyed working with colleagues across the University more broadly. Beyond your immediate team, there is more chance for a clash of perspectives and priorities. But there’s also more room to learn and be challenged, and for the most part it’s been a very positive experience here too. It’s about building mutual respect and understanding of your different positions. I’ve learned a lot too in terms of managing the team, and building a shared culture and habits (hooray for post-it notes!)

As a general rule, the better your personal relationships, the better your professional output, because you communicate better, tackle problems more constructively, and are able to be more free and creative in your thinking. Thank you to everyone at Buckingham who has made it such a fun and interesting place to work!

As I wave goodbye to higher education and return to publishing, I’ll look back on my time at Buckingham fondly. I’ll seek to take forward the lessons I’ve learned around culture, change, community and people.

The role of Head of Digital Experience will be advertised on the University jobs portal in the near future.

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