I’m lucky that I get to attend lots of conferences. They make me think, help me develop better skills and put me in a room with lots of people who all face similiar challenges to me. Recently I’ve noticed the same question keeps getting asked:
“How do you work best with academics?”
The phrase appears to be code for ‘how do you work with people who don’t understand what you are doing – or why you are doing it’. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t apply to all academics and I’m also sure that (in my case at least) it can apply to working with anyone within your institution.
Personally, I don’t tend to work very often with academics. Mostly I work with internal departments like Recruitment and Admissions, the International Office and Student Services. I find the most important step of each project is to get full understanding and involvement from my stakeholders.
Just imagine, someone you don’t really know very well comes swooping into your office and tells you how they are going to save the day and ‘sort out your web pages’. Annoyed much? Well, I would be.
I’ve made pretty much every mistake in the book at some point, but I’ve also learnt from trial, error and practice. So here are my tips for working with stakeholders:
1. Know all your stakeholders
On one recent project I found out right towards the end that I had one stakeholder I wasn’t aware of. I now had to go meet this person, apologise for not meeting them before, and then try to get their agreement to let me finish the project on time. Being that the deadline was in a week and she hadn’t even seen the content at that stage this was clearly never going to happen.
I will never rely on other people to tell me who I need to speak to again. Go out and find out for yourself. The first part of any project should involve getting a list of your stakeholders and meeting them all.
2. Don’t dictate your strategy – ask for help to prepare it
It’s just no good striding into your first meeting with a group and letting them know your plans. You need to meet with them and talk and listen. Tell them why you want to undertake this piece of work. Let them know the benefits to them.
Then ask them what they want:
- what are their goals for the coming year?
- can the website goals tie into this?
- what do they like/dislike about the current site?
- where do they think things are going wrong/right?
- what do they want from their website?
The list could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Finding out what your stakeholders think of the site can be invaluable in helping you to create a strategy for the project.
3. Understand that your stakeholder is the expert in their field
When we decided to redevelop country pages for international students our main stakeholders were the country managers in the International Office. Whilst I can list the key selling points for the University of Bath in my sleep, I’ve no idea what makes a Chinese or American student tick.
Referring to the country managers for content was invaluable. They could tell me which students were all about campus safety – and which ones just wanted to know how their subject ranked. Without this we wouldn’t have been able to create such targeted content.
4. Accept that sometimes you are wrong and learn to say sorry. A lot.
We all make mistakes. Mine involve sending emails to the wrong people, deleting content that turned out to be vital, and generally offending people when I thought that working in the web made me some sort of ninja.
Sometimes we get things wrong. All our ideas aren’t amazing. Be prepared to apologise when this happens and make sure you listen enough in the future to ensure it doesn’t happen again.