What makes up a website? We know there is a back end, where code makes everything work. There’s also a front end, where design and content come together. This simple divide is clear and provides a concrete separation of worker roles and responsibilities—or so we all thought once upon a time. As the web has evolved, however, it’s become clear that we cannot separate what happens on the front end from the work of the back end. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. Unfortunately, higher education is only just catching up.
Earlier this year, Aaron Rester conducted a survey to find out how web teams were structured and organized across higher ed. Among web team tasks, the majority of respondents listed: website development, information architecture, visual design, content strategy and/or production, social media management, and application development. This list certainly spans across traditional definitions of marketing and IT work, yet Aaron’s survey also found that 82% of web teams classify web work as “part of” marketing/communications/PR or IT.
For me, coming from a university with no formal web team and fairly traditional (by higher ed standards) division of web work, the idea of content strategy or social media being handled by an IT department was alarming. The idea of information architecture or website development falling under marketing was equally surprising. But if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that web work is not easily divided between marketing and IT, nor should it be. The best work happens when the lines are blurred and boundaries are crossed.
So where should the web team reside? In marketing or IT? My position: It doesn’t matter. Or, at least, this isn’t the most important decision to be made. Before we think about where a web team falls on an organizational chart, we have to reconsider our definition of a web team.
Less than a year ago, my university’s web team officially included one webmaster and two developers. These three were responsible for maintaining our nightmare of a content management system (CMS), writing web applications, and troubleshooting all things web on our campus. Meanwhile, some of us in marketing worked on top-level web content. We made decisions about navigation and wrote words, and then handed things over to IT for the “web” part. Sure, we knew how to make updates in the CMS and had plenty of ideas about how things should be organized on the university website, but we were the front end. They were the back end. As far as we knew, that was the appropriate workflow.
Not that this workflow was efficient. Quite the opposite, actually. Without a clear understanding of what the other side worked on or valued, there was a huge communication breakdown between the IT and marketing teams. Then, one day last winter, we rallied behind a common goal. As a group, we would work to transition our campus to a new CMS and implement a new, responsive design across the entire university website—in less than a year.
We realized very quickly that the old way of doing things wasn’t working. In the absence of a formal web department, a number of us agreed to form our own ad hoc web team. Regardless of our job title or department, we came together to get this very important work done. In all, today we have a webmaster, two developers, a very talented designer, and two content people. Between us we report to two directors, who are committed to the success of the project as much as we are. We meet as a group regularly. We’ve worked to understand each other. And the results have been so positive.
This week, I listened to an old The Web Ahead podcast with Karen McGrane on web strategy. As I listened to her talk about the importance of user-friendly interfaces for content contributors within a CMS, I realized I had been helping our developers work through this very thing just a few days prior. Had I, a marketing person, been thinking about usability? Did I actually have an impact on user experience? Meanwhile, in a meeting yesterday, I listened as my friend the webmaster and my marketing director talked about how to better focus on content in the new CMS training sessions. Things really are coming together, I thought.
The work toward a successful website in higher education cannot be segmented into buckets like marketing, IT, content strategy, usability, accessibility, social media, or even web. The ideas and work related to each of these is inextricably connected. We cannot be experts in every subject, but we can do our best to understand how they overlap and work together. We can care.
Where I work, we don’t have a formal web team. I’m sure there are benefits to having everyone in one office or working for one director, but I never feel at a disadvantage. For us, it all comes down to communication and, of course, working really hard.